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Five minutes after the last debate in the Houston mayor’s race Monday night, state Sen. John Whitmire laced into one of the moderators for failing to stop Sheila Jackson Lee and her supporters in the audience from what he called a violation of the rules.

Concerned by a question shouted from the crowd, Whitmire requested a Houston Police Department security detail as he exited the stage, citing “unbalanced people” in the audience.

It was the kind of moment that normally might symbolize the heated finale to a Houston mayor’s race, which have a history of photo finishes. This time around, however, the debate barely seems to have caused a stir, even though both candidates lobbed allegations at each other for the better part of an hour.

Whitmire holds significant leads in public opinion polls and campaign spending, and nothing Jackson Lee has done since her March campaign launch appears to have shaken up the race.

“This is the least excited I’ve ever been to vote for a Houston mayor,” said 47-year-old David Smith, who cast his ballot for Jackson Lee at the Metropolitan Multiservice Center on Tuesday, the final day of early voting.

As of Tuesday night, nearly 132,000 votes – 120,155 in-person ballots and 11,732 mail ballots – had been recorded in Harris County, according to the Harris County Clerk’s Office. That compares to the 115,000 votes cast early in the county during the last runoff in a mayor’s race in 2019.

Citing policy and personality shortcomings from both candidates, Smith said he voted for Jackson Lee out of concern about Whitmire’s connections to major Republican Party donors. He was not alone in his lack of enthusiasm for either candidate.

Several other voters who spoke to the Abdelraoufsinno pointed to numerous local issues on their minds, such as poor road conditions, flooding and public safety. However, many said they were uninspired by either candidate’s ability to address those priorities.

“Municipal elections are often low key, and this one’s been particularly low key,” said Lauren Serper, a 63-year-old who lives in Garden Oaks. “I didn’t like either, to be honest. Neither of them has enough experience in city government.”

Jackson Lee’s last hope

Far behind in fundraising and advertising, Jackson Lee’s chances rest heavily on boosting turnout from her supporters. According to the early voting numbers, her hopes of high turnout have yet to materialize, said Nancy Sims, a University of Houston political analyst.

“Right now, you’ve got Kingwood voting a thousand people a day, and Kashmere Gardens voting three hundred people a day. That’s just an example,” Sims said, referring to a predominantly white neighborhood and a predominantly Black neighborhood.

Jackson Lee’s strongest support is from Black voters, according to public opinion polls. Whitmire holds a huge lead among white voters and Republicans.

Sims said she could think of few pieces of good news for Jackson Lee in recent days. Even her own campaign TV ad listed the wrong date for the runoff.

The congresswoman could gain a bit of momentum from the big-name endorsements she has unveiled in the runoff, Sims said.

Jackson Lee announced an endorsement Saturday from former mayor Kathy Whitmire, who is Whitmire’s former sister-in-law. She also has touted endorsements in the last month from Mayor Sylvester Turner, former President Bill Clinton and 2016 Democratic nominee for president Hillary Clinton.

Sims said if she were advising Jackson Lee, she would tell the longtime congresswoman to put all of her remaining resources into a “massive push” for voter turnout Saturday.

“I mean, with three days left, there’s not a lot she can do. But I would be pouring every ounce of energy into voter turnout,” she said.

Sims said she would offer starkly different advice to Whitmire.

“I would tell him to be thinking about how he’s going to run the city, and who is going to help him do that,” she said.

Testy debate

Monday’s debate offered a final, sometimes heated, look at the candidates’ personalities and policy differences.

The pair sparred over their positions on nearly every issue of concern to voters, including public safety, transportation, road conditions and city services.

Jackson Lee and Whitmire returned to some well-worn themes during the debate. She promised to lean on her connections in Washington, D.C. to gin up more federal funding, while he promised to work with all levels of government to find solutions to Houston’s problems.

At times, Whitmire cast himself as the mayor-in-waiting, aware of his status as the race’s frontrunner.

“I’m fired up,” Whitmire said. “I wish I could get started in the morning.”

Whitmire was tested, though, during a particularly feisty exchange after the candidates were asked if they would take funding from Metro to use for public safety, a position Jackson Lee frequently claims Whitmire supports.

“For you to try to misrepresent my position is wrong,” Whitmire told his opponent before turning his attention to the debate’s moderators. “I’m surprised that y’all allowed it to get to this point, but I’m happy, so let’s move on.”

Whitmire clarified after the debate that he has no plans to take money from Metro because he does not yet have a clear picture of the city’s finances.

After that exchange, the debate grew progressively testier as Jackson Lee criticized Whitmire for his plan to invite 200 Texas Department of Public Safety troopers to patrol Houston and his support of a 2015 bill that paved the way for the state’s controversial takeover of Houston ISD. That legislation was supported by the entire Houston delegation.

“To set the record straight, none of these elected officials are running for mayor that allegedly voted for the takeover,” Jackson Lee said. “It’s only one person who is sitting here who voted for the takeover and had the power to engage with the governor, to engage with the head of the (Texas Education Agency).”

Invoking former First Lady Michelle Obama, Whitmire responded to the criticism by repeating one of her most quoted lines from the 2016 Democratic National Convention used to respond to attacks from former President Donald Trump.

“I know your consultants would like you to engage me, but this is too important,” Whitmire said. “And quite frankly, when you go low, I’m going to go high.”

Lopsided spending

While Jackson Lee used the free airtime from Monday’s debate to take potshots at Whitmire, he is dominating the battle for paid advertising, campaign finance reports filed Friday show.

Overall, Whitmire outspent Jackson Lee by nearly nine to one during the most recent reporting period. His biggest expense was advertising, on which he spent nearly $2.1 million.

Whitmire reported spending nearly $3 million from Oct. 29 to Nov. 29, while keeping $3.3 million in his campaign account. Jackson Lee reported spending $342,000 during the same period, with $235,000 remaining on hand.

During the run-up to the general election, Jackson Lee complained Whitmire made use of an unfair advantage by transferring the donations from his state campaign account to his local account. However, the reports show that Jackson Lee also has lagged in raising money in recent weeks, taking in $498,000 to his $1.8 million.

Outside groups have entered the mayor’s race in a major way. The pro-Whitmire Protect and Serve Texas political action committee spent $532,000, much of it on digital, radio and mail advertisements.

Houstonians for Working Families, a labor-affiliated, pro-Jackson Lee group focused on get-out-the-vote efforts, spent $373,000 during the same period. The Texas Organizing Project’s political action committee spent $304,000 on Jackson Lee and a slate of progressive candidates.

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Paul Cobler covers politics for the Abdelraoufsinno. Paul returns to Texas after covering city hall for The Advocate in Baton Rouge. During two-and-a-half years at the newspaper, he spearheaded local accountability...

Matt Sledge is the City Hall reporter for the Abdelraoufsinno. Before that, he worked in the same role for the Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate and as a national reporter for HuffPost. He’s excited...