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As the dust settled on the first round of the Houston mayor's race Wednesday, two things were clear: Turnout was lackluster and longtime U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee will have to fight an uphill battle to serve as mayor.

With all the precincts from Tuesday’s election counted, thousands of fewer voters had cast ballots than in the last open mayoral election eight years ago, despite Houston’s growing population.

Jackson Lee, meanwhile, finished more than 17,000 votes short of state Sen. John Whitmire. He had 42.5 percent of the vote to her 35.6 percent.

Overcoming that shortfall, experts said, will require Jackson Lee to energize her base, dampen turnout from the conservatives who loathe her and win over the nearly one quarter of voters who backed candidates other than her and Whitmire.

One longtime observer of local politics predicted a rough-and-tumble campaign ahead of the Dec. 9 runoff election.

“I think Jackson Lee has to really, really take the fight to Whitmire. If you just play it out with nothing changing, he wins,” said Richard Murray, a retired political science professor at the University of Houston.

McKenna Collins, 13, sits outside the Metropolitan Multi-Service Center on Election Day as voters and campaign volunteers pass by, Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023, in Houston. (Antranik Tavitian / Abdelraoufsinno)

Turnout drops

Tuesday’s result was achieved with uninspiring turnout from Houston voters.

There were 251,987 ballots cast in the mayor’s race, according to unofficial results. That is only about 10,000 more than were cast in the 2019 race. It is nearly 10,000 fewer votes than were cast in 2015, the last mayoral election held without an incumbent running.

The turnout for the 2015 mayoral election was 27.45 percent and 22.56 percent in 2019. The Harris County Tax Assessor’s Office was unable to provide the number of registered voters in the city for this election, but experts expect the turnout percentage to be on par or slightly below 2019.

Renee Cross, senior executive director of the University of Houston Hobby School of Public Affairs, said the low turnout may stem from the fact that the race coalesced around two candidates early on — and many voters were not inspired.

“I think that may have dampened some of the enthusiasm because the top two candidates are well known and have been involved in politics in the Houston area for a long time, and I don't know that they necessarily garnered a lot of excitement,” Cross said.

Even among the voters exiting polling places Tuesday, several told reporters they found the 18-candidate field wanting.

Outside the Northeast Multi-Service Center, 66-year-old Linda Offord said she was not happy about her options.

“With all due respect, I don’t really like any of them, but I had to vote for somebody,” said Offord, who declined to say who she settled on.

Others simply skipped over the race on their ballots, including Monique Adams, a 48-year-old stay-at-home mom who lives in Spring Branch.

“I looked at the forerunners and watched the debate. I didn’t like what I saw,” she said.

Voters also may have been suffering from a more general “election fatigue,” said Nancy Sims, a political analyst at the University of Houston.

“It’s harder to focus on a mayor’s race when you’re worrying about events around the world, and are watching the fact that Donald Trump is in town having a rally, less than a week before the mayor’s race,” Sims said last week.

The lack of national issues that turn out voters in state and federal elections may have contributed to the low interest from Houston voters, despite Jackson Lee’s attempts to tie Whitmire to “Trump Republicans,” Cross said.

Both candidates in the officially nonpartisan runoff are Democrats.

The ho-hum final turnout happened despite a strong start to early voting that appeared to put Houston on track for a record total. Deflated Election Day turnout tanked any hopes of an impressive year.

There were 111,775 ballots cast in the mayoral race Tuesday, according to unofficial results from the Harris County Clerk’s office, down by more than 30,000 from Election Day 2015.

“Considering it’s the top seat in the fourth-largest city in the nation, you would hope it would be better,” Cross said.

Headlines about Harris County’s election administration struggles in November 2022, may have pushed voters to cast their ballots early, Cross said.

Houston mayoral candidate state Senator John Whitmire greets supporters during a watch party on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023, in Houston. (Antranik Tavitian / Abdelraoufsinno)

Whitmire’s strategy

In a Facebook post late Tuesday, Whitmire struck a high-minded tone about his runoff strategy.

“We are going to continue to campaign on improvements to public safety, infrastructure, city services, transparency in our city and our city finances,” he said.

The candidate, who made a point of staying above the fray in the crowded first round, may be forced to engage in a one-on-one fight, said Murray, who was Whitmire’s professor in the 1970s and also has worked on redistricting legislation for Jackson Lee.

“He’s been able, in the first round, to avoid singling out any opponent,” Murray said. “He has had that luxury because none of them emerged as a threat to displace him in a runoff.”

Whitmire starts with a huge polling advantage for the runoff. In a University of Houston survey last month, Whitmire had a 50-to-36 percent lead in a hypothetical runoff. Only 9 percent of voters were undecided, with the rest saying they would sit the contest out.

In particular, Whitmire appears to have an edge with the city’s Latino voters, who disproportionately backed other candidates in the first round. Latino likely voters broke 55-26 for Whitmire over Jackson Lee in a hypothetical runoff.

Whitmire also holds a massive cash advantage. In their most recent reports, he claimed $4.3 million in funds on hand to Jackson Lee’s $100,000.

“He still has money in the bank, and he will be able to raise more, quickly,” Sims said.

Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee's supporters record her while she addresses guests at her Election Day watch party, Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023, in Houston. (Marie D. De Jesús / Abdelraoufsinno)

Jackson Lee’s hopes

No one has questioned the depth of Jackson Lee’s support among her base of Black voters.

At Jackson Lee’s election night watch party on Tuesday night, 68-year-old Regina Brown fondly recalled the representative’s visit to the church she attends, South Union Missionary Baptist.

“She can relate more to the people's needs than Whitmire,” Brown said. “We are working class people, and she always knows what we need and she fights for us.”

On Wednesday, Jackson Lee touted the endorsement of outgoing Mayor Sylvester Turner, who leaned on strong support from Black voters to win two terms in office. Black Houstonians, however, make up less than a third of the city’s electorate, which means that even if Jackson Lee secures sky-high turnout and vote share from them, she must piece together a larger coalition.

With dollars and polls against her, Jackson Lee’s hopes appear to lie in shaking up the race. In debates ahead of the first election, she and other candidates already were training their attacks on Whitmire.

“There’s not much of a downside, it seems to me, from the congresswoman's perspective in going very, very aggressive,” Murray said.

One tack may be to try to demoralize conservative voters, who told pollsters they would overwhelmingly back Whitmire in a runoff. In the first round, some of them picked former City Council member Jack Christie, who drew 6.9 percent of the vote.

“What her campaign might be able to do is raise enough concerns about Whitmire that they just decide, we don’t care to pick between them, and stay home,” Murray said.

While few observers were counting Jackson Lee out, many said it would take a political earthquake to change the race now, since both candidates are so well-defined.

Murray pointed to the 1991 mayoral runoff, where scandalous allegations about then-state Rep. Turner broke six days before the election, handing the race to Bob Lanier.

“I think there would have to be something to come out against Whitmire that would be devastating for his campaign, rather than anything she could do differently,” Cross said.

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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...

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...