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Final big election of 2023 set for Saturday with Houston mayoral runoff

As the city of Houston headed into the final week before the runoff election for mayor, an ad for one of the contenders, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, urged city residents to “vote on or before December 7th.” There was one problem: The runoff election is on Sat., Dec. 9 and the early voting period ended on Dec. 5.

Jackson Lee’s office quickly pulled the ad, telling Houston Public Media that it debuted Saturday and ran on the local ABC, CBS and NBC affiliates but had been created by an outside ad agency, not the campaign.

The erroneous ad and even the lack of knowledge about the date of the election seemed to sum up everything happening so far in the mayoral race in America’s fourth-largest city — limping ahead to a low turnout outcome in what is the last major election of 2023. 

Jackson Lee, a 30-year veteran of Congress, is trailing in polls to state Sen. John Whitmire, who has had more than 50 years in public service. The two were the top two vote-getters in the Nov. 7 general election, which had 17 candidates on the ballot and a write-in candidate. Whitmire, 74, received 43% of the vote to 36% for Jackson Lee, 73. About 21% of Houston’s 1.2 million registered voters cast ballots in the Nov. 7 election, according to The Associated Press. The current mayor, Sylvester Turner, is term-limited. 

Election 2023 Houston Mayor
In this photo combination, U.S. Rep. Shelia Jackson Lee, and at right, Democratic state Sen. John Whitmire. 

/ AP

“It’s been a pretty sleepy race so far,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a professor of political science at the University of Houston. “We’ve seen mayor’s races in the past that have had a lot more fireworks, a lot more partisanship. This has been a race that frankly hasn’t really caught the voters’ attention.” 

Since the Nov. election, the numbers haven’t moved much. A SurveyUSA Research poll on behalf of the University of Houston conducted in mid-November found Whitmire leading Jackson Lee 42% to 35%. 

The race is considered nonpartisan, but both Whitmire and Jackson Lee are Democrats. Jackson Lee has pulled out major endorsements, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo. But, as Rottinghaus pointed out, the big-time endorsements haven’t managed to move the needle. 

Whitmire, meanwhile, has boasted of some big-time local support, including Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale, former Houston City Councilman Jack Christie, who ran as a Republican in the first round, and Republican megadonor Tilman Fertitta. 

Houston is considered America’s most diverse large city, so winning the mayor’s office means winning a coalition of voters. 

Turner’s victory in 2015 by just two points over a conservative businessman was driven in large part by Black voters and get-out-the-vote efforts, according to the Houston Chronicle. Jackson Lee, who, if elected, would be the city’s first Black female mayor,  has not managed to galvanize Black voters the same way, Rottinghaus said. In the precincts with high numbers of Black voters, the voting numbers are way down, Rottinghaus said.

Although Whitmire has touted his Democratic party credentials, he also courted Republican support and has multiple large GOP donors backing him. The University of Houston poll showed him with a 56-point advantage among Republicans. While Houston leans Democratic, the city is not as much a Democratic stronghold as other large U.S. cities, and the Republican vote could be crucial to winning. Republicans also have complete control over the state government, with a GOP governor and majorities in both the Legislature and state Senate.

Whitmire, who is White, has also courted the Latino vote, and the University of Houston poll showed him with a 20-point advantage among Latino voters, who make up roughly 45% of the city’s population. 

Although Houston is a young city, the average age of the Houstonian voter is 62, according to Rottinghaus. The major local issue has been crime, and both candidates said in the final debate on Monday that they would keep Police Chief Troy Finner.

With the two candidates so close on many of the issues, the race has had some slugfest. 

Two weeks before the general election, audio was leaked where Jackson Lee appeared to berate a staffer with profanity. “I know I am not perfect,” she said in a statement in response. As Rottinghaus noted, they added a poll question in November about the leaked audio, and while most people said it didn’t make a difference, a “sizeable percentage” said it did. Those people tended to be younger and in particular, younger women — two groups that Jackson Lee needs to win. 

In addition to the leaked audio, Jackson Lee goes into the runoff election with high unfavorables. An October poll from the Hobby School at the University of Houston found that 43% said they would never vote for her compared to 15% who said they would never vote for Whitmire. In the same poll, 41% said they had a “very unfavorable” view of Jackson Lee with 28% having a “very favorable” view, compared to 13% reporting a “very unfavorable” view of Whitmire while 27% said they had a “very favorable” view.

But Whitmire has been dogged by allegations of conflict of interest as a state senator. According to the Houston Chronicle, Whitmire has been accused of blurring the line between public and private roles. Whitmire has maintained that the Legislature is part-time and has a salary of $7,200 a year, making avoiding conflicts of interest impossible. 

“The major difference is when I’m mayor, I’ll be a full-time mayor. I won’t have a law practice,” Whitmire said at the debate earlier this week. “A bunch of the Chronicle issues I could dispute but it’s not necessary. It involved the practice of law. Most of those allegations arrived in previous campaigns. We make $600 a month as a senator. … You have to have civilian jobs, that’s where most of that was arrived at.”

Harris County, which includes Houston, has been targeted with state audits in 2022 and 2023 over voting and Republican Gov. Greg Abbott signed a law this year that removed Harris County’s elections administrator and transferred the responsibility to other local officials. This election has been the first election with the new system.