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Houston Mayoral Race Appears Headed for a Runoff

Whitmire, Jackson Lee in a Dead Heat for Mayor, Yet Whitmire Leads in Runoff

Less than two weeks before the start of early voting, the top two candidates vying to become Houston’s next mayor are locked in a virtual tie, with John Whitmire and Sheila Jackson Lee each drawing support from about one-third of likely voters.

City of Houston (Courtesy of Getty)

A new survey from the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston found none of the other mayoral candidates drew support from more than 4% of voters; 22% were undecided. However, Whitmire led Jackson Lee by 14 points in a potential runoff election.

The city controller election could be decided on November 7 or go to a runoff, with 29% of likely voters saying they plan to vote for former Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins and 14% backing former Harris County Treasurer Orlando Sanchez, who is also a former Houston City Council member. A sizeable 45% of voters were still undecided in that race.

The results of the latest survey changed little from the Hobby School’s initial 2023 city election survey, which was released in July.

Renée Cross, senior executive director of the Hobby School and one of the researchers for the project, said the high name recognition Jackson Lee and Whitmire have earned from their decades in public office has made it hard for the other candidates to break through. “With 17 candidates in the mayor’s race, it has been difficult for anyone else to gain traction,” she said. “Former Metro Chair Gilbert Garcia and Jack Christie, a former city council member, came in tied for third, but each drew support from just 4% of voters.”

Support for Whitmire, who has served in the Texas Legislature for 50 years, and Jackson Lee, in elected office since 1989, was virtually unchanged since the summer, with 34% of voters supporting Whitmire in both surveys and Jackson Lee’s support at 31% in the most recent survey, compared with 32% in July.

Strong name ID is expected to help send one of the longtime politicians to the mayor’s office, but Mark P. Jones, political science fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy and senior research fellow at the Hobby School, noted that Whitmire drew support from a broader swathe of the electorate, topping Jackson Lee’s support among men (40% to 25%); white voters (46% to 15%); Latino voters (37% to 16%); and independent voters (37% to 15%).

Jackson Lee was supported by 64% of Black voters, compared to 15% who said they will vote for Whitmire. And she drew slightly higher support among women, at 37%, compared with 28% of women who said they will vote for Whitmire.

“Although Jackson Lee and Whitmire are both Democrats, they differ in their base of partisan support in the November election, with Jackson Lee backed by 51% of Democratic, 15% of Independent and 1% of Republican voters and Whitmire by 51% of Republican, 37% of Independent and 24% of Democratic voters,” Jones said.  Christie drew support from 10% of Republican voters, while Garcia was backed by 9% of Latino voters. The mayoral race is nonpartisan.

Among the survey’s other findings:

  • Chris Hollins retained his lead in the controller’s race when voters were asked a broader question – who they definitely would or “might consider” voting for. He drew support from 43% for that question, while 29% said the same of Sanchez. One in five said they would or might consider voting for Dave Martin, who is currently on City Council.
  • 57% support Houston Proposition A, which would allow an item to be placed on the council agenda with the agreement of three council members. The mayor currently has sole agenda-setting authority.
  • 59% support Harris County Hospital District Proposition A, a $2.5 billion bond to upgrade facilities and expand services within the county’s public health care system.
  • Among mayoral candidates, voters reported the highest negative perceptions of Jackson Lee, who has served in Congress since 1995, with 43% saying they would never vote for her; 15% said they would never vote for Whitmire.
  • Similarly, 41% said they had a “very unfavorable” view of Jackson Lee, with 28% having a “very favorable” view.
  • 13% reported a “very unfavorable” view of Whitmire, while 27% said they had a “very favorable” view.

“Key supporters appear to be locked in to their choices for the first round of voting for mayor, but favorability ratings and partisan support may play a larger role in the runoff,” Cross said. “Four out of five Republicans and almost two-thirds of independents said they would vote for Whitmire in a runoff with Jackson Lee. Similarly, Whitmire’s support among white and Latino voters increases when they are asked about a runoff, to 69% and 55%, respectively.”

The city election is set for Nov. 7; early voting begins Oct. 23.

The full report is available on the Hobby School website. A future report will examine voter attitudes about key policy issues in the City of Houston.

The survey asked 800 likely Houston voters about their preferences in the upcoming city elections. It was conducted between Sept. 30 and Oct. 6, 2023, in English and Spanish. The margin of error is +/‑3.5%.

-Story by Jeannie Kever

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