At least one big question about what comes next for Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee after losing the Mayoral runoff should be settled today.
Following her decisive defeat in Saturday’s mayoral runoff, U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee now has less than two days to decide her political future.
The longtime Democrat has two choices: seek reelection to Congress, setting up an unusually competitive primary battle against at least one of her former staffers, or retire from Congress after three decades, triggering a competitive primary for her open, safely Democratic seat.
Jackson Lee, 73, who conceded the mayoral election to state Sen. John Whitmire Saturday night, has until 6 p.m. Monday to file for reelection. She has not confirmed whether she would run for reelection but noted during her concession remarks that she planned to continue to serve communities in Houston and find her place as a public servant “in any way possible.”
After losing the mayoral runoff by a massive 35.6% to 64.4% margin, Jackson Lee could be facing “the most formidable challenge” of her decades-long political career if she opts to run for her current congressional seat, according to Michael Adams, a political science professor at Texas Southern University.
For one, she will face 41-year-old Amanda Edwards, a former Houston City council member who holds a financial edge over Jackson Lee and is perceived by many as a fresher voice in the political arena. Edwards dropped out of the mayoral race earlier this year and pivoted to Jackson Lee’s seat after the congresswoman announced her own mayoral bid.
But this time, Edwards told the Chronicle she would continue seeking the Democratic nomination in Jackson Lee’s 18th Congressional District, even if it means going up against the longtime incumbent.
“I think there is a real excitement about the prospect of having new leadership come in and have a focus on addressing challenges today, but also the challenges of tomorrow,” Edwards said. “People are wanting to look forward and realize the changes that we talk about on these campaign trails.”
“Residents may be receptive to hearing other ideas in terms of how the district can be moved,” Adams said. “It will rest with Amanda Edwards in terms of how she messages and whether she presents herself as being a new face and a fresh voice, coming up with a plan and also making appeals to draw young people to the poll.”
Jackson Lee also lacks the typical financial advantage often held by incumbents. Already a household name across much of the district, she has rarely had to pour much effort into fundraising – never spending more than $1 million on her reelection until the 2020 cycle.
Edwards, meanwhile, reported a $1 million fundraising haul over the first three and a half months of her campaign. She had about $829,000 in her campaign account at the end of September, nearly four times the cash on hand in Jackson Lee’s federal coffers.
Since announcing her bid for Jackson Lee’s seat, Edwards has garnered endorsements from local Democratic officials, including Houston City Councilmembers Tarsha Jackson and Robert Gallegos and Harris County Commissioner Lesley Briones.
Former Council member Carroll Robinson, who had considered a run for the seat, recently decided against it and instead endorsed Edwards.
Another potential challenger to Jackson Lee is Gen-Z candidate Isaiah Martin, who interned for Jackson Lee before announcing his congressional candidacy in September.
A University of Houston graduate, Martin, 25, had a brief stint running for an at-large seat on Houston’s City Council this year but withdrew in March to assist Jackson Lee’s mayoral campaign. He did not respond to inquiries about whether he will stay in the race if Jackson Lee decides to seek reelection.
Overall, Jackson Lee’s incumbency and her solid voter base, particularly among older Black women, mean her potential challengers will still face a steep challenge, according to Adams. Meanwhile, he said the congresswoman must actively fundraise, a task potentially more difficult in light of her recent defeat.
“If you didn’t make a strong showing in the mayoral race, why would I put my money on you in this competitive congressional race?” Adams said. “I think it would be a hotly contested election.”
Isaiah Martin also did a good job fundraising after his entry into the race, collecting $316K with $283K on hand in his first finance report. That put his cash on hand higher than SJL’s as well, at least as of then.
I don’t know how much her financial disadvantage would matter for the primary, since I assume Jackson Lee’s name ID is universal and the voters here know her record and how they feel about her. The main point would be allowing Edwards and Martin to introduce themselves and make their case, which I imagine will start off with “she was willing to leave Congress to run for Mayor, I want to be there and work hard for you”. People may know and be mostly happy with SJL as their member of Congress, but if she was looking to do something else, that may change things. It’s a question she’ll need to engage seriously, which is something she hasn’t had to do before.
I don’t know what she’ll do. The runoff was a tough loss, a much bigger loss than I think most people expected. I can’t imagine that’s an easy thing to handle, but she doesn’t have the time to think about it. Either she’s in for more or she’s out, and if she’s in she’s going to have to convince people that even though she was clearly ready and eager to do something else, she still wants to do this thing. If she’s in I wouldn’t bet against her, but the risk of losing again, in what would surely be a much more crushing blow, is real. I don’t envy her the choice.