Self-funding millionaire lawyer Tony Buzbee on Wednesday said he would spend whatever it takes to unseat Sylvester Turner and predicted a “full-on slugfest” during the five-week runoff to decide Houston’s mayoral race.
The runoff will test the effectiveness of Turner’s strategy to portray Buzbee as an acolyte of President Trump — whom Buzbee once supported — against the challenger’s own blueprint of casting himself as a nonpartisan outsider with the chops to improve on Turner’s record handling flood control, infrastructure and crime.
After full election results were published Wednesday morning, Turner wasted no time framing the runoff as a choice between his political record and “a Donald Trump imitator” who Turner said “will say anything, do anything or spend anything to get elected.”
Buzbee, speaking to reporters hours later, said he would not allow Turner to make the election “a referendum on Donald Trump,” promising to instead focus on matters of policy while predicting a “full-on slugfest” up until the Dec. 14 runoff.
To defeat Turner, political observers said, Buzbee will need to broaden his support beyond the base of voters he assembled in the first round. That includes making inroads with left-leaning voters who did not support Turner, a longtime Democrat, along with winning the support of those who cast ballots for Bill King, who competed with Buzbee for conservative support but struggled to match his rival’s self-financed $10 million campaign war chest.
“I think he’ll pick up the majority of the Bill King supporters and he’ll pick up some other folks who were just not happy with the mayor for some reason,” said Nancy Sims, a local political analyst who is not affiliated with either campaign. “It’s a tough path to victory, but in 2015 we saw King come in in a similar position.”
For what it’s worth, Turner led King by about 19K votes, in a higher-turnout election, in 2015. He led Buzbee by about 24K votes this time, and as noted drew more votes than Buzbee and King combined. Every election is different and nothing is ever guaranteed, but Turner is clearly in a stronger position this time.
I don’t know how Buzbee plans to spend his money in the runoff. I’m not sure Buzbee knows how he’s going to spend it. I figure we’re going to face another barrage of TV ads, but who can say beyond that. Buzbee did spend a ton of money earlier in the year on polling. I know this because I was on the receiving end of what seemed like dozens of poll calls, some live and some robo, from the Buzbee campaign. (They never identified themselves, of course, but you could tell from the questions they were asking.) I haven’t gotten one of them in awhile, so I guess it’s on to other things. Whatever the case, when you have more money than brains you find ways to spend.
“Mayor Turner’s biggest enemy in the runoff is not Tony Buzbee, but complacency,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “But I don’t know if it’s a major problem, because he has such a strong and sophisticated campaign machine.”
Potentially boosting Turner’s chances, Rottinghaus and Sims said, are a host of city council runoffs in districts that went heavily to Turner in the first leg of the election.
Turner won a majority of the vote in districts B and D, and a plurality of the vote in C, F, H and J, all of which will be decided by runoffs. Across the six districts combined, Turner received 55 percent of the vote, to Buzbee’s 21 percent share.
Buzbee’s strongest districts, E and G, were decided without runoffs Tuesday. He won a plurality of the vote in District A, the lone remaining runoff district, receiving 39 percent to Turner’s 36 percent.
“I think the city council races that are in runoffs are going to determine a lot of voter turnout,” Sims said. “And very clearly, the city council district races that have runoffs favor Turner.”
I made that same observation. I don’t have the draft canvass yet, but when I do I’ll be sure to quantify this.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Buzbee acknowledged the need to scoop up support from voters who backed King and Boykins, who finished in fourth place and was backed by the firefighters union. Buzbee said he is “looking for (Boykins’) support,” along with the backing of the firefighters.
“I’m going to be seeking that endorsement, and I certainly would welcome that endorsement,” Buzbee said.
Marty Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, made clear in a statement Wednesday that the firefighters union would get involved in city runoffs, though he declined to say more about how the union would approach the mayor’s race.
“Making City Hall accountable and fixing the fire department remain our priorities,” Lancton said. “We’ll find a way forward to help do that. Our political work is not done in 2019.”
Boykins and King did not respond to phone and text inquiries about their endorsement plans. Lovell said she would not endorse Turner, and “beyond that I haven’t had conversations with anyone else.”
Honestly, I have no idea how much these endorsements matter. Better to have them than not for sure, but I think it takes a specific set of circumstances for them to make much difference. The interesting bit here is the firefighters, who were so gung ho about beating Turner in the general and now seem all “meh” in the runoff. Are they abashed that their endorsed candidate barely got five percent of the vote, or are they just not into Buzbee? (“Both” is an acceptable answer to that question.) The firefighters do have a number of their endorsed Council candidates in runoffs, so they have plenty to do and much to gain whether or not they get involved in the Mayoral runoff. But after months of hearing about their feud with the Mayor and all the rest of the Prop B stuff, it’s quite remarkable that it will seemingly end on such a low-key note.