Have you been enjoying this little break from the Mayor’s race? Break’s over, but then we’re now into early voting, so we don’t have much longer to go.
After a colorful first round defined by biting attack ads, mudslinging debates and policy disputes over crime and city finances, the temperature of the Houston mayoral runoff has noticeably cooled heading into Wednesday’s start of early voting.
Since the Nov. 5 election, when Sylvester Turner and Tony Buzbee finished atop the 12-candidate field, there have been few of the day-to-day sparks that marked the final weeks of the first stage. Buzbee, who spent millions to maintain a regular presence on television, just recently began running ads after a post-election hiatus. Turner has touted support from elected Democratic allies and largely ignored Buzbee.
Nor, after partaking in scores of forums and three televised debates, do the candidates have plans to engage in any more square offs.
The sleepy tone of the runoff marks a divergence from the 2015 contest, too, when Turner and his runoff opponent, Bill King, participated in more robust policy discussions and jousted in a pair of debates leading up to a razor-thin outcome in December.
“It has definitely been more quiet,” said Renée Cross, senior director of the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston. “I don’t think we can pinpoint it to one thing, but I think there are a variety of factors going on that didn’t occur in 2015.”
For one, Cross said, the 2020 presidential election appears to be eating up far more attention than the 2016 contest was four years ago.
“I’ve said this all along, the national election has just overshadowed everything, politically speaking,” she said, adding that the House’s impeachment inquiry into President Trump has only further diverted the attention of Houstonians.
Also dampening enthusiasm for this year’s runoff, Cross and Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said, is the perception among some voters that it’ll be difficult for Buzbee to overcome Turner’s first-round advantage. According to unofficial returns, Turner received 47 percent of the vote, Buzbee 28 percent.
“After Turner came so close to 50 percent and defeated Buzbee by close to a 20-point margin, the conventional wisdom is there’s no realistic way for Buzbee to catch Turner, unless Turner were to commit some type of egregious gaffe between now and Election Day,” Jones said.
I think both profs are largely right. That said, if Buzbee had been carpet-bombing the airwaves like he said he was going to, then we’d be having a very different conversation right now. I don’t know what’s going on in Buzbee’s head, but if I were on his campaign staff I’d very much want to ask him why he chose the past three weeks to stop setting his money on fire.
Buzbee of course has the harder job here. Turner just needs to make sure his people return to the polls. He’ll likely pick up some Boykins and maybe Lovell supporters as well, not that that were that many of them. Buzbee needs to not only convince his own supporters to get back out there for him, he needs to persuade King voters and anyone else who didn’t vote for Turner in round one. That’s a tall order, and he doesn’t have much room for error. Yes, he can try to turn out people who didn’t vote in November – there are always a few of them who make it out for the runoff – but that’s easier said than done. He has a lot of ground to make up, and not much time left to do it. The main question in my mind at this point is how the low-key-so-far nature of the runoff will affect the other races. As far as that goes, the members more likely to align with Turner need a boost from him, but a dud from Buzbee might help as well. I couldn’t say at this point where any of the other citywide races may stand.