Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee is trying to do something no Houston mayor has done in 46 years: flip the result between a general election and a runoff.
Jim McConn last achieved the feat in 1977, erasing a 9.9-point deficit in the first round to win a “stunning” victory, as the Chronicle described it at the time. The top finisher in Houston’s last 20 mayoral elections, though, either has won outright or gone on to win a runoff.
The historical trend is one of several obstacles that Jackson Lee, who trailed state Sen. John Whitmire by 6.9 percentage points in November’s contest, must overcome to become mayor. The congresswoman also faces a steep financial deficit and ominous poll numbers.
Houston has lackluster turnout in municipal elections, but the voting base usually gets even smaller in runoffs. About 252,000 people voted in the first round, fewer than in the last open mayoral election in 2015, despite population growth and about 189,000 new registered voters.
The city typically sees about 15 to 20% of November votes drop off in a second round, set for Dec. 9 this year. That makes it more difficult to gain ground, rendering runoffs mostly a get-out-the-vote battle.
“The primary focus of the runoff will be turnout, and who can get their voters most excited,” said Nancy Sims, a professor of political science at the University of Houston. “On the list of things to do in the holiday season, picking the next mayor falls where on that list?”
For what it’s worth, there were more votes cast in the 2001 runoff than in the 2001 general election. That doesn’t mean anything for this race this year, but it is a reminder that the thing that usually happens is not always the thing that does happen.
While it remains the Mayoral race that drives the bulk of the turnout, it can be useful to look at the other races to see if they might have some effect on the marquee event. There are runoffs in Districts D, G, and H. I’d say the D runoff helps SJL, the G runoff helps Whitmire, and the H runoff is more or less a wash – it’s probably lean Whitmire, but it will have less turnout than the others. There are no HISD runoffs, which might have helped SJL. There are five other citywide runoffs, all with Democratic and Republican candidates, all but one with a Black candidate (that includes Black Republican Willie Davis, who is the oddball among them). You can argue either way who that might help; my guess is that it’s more or less a wash again.
I have no particular reason to disagree with the notion that Whitmire is the favorite in the runoff. He had the most votes in November, and this is not a situation where the other candidates were there to challenge him. I have no idea what the supporters of the other candidates will do, and as of this writing I haven’t seen reports or press releases to say that any of them have picked a side for the overtime round. The basics of this race favor Whitmire. Whether that matters in the end, we’ll see.