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John Whitmire leads Sheila Jackson Lee in Houston’s mayoral runoff, new poll finds

The new Houston Public Media/Houston Chronicle/UH Political Science and Population Health Poll shows State Senator Whitmire with the support of 42% of likely voters, compared to 35% for Congresswoman Jackson Lee and 22% undecided.

Sheila Jackson Lee (left) and John Whitmire at their election night parties. Both candidates are running for mayor of Houston.
Atirikta Kumar/Andrew Schneider
Sheila Jackson Lee (left) and John Whitmire at their election night parties. Both candidates are running for mayor of Houston.

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Early voting in Houston's runoff elections starts today. A new poll shows State Senator John Whitmire with a seven-point lead over Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee in the mayor's race, with Whitmire leading or tying Jackson Lee among most key demographics.

The Houston Public Media/Houston Chronicle/UH Political Science and Population Health Poll shows Whitmire with the support of 42% of likely voters, compared to 35% for Jackson Lee and 22% undecided.

Roughly two-thirds of white voters favor Whitmire, while roughly two-thirds of Black voters support Jackson Lee. But University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus noted that Black turnout in the first round of the mayoral election was down about 20% compared to eight years ago.

"For whatever reason, Black voters are not as enamored with Sheila Jackson Lee as they were with Sylvester Turner," Rottinghaus said. "You would need to see tremendous turnout in the African American community in order for Sheila Jackson Lee to overcome the support that John Whitmire gets among older Anglos, who are much more likely to vote in municipal elections."

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UH political scientist Jeronimo Cortina said the Latino vote is likely to prove critical, and there too, Whitmire appears to have the edge.

"We’re talking about 43% versus 23%," Cortina said. "And partially, this is because Senator Whitmire got very important endorsements during his campaign (among others, Congresswoman Sylvia Garcia and State Senator Carol Alvarado), and Jackson Lee, perhaps, did not get as many as those endorsements. However, she got the endorsement of (Harris) County Judge Lina Hidalgo, so that also is important."

Whitmire also leads overwhelmingly among Republican and conservative voters. His endorsement by former Houston City Councilmember Jack Christie, who openly campaigned as a Republican in the first round, should help Whitmire pick up support among undecideds.

"Typically, those undecideds are distributed to the most Republican member of the candidates who are running. Now, that’s not perfect here, because John Whitmire is obviously a Democrat, but he seemed to be much more conservative than she is in this poll," Rottinghaus said. "Sheila Jackson Lee is seen to be very liberal by many, and that’s something that can hurt her, especially among voters who are likely to turn out in a municipal race like this."

MORE: Analysis of the poll results on Houston Matters

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Jackson Lee has the advantage among voters under 50, while Whitmire does better among those over 50. Jeronimo Cortina says that balance, too, works in Whitmire's favor. "Older voters tend to be more reliable in getting out to vote," Cortina said.

Then, there's the gender breakdown. Men prefer Whitmire by roughly 17 points. "They are tied among women," Rottinghaus said, "and this is a major liability for Sheila Jackson Lee, if she’s going to have any way to be able to overtake him, especially among his high favorables among men, she’s got to be able to win among women. And it doesn’t look like she’s doing that according to this poll."

The poll included a question about how voters responded to leaked audio of Jackson Lee berating a staffer. The leak changed very few people's opinions of Jackson Lee, but there were two key exceptions.

"What’s interesting is that it actually affected women more than men and young people more than older people," Rottinghaus said. "So, this really cut to the core of her coalition. She needs younger people and women to support her, and the tape seems to have more of an adverse effect on those voters than others."

When it comes to the issues, 35% of voters say crime is the most important issue in the race. Whitmire has made fighting crime and improving public safety the cornerstone of his campaign, saying he would bring 200 DPS troopers to Houston while the city hires and trains hundreds more police officers. While Jackson Lee has also talked about the importance of public safety, she has taken a more nuanced approach, emphasizing the importance of creating jobs and violence intervention to get at some of the root causes of crime.

By comparison, 18% of voters polled say the economy is the most important issue facing the next mayor. Fourteen percent point to the cost of housing, while 10% say the city's finances are their chief concern.

The poll also examined the runoff for Houston city controller between former Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins, a Democrat, and former Harris County Treasurer Orlando Sanchez, a Republican. Jeronimo Cortina said Hollins is ahead, but Sanchez could still pull out a win.

"Chris Hollins has a little bit of a lead, 36% versus 25%," Cortina said. "And here, the most interesting thing is that the percentage of undecided increases. It goes from 22% to 40% undecided, so there is a lot of room for either Hollins or Sanchez, to improve their numbers."

Cortina stressed that both the Houston mayoral and controller's races this year are likely to be critical for the city's future.

"We’re coming out of a pandemic where the federal government flushed many states and many local governments with a lot of money. The money is running out. And we already know by the current controller that next year we’re looking at the fiscal cliff, and that has very important implications for the delivery of services, for crime and safety, public safety issues, but also in terms of our aging infrastructure," Cortina said. "So, it’s extremely, extremely consequential."