In November 2021, when he declared his intention to run for Mayor of Houston publicly for the first time, Texas State Senator John Whitmire immediately made himself the frontrunner in the race to replace term-limited Mayor Sylvester Turner, whose ascent from the Texas Legislature to City Hall Whitmire is attempting to replicate.
The timing certainly ruffled some feathers in Houston, as Whitmire was just months away from the March 2022 Democratic primary for his seat in the Texas Senate, for which he was seeking re-election despite being committed to a 2023 campaign in one of the nation’s largest cities.
Whitmire managed to secure his re-election, despite an unusually lively challenge from newcomer Molly Cook, who captured more than 40% of the vote against the longest-serving member of the Texas Senate.
It was an underwhelming performance for an elected official as established as Whitmire, who has served in the Texas Senate since 1983, and one that gave a slate of Democratic candidates hope that he could be toppled in the nonpartisan race for Houston Mayor. While Whitmire remained a formidable candidate with a deep war chest, he wasn’t quite on the glide path to the mayor’s office he had anticipated.
But the stiff challenge from Cook wasn’t the only complication that would arise for Whitmire. After securing his re-election in the general election, a quirk in Texas election law raised the potential for a difficult choice for Whitmire. While he had just secured his re-election in 2022, because a round of redistricting had been completed every member of the Texas Senate was required to draw straws to determine which members would receive two-year terms and which would serve out four-year terms before they had to run for reelection.
Whitmire drew a two-year term, meaning that he would theoretically be up for reelection to the Texas Senate just a matter of weeks after the mayoral runoff in December. Should Whitmire be forced into a runoff, he would have to decide if he wanted to file for reelection while in the final stages of a heated campaign. It’s an optics nightmare that could force his retirement from the Senate.
If that headache weren’t enough, Whitmire drew a fresh round of criticism from Democrats across Texas when several high-profile Republican and conservative donors gleefully contributed to his mayoral campaign. The list was a who’s who of donors that have extensive histories giving to folks like Dan Patrick, Greg Abbott and Donald Trump.
That round of bad headlines was followed in short order by veteran Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee announcing that she would run for mayor during a recent faith service and has been gearing up a campaign in recent weeks.
Jackson Lee’s entrance into the race sets up a heavyweight clash with Whitmire, and while former Houston Councilmember and US Senate candidate Amanda Edwards is still pressing forward with her mayoral bid, former interim Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins decided to drop down to the race for City Controller last week.
That new dynamic presents a difficult road for Whitmire. Texas Signal recently reviewed polling conducted by a respected national firm that showed Whitmire’s prospects in his own Senate district may not be as strong as he’d hope, with the vast majority of respondents being open to voting for a different candidate.
And while Whitmire faces significant challenges in the mayor’s race, he may not have much breathing room in his Senate district. This week Karthik Soora, a former HISD teacher now working as a renewable energy developer and nonprofit leader, launched his campaign for the Democratic nomination in Texas Senate District 15.
Soora’s entrance to the race was met with a surprising level of support, with the first-time candidate raising $100,000 in his first day in the race.
While that’s a tremendous start for a candidate with a unique profile, Whitmire’s campaign accounts are still flush with millions of dollars. If Whitmire can’t prevail against Jackson Lee, could Soora mobilize his fellow millennials and topple the longtime incumbent? It’s an intriguing question.
Another question that could cause headaches for Whitmire: can Soora, who founded a nonprofit to mobilize South Asian voters, increase participation from AAPI Texans? The AAPI vote is growing in both numbers and power in Harris County and could be a major factor in a number of races in 2024.
Joe brings over a decade of experience as a political operative and creative strategist to Texas Signal, where he serves as our Senior Advisor and does everything from writing a regular column, Musings, to mentoring our staff and freelancers. Joe was campaign manager for Lina Hidalgo's historic 2018 victory for Harris County Judge and is a passionate sneakerhead.