Charles Blain (@cjblain10) is the president of Urban Reform and the Urban Reform Institute. He spoke with City Journal associate editor Daniel Kennelly about the recent local elections in Harris County, Texas, and what they mean for public safety and urban politics in Houston and beyond.
Last month, you wrote that the race for Harris County judge, pitting the progressive one-term incumbent Lina Hidalgo against Republican challenger Alexandra Del Moral Mealer, who was running a campaign focused on public safety, was the one to watch for gauging Texas’s future political trajectory. Now that Hidalgo has narrowly prevailed, what lessons should we take from the contest?
The race showed that while Harris County still trends Democratic, it’s more purple than blue. The incumbent won by only 1 percent, or 16,000 votes, out of 1.1 million cast, and many of the countywide down-ballot races were even closer than that. In fact, Republicans prevailed in a handful of district court judicial races, giving them their first countywide win since 2016.
The climate in Texas’s largest county still favors Democrats, but they don’t have the mandate that they thought they had, and Republican candidates remain viable.
What would it take for Texas Republicans to be more competitive in urban areas like Houston?
About 739,000 Republican primary voters across Texas stayed home and did not vote. All told, the state set a record: 9.6 million registered voters declined to vote, up from 9.3 million in 2014. Republicans in Texas’s urban areas must focus on turning out their voters. Many Republican voters and donors often see these races as a lost cause. This race should remind Republicans that opportunity still exists in cities.
In Houston, and in urban areas generally, Republicans need to be more active with civic and community groups rather than solely focusing on political organizations. In primaries, the support of Republican and Democratic clubs carries a lot of weight, but in a general election in a major urban area, civic clubs like Houston’s Super Neighborhoods Alliance, a coalition of neighborhood groups, are how you win over communities. They provide the opportunity to meet voters outside of the traditional political bases. Particularly for immigrant and minority groups who may not be politically engaged, civic organizations can open the door to those communities.
How did public safety play out as an issue in this race and in others on the ballot in the Houston area?
The messages of crime and corruption figured heavily in this race because both can be found in abundance—not just in Houston and Harris County, but in major urban areas. Moderate Democrats and independents voted for Republican candidates who focused on that message, but the issue for Harris County Republicans was getting their own voters out.
Public safety was the top issue for all voters, across age and race and sex. This was reflected in all the publicly available polling and in the campaigns themselves. Initially, Hidalgo didn’t spend much time campaigning on public safety, as it was a weak point for her. In a recent budget, she denied 82 percent of law-enforcement funding requests. Her challenger, however, made public safety the cornerstone of her campaign. As Mealer gained momentum, Hidalgo’s message started changing to focus on crime, and the incumbent began seeking out law-enforcement endorsements.
At the same time, crime victims’ families formed groups and coalitions, the most notable of them being the Stop Houston Murders PAC, whose goal was to draw the connection between increased crime and sitting judges with a history of letting repeat violent offenders out on low bond, or no bond.
Public safety being the top concern accounts for why Republicans scored their first countywide win since 2016.
Are there any important takeaways in the demographic and geographic breakdown of the vote?
Aside from the Republican primary voters who stayed home, another major factor was the low turnout of black and young voters. Across the state, turnout was down as a whole from 2018, but through early voting, black turnout was down 25 percent, and turnout of voters between the ages of 18 and 35 were down 35 percent. Analysts saw these depressed numbers as a sign that these voters didn’t have much to motivate them. With crime and corruption being the top issues, the Democrats in charge of the county didn’t give people much to vote for, and with a reasonable Republican candidate at the top of the ticket, they didn’t have much to vote against, either. The low turnout of these groups, which traditionally align with the Democratic Party, is another reason this race was so close.