Houston Up For Grabs in the Race for Governor?

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Houston, Texas

Note: This story originally appeared on The Quorum Report. Join us there daily for coverage of Texas politics and government.

As I’ve said from time to time: If Texas is a battleground, Harris County is ground zero. Perhaps never before has that seemed so true. Conservative activists, including the local GOP’s new and old leadership, are said to be waging all-out war to try to keep Sen. Wendy Davis’ performance in Harris County from affecting their down ballot candidates. There has been quite a bit of grumbling in recent weeks from local Republican judicial candidates who feel that not enough has been done to turn out the GOP vote.

Longtime conservative activist and donor Dr. Steve Hotze – a major financial contributor to Sen. Dan Patrick – recently sent out mailers and emails pleading for Christian conservatives to get out the vote.

In offering what he called a “Contract with Texas,” Hotze said “Republicans are in trouble in Harris County. For the first time in over two decades the Democrats have matched the Republicans in Early Ballots by Mail which Republicans historically have led by a 2 to 1 margin.”

Hotze went on to explain that he’s seen polling that shows Attorney General Greg Abbott running behind Sen. Davis by just 1 percent in Harris County. Some reliable sources tell the Quorum Report they have seen similar polling.

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A direct mail piece sent by Dr. Steve Hotze to Houston voters.

“This adversely affects the down ballot races,” Hotze wrote. “Republican District Attorney Devon Anderson is in a dead heat with Democrat challenger Kim Ogg,” he said. “The Republican judges are running neck in neck with the liberal Democrat judicial candidates. Obama’s Battleground Texas has registered over 1,000,000 new voters in Texas.”

While Dallas County seems firmly in Democratic hands – Republicans in Big D argue this could be their year to make a comeback – Harris County has been far more competitive. Republicans dominated countywide races for decades, but that started to fall apart in 2008 when President Obama carried the county. He did it again, by the skin of his teeth, in 2012.

Fun fact: Obama beat Mitt Romney in Harris County, the state’s largest county, by just 585 votes out of more than 1.1 million cast in that election.

The GOP is “going to have trouble getting Abbott above 50% in Harris County,” said University of Saint Thomas Political Science Chair Jon Taylor. “Harris County has been a competitive county in governor’s elections since 1978, except in 1998 when Bush blew out Mauro,” Taylor said.

The top vote-getter ever in the history of the county is Democratic Sheriff Adrian Garcia, thanks in large part to the efforts of the Texas Organizing Project when they reached out to Latino voters in the suburbs where voters are almost always neglected by Democrats.

In fairness to Democrats, that kind of outreach requires resources the party has not enjoyed in Texas. But the assumption made by many that suburbanites are Republicans by default is not well-founded. People move to the suburbs for clean air, good schools and a certain quality of life – not because of party affiliation. Many end up as Republicans because that’s the party talking to them.

Since Hotze mentioned Battleground Texas, it’s worth sharing with some specificity what the group has been doing in Houston.

Battleground has eight field offices throughout Harris County, thousands of volunteers, more than 1,000 of their activists there have been deputized to register new voters and the group said they are coordinating closely with Democratic officeholders and the Harris County Democratic Party. The group’s voter registration efforts include major drives on college campuses including the University of Houston, Texas Southern University, Rice, and Lone Star College.

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Texas Senate Nominee from Houston Paul Bettencourt.

One of the local Republican Party’s longtime leaders, former Tax Assessor-Collector and GOP Texas Senate Nominee Paul Bettencourt compared the political conditions in Harris County to a street fight. “We are in a real shootout in Harris County trying to get Abbott over 50 percent,” Bettencourt said. He expressed confidence that it will work out in Abbott’s favor there, but it’s not guaranteed.

Bettencourt said one major development that changed the dynamics in Houston is Mayor Annise Parker’s recent controversy involving subpoenas issued to some local pastors who had been speaking out against one of her major policy initiatives: The Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, or HERO. Though Parker eventually dropped the subpoenas, that fight has energized conservatives in a way that had not previously been the case, Bettencourt said. “I always thought the third rail of Texas politics was an income tax but now we all know any mayor’s subpoena of pastors’ sermons is,” he said.

Former Harris County GOP Chairman Jared Woodfill, the Texas Pastors Council headed by Dave Welch, and others held a big rally on Sunday featuring speakers like Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty fame, Tony Perkins, and Mike Huckabee. That may very well be the kind of thing that fires up the conservative base, but there is another theory about how that issue could play out.

Socially conservative African-American pastors are opposed to the equal rights ordinance, but they are by no means Republican voters. If anything, they and their congregants would likely be straight-ticket Democratic voters. One longtime observer of Houston politics told QR that “if those people are fired up to vote, none of them are going to vote for Greg Abbott.”

Whether they are motivated to vote is an open question, however. Conservative activists were not successful this year in placing the issue on the ballot and Parker herself is not up for reelection, either. She’s in her last term as mayor.

Jon Taylor, the political scientist who is a Republican, said Hotze and Woodfill – a team he described as the conservative “God Squad” – would not be able to move the needle by pushing the equal rights fight or by raising the possibility of a Davis win in Houston. “Those subpoenas certainly smack of overreach by Mayor Parker,” Taylor said. “But it does not get anyone to vote who would not normally vote in an off-year election.”

Copyright October 30, 2014, Harvey Kronberg, www.quorumreport.com, All rights are reserved. Reprinted with permission. 

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