Houston voters will get the final say Saturday on who their next mayor will be, capping a race that seems to have increasingly laid the city's political identity on the line.
At stake is not only the leadership of the largest city in Texas — and fourth-largest in the country — but also the hopes of Democrats and Republicans who have been given a clear choice in the runoff between state Rep. Sylvester Turner and former Kemah Mayor Bill King. To varying degrees, the two candidates have eschewed party labels, King more than Turner. But they both bring unmistakable affiliations to the race: Turner has been a Democrat during his 26 years in the Texas House, while King has been the beneficiary of some of Houston's most politically engaged Republicans.
"There’s a big question here about how blue is Houston, and the underscore of that is whether or not Republicans can be activated in the city to come out and vote," said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.
Rottinghaus said that if King "can produce enough of a Republican foment on these fiscally conservative issues and tap into some degree of social conservative anger about HERO" — the city's polarizing nondiscrimination ordinance, which voters rejected last month — then he has a solid chance. "If Turner can maximize what is traditionally a Democratic turnout machine in Houston mayoral elections, then he’ll win."
The latest sign of that came Tuesday with the release of a KHOU-News 88.7 poll that found King and Turner in a dead heat, each earning 38 percent among likely voters. Neither campaign is denying the race is as close as the survey indicates and are intensifying their get-out-the-vote efforts with less than 48 hours until polls close on Election Day.
"It's as close as it can be," said Bob Stein, a political science professor at Rice University. He and other analysts said early voting numbers are pointing to a photo finish, with turnout up in parts of the city that represent both King's base (white Republicans) and Turner's (black Democrats).
King and Turner were the top two vote-getters in the Nov. 3 election to replace term-limited Mayor Annise Parker. Turner won 31 percent of the vote, while King took 25 percent.
As expected, the runoff has been unfolding on more partisan terrain, despite the fact that the office is non-partisan. Analysts say it has been harder to nail down King as a partisan than Turner may have expected during the first phase of the race, when Democrats seemed eager for a shot at a one-on-one matchup with arguably the most viable Republican-leaning candidate in the then-crowded field.
"Coming out of the runoff, the conventional wisdom was in a city that, relatively speaking, is a Democratic city, it would be difficult for someone who is not identified as a Democrat to win," said Jay Aiyer, a political science professor at Texas Southern University.
Added Stein, "The Turner people thought they’d be running against a Republican that Ted Cruz endorsed, and that would be enough to defeat him."
Turner has nonetheless rallied some big-name Democrats to his side as he looks to shore up his base, most recently securing the endorsement of Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz. Turner has also won the support of Parker, first-round opponent Adrian Garcia and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed — all Democrats with political profiles that go beyond the borders of Houston.
Meanwhile, in one show of his crossover appeal, King has won the support of former Congressman Chris Bell, a Democrat who finished fifth in the Nov. 3 election.
"The reason why Bill King is being successful is he's partisan-plus. He's not just picking one party to win with," said state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Houston Republican who has endorsed King. "In the city of Houston, there simply aren't enough Republicans to run" a campaign that exclusively relies on their support.
King supporters like Bettencourt argue voters are more drawn to his laser-like focus on getting the city's finances in shape than they are to any perceived party affiliations. King has promised to tackle the city's $3.2 billion in unfunded pension liabilities by moving city workers from defined-benefit to defined-contribution plans. Turner, meanwhile, has advocated for a collaborative approach but has taken heat from King's campaign for not being specific enough.
The contrast between the two candidates, election watchers say, is as much about style as it is policy. Turner's campaign has sought to drive that contrast by touting the former lawmaker as having a more expansive — and inclusive — vision for the city's future.
“Mr. King talks about back to basics," Turner spokeswoman Sue Davis said, referring to King's no-frills platform of fixing streets, catching crooks and balancing the budget. "He talks about basic things. Sylvester is a big-picture guy. He has a vision. He inspires people.”
When it comes to the pension issue, Davis added, "everything's on the table, and everyone's at the table."
It's an open question how much Saturday's outcome will be influenced by the debate over Houston's nondiscrimination ordinance, which voters in the city rejected by a wide margin on Nov. 3. King opposed HERO as written and Turner supported it, but neither candidate has shown much willingness to talk it up in the runoff. That has not stopped groups on both sides of the HERO debate from seeking to gin up support for their favored hopeful in the second round.
"It’s simple — if Sylvester Turner is elected we will have this battle all over again, guaranteed. Bill King has committed this ordinance will not see the light of day in his administration," Dave Welch, executive director of the Houston Area Pastor Council, wrote in an email to supporters.
Houston Democrats, meanwhile, have been staring down an even more consequential fate than that of the ordinance: the political hue of a city that has long leaned Democratic.
"This city election is perhaps the most partisan in history and Houston is in danger of becoming a Red City!" Lane Lewis, chairman of the Harris County Democratic Party, wrote in an email to supporters on Friday. "The differences between Democrat Sylvester Turner and his Republican opponent could not be more clear."
Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday in Houston.