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Six local races to watch on Election Day in Texas

From a competitive district attorney's race in Harris County to a controversial vote in Arlington over a stadium for the Texas Rangers, here are six down-ballot races in Texas to watch on Tuesday.

Voters proceed in and out of the University Park Methodist Church in Dallas for the first day of early voting on Oct. 24, 2016.

On Tuesday, all eyes will be on the presidential race, anticipated to be closer than usual in Texas in a volatile election year. And some of that attention will no doubt filter down to the less than a dozen state legislative races where a GOP incumbent is fighting for re-election.

But even farther down the ticket in some counties, there are similarly fascinating elections to keep an eye on, either because they are expected to be close or could have statewide implications. A number could help shape debates heading into the 2017 legislative session.

Here are six local races to watch:

Harris County district attorney 

In Texas' most populous county — the third-most-populous in the country — Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson, a Republican, is again facing Democrat Kim Ogg. Anderson narrowly defeated Ogg in 2014.

The race is closely watched, with national issues like the death penalty factoring in to the discussion. Since she has taken office, Anderson has had to answer for the jailing of a mentally ill rape victim who was waiting to testify — also an issue in the Harris County sheriff's race. 

A University of Houston poll found Anderson leading Ogg by 1 percentage point in September. The Democrat has since captured the lead, registering a 7-point advantage in the same survey

Anderson's campaign has seized on Ogg's financial support from George Soros, an out-of-state billionaire and GOP boogeyman who has made a $500,000 ad buy for the Democratic candidate. Soros' involvement has become a rallying cry for Harris County Republicans in general.

"Elect solid Republicans, and tell liberal megadonor George Soros to take his money and stay out of Harris County," U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, says in a recent robocall aimed at the county's Republicans. 

Travis County sheriff

Democrat Sally Hernandez will probably win this race in solidly blue Travis County. But it is what Hernandez, a county constable, plans to do upon taking office that has drawn statewide attention.

Hernandez has said she will not hold inmates for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement when the federal agency seeks to remove them from the country. That would make Austin the first real "sanctuary city" in a state ruled by Republicans who have vowed to crack down on the practice, including during the upcoming legislative session. 

Last month there were reports, including in the Austin American-Statesman, that Hernandez's position on ICE cooperation was no longer as clear since winning the Democratic primary. Asked Wednesday where Hernandez stands on the issue, her campaign declined to comment.

Her GOP opponent, Joe Martinez, has been happy to discuss it, tagging her as "Sanctuary Sally." And he has expressed confidence it could help him break through in a county that does not regularly elect Republicans but cares about law and order.

"It is resonating with some of the Democrats and even some of the liberals in Tarrytown," Martinez said in a recent radio interview, referring to the affluent Austin neighborhood. "I mean, people are looking at this thing because they know what's going to happen when these people get released. They're going to come back into the community and do what? What they were doing before when they went to jail."

Rangers stadium measure

Arlington voters will decide whether to contribute $500 million in tax revenue to help the Texas Rangers build a new ballpark in what’s ended up being a financially lopsided fight.

A political action committee supporting the bond measure has spent more than $1.4 million compared to a small grassroots opposition group that has spent less than $7,500. Mayor Jeff Williams upset opponents of the measure last week when he portrayed them as “angry” and “misdirected,” according to secretly recorded audio obtained by The Dallas Morning News.

Supporters fear the team will leave for a nearby city if voters reject the subsidy. Opponents think the Rangers will settle for a smaller public contribution.

The team has contributed about half of what’s been spent to support the measure but says it hasn’t figured out future plans if the measure fails.

"To me, the public investment is because the city views us as a public asset and an economic engine," said Rob Matwick, Rangers executive vice president of business operations.

Hidalgo County health district

Hidalgo County voters will decide Tuesday whether to create a health care district aimed at boosting medical services for residents, many uninsured, in one of the poorest parts of the state. Hidalgo County voters have been here before, rejecting a similar district two years ago.

This time around, health district proponents are focusing on how it would benefit the newly created medical school at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, which accepted its first class earlier this year. Like last time, opponents are making a fiscal argument against the measure, which would create a new tax of 8 cents per $100 of property value. 

"The question behind this is, 'Who's it going to benefit?'" said Angel Saavedra Cisneros, a political science professor at UTRGV. "It has become basically, 'Are you against taxes?' or, 'Are you against people?'"

Houston ISD measure

In the debate over Texas' long-beleaguered school finance system, the Houston Independent School District will be ground zero Tuesday. Voters there will decide whether to send $162 million in local property taxes to the state next year in what is known as a recapture payment, Texas' way of redistributing money from one school district to another.

If voters reject the measure, the state could seek another way to get the money — likely by severing commercial properties from HISD's tax rolls. School trustees have acknowledged that would be a worse way to pony up the money, but hope that the Legislature will exempt the district from having to make the payment at all.

The question on the ballot is complicated and confusing — much like Texas' overall school finance system, which the state Supreme Court upheld in May as constitutional while urging lawmakers to implement major reforms. Gov. Greg Abbott and House Speaker Joe Straus have said fixing the system is a top priority next session, ensuring that the outcome in Houston will have a rapt audience Tuesday in the state's capital. 

"Obviously this gets at the heart of the school finance conundrum the state finds itself in," said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. "It reflects a couple of things: No. 1, that the system is broken, and No. 2, that voters are puzzled about how it all works." 

Austin transportation bond

In Texas' capital city, voters will have a say Tuesday on an ambitious $720 million transportation bond that aims to deal with Austin's notorious traffic. The bond would help create a number of "smart corridors" in which the city would make improvements to get traffic moving faster. 

The city says the bond will cost the median homeowner less than $5 more per month in property taxes. Critics say it is simply too expensive.

The bond has earned the vote of U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who explained why he supports it after casting an early ballot Wednesday.

"I worry that we do need to get traffic moving here," Cornyn told reporters. "Anybody who's driven down I-35 knows that it turns into a parking lot. It's dangerous in terms of public safety, it's bad for the environment and it's bad for commerce. And so I admire the mayor and his efforts to improve mobility. It's not a panacea, but it is a step in the right direction." 

Read more:

  • Dallas County will have a cluster of competitive Texas House races Tuesday.
  • In Arlington, voters will decide Tuesday whether to pay for a new Rangers stadium.

Brandon Formby contributed to this report.

Disclosure: The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley has been a financial sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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