Six Democrats vying to replace John Whitmire in Texas Senate primary

The race is expected to go to a runoff.

By Sarah AschFebruary 9, 2024 1:05 pm,

Texas’ primary elections are right around the corner: March 5, Super Tuesday. Many eyes are on the race between Democrats to run against Ted Cruz for U.S. Senate, but Democrats are also lining up to compete for an empty seat in the Texas Senate.

Senate District 15 hasn’t been an open seat since 1982 – but with John Whitmire’s departure to serve as the mayor of Houston, there is a six-way Democratic primary underway to take his place.

Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston, said the field of candidates is diverse and nobody has broken away as a front-runner just yet.

“This is a race that’s been a long time coming. There aren’t a lot of open seats in these kinds of races. And so that it’s open definitely drew a pretty big crowd,” he said. “We’ve seen some familiar faces. Representative Jarvis Johnson is running; he’s obviously an incumbent in the House [who’s] been in office since 2016. Molly Cook is running; she ran against John Whitmire in the last election and took a pretty healthy 42% chunk.

“Todd Litton is running; he ran against Dan Crenshaw for the U.S. House a couple of years ago. And there are a couple other people who are notable among the district, in that they’ve been activists or been involved in politics locally.”

Rottinghaus said the race hasn’t really developed yet and that in many ways the candidates have voiced similar positions.

“Partly what’s going on is that they’re looking for a way to be able to talk about what their role will be in the Texas Senate. Now, obviously, that’s a tough position for a Democrat,” he said. “Dan Patrick runs the Senate with a pretty firm hand. And it’s difficult for Democrats to get much traction in terms of issues. … They all, generally speaking, kind of toe the Democratic Party line.

“You do see some small differences. Molly Cook talks a lot about the abortion issue. That’s something she was big on in her last race. You see Jarvis Johnson talking about his experience there, all talking about health care, and then education.”

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However, Rottinghaus said he expects the race to go to a runoff, and for the runoff candidates to focus more on their differences.

“In a race like this where you haven’t really seen a clear frontrunner emerge – and there hasn’t been any real kind of outstanding differences in terms of fundraising; they’re all raising a pretty healthy amount of money – I do think you’re going to see a runoff,” he said. “Todd Litton is making a case that he can raise big money. Molly Cook is making a case that she’s been active at the grassroots. Jarvis Johnson has emphasized his experience, and he’s got a pretty good electoral base. The district is about 21% Black and about 36% Hispanic.”

Rottinghaus said the winner of the primary has a good shot at winning the district in November, since the area is pretty reliably Democratic.

“There is a Republican in the race, Joseph Tran, but he hasn’t raised a lot of money. And obviously it’s the kind of race that doesn’t attract a lot of Republican interest. Some other wildcards are that there’s a bit of election fatigue,” he said. “The mayor’s race just happened. And so people are bombarded by the general. And then the runoff of the mayor’s race. Sheila Jackson Lee is running in a competitive primary which overlaps with a significant part of this district.

“There are a lot of non-registered voters in this district. And my guess is primary turnout is going to be pretty low. So there’s a lot of moving parts here that I think make this a pretty clear Democratic seat, but you just never know.”

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