Final Countdown: Buzbee vs. Turner

This Saturday, December 14, Houston will elect its next mayor in a heated runoff election between incumbent Sylvester Turner and challenger Tony Buzbee. Combined, these two candidates have spent $19 million in one of the nation’s most high-profile and expensive municipal races in history.

After graduating from Harvard Law School and founding his own firm, Turner served in the Texas House of Representatives from 1989 until he was first elected mayor of Houston in 2016. Turner is asking voters to extend his stay in the mayor’s office based on his record of accomplishments. He has been a life-long registered Democrat. 

Tony Buzbee is a Marine who led special operations units in the Persian Gulf and Somalia, and like Turner, became a lawyer who founded his own firm. Before jumping in the mayor’s race, Buzbee served on the Texas A&M Board of Regents. Buzbee’s campaign has centered on his promise to rid the mayor’s office of corruption and pay-to-play politics. He is running as an Independent and self-funding his campaign.

Houston Mayoral Race — By The Numbers:*

Campaign Finance Reports Before the Nov. 5, 2019 Election:Sylvester Turner:Tony Buzbee:
Votes on November 5:114,92669,633
Percentage Vote November 5:46.9%28.4%
Cost Per Vote:$47.79$124.92

Tough Talk and Lots of Money

In a press conference the day after the November 5 election, Buzbee vowed to spend as much as it would take to get Turner out of office and declared the runoff would be “a full-on slugfest.” The latest campaign finance reports suggest Buzbee wasn’t kidding. With a single donation to his own campaign, he outraised Turner by nearly two-to-one, and spent more than $3 million.

Campaign Finance Report for the Runoff (October 27 – December 4)Sylvester Turner:Tony Buzbee:
Total Election Contributions:$5,807,075$12,300,000
Total Election Expenditures:$7,230,610$11,774,577

Turner has several factors in his favor:

  1. Turner bested Buzbee in the November election by a wide margin (18.5 percent).
  2. Incumbents have a built-in advantage because they enjoy name recognition and because they can point to benefits and favors they’ve done for their constituents while in office.
  3. Turner is a Democrat in a very blue city.

Don’t count Buzbee out:

  1. Houstonians cast 60,801 votes — almost 25 percent of the total — for the other 10 candidates whose names were on the ballot for mayor in November. That’s a lot of votes up for grabs.
  2. While turnout is historically low in runoff elections, particularly when the runoff is on a weekend in December, Buzbee has been spending heavily to drum up turnout for Saturday.
  3. Runoffs tend to favor the underdog. When an election features multiple candidates (12 in this case), voters historically coalesce behind the one who finished second in the original vote count. As a self-funding, wealthy trial lawyer, it remains to be seen if Buzbee can successfully play the underdog card.

Together Buzbee and Turner have recorded contributions of more than $18 million and spending at $19 million —  likely setting the record for the most expensive municipal campaign in Texas history. But as Houstonians enter the final countdown before election day, the only number that really matters is the vote count this Saturday night. 

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*According to reports filed by the campaigns with Houston City Hall.

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