Voters in Harris County, home to Houston and some of its suburbs, will cast ballots for county judge—the Texan equivalent of a county executive—in November. Typically sleepy affairs obfuscated by a confusing job title, county judge elections don’t draw the eyeballs and dollars that higher profile statewide and federal races do. In Harris County, however, a young incumbent and a COVID-19 pandemic that showcased the executive post’s influential powers have thrust this year’s race into the limelight.
Democrat Lina Hidalgo took the reins of the nation’s third most populous county in 2019 after upsetting a longtime Republican incumbent. Born in Colombia, the 31-year-old Stanford, Harvard and NYU graduate is a rising star in Democratic circles. A fellow young, Latina Ivy Leaguer is hoping to foil that in November.
Rejecting more hardline conservative figures, Republicans have nominated Alexandra del Moral Mealer to vie for Hidalgo’s job as Harris’ chief executive. Though a political neophyte, she boasts an impressive resume as a US Army combat veteran, Harvard JD/MBA and energy investment banker. Her grandfather was a political refugee who fled Franco’s Spain and became an influential figure in the US Hispanic writing and entertainment scene. She is a top-tier recruit for a party poised for a historic fall at the polls.
There is limited polling on the race, but a University of Houston Hobby School poll from late June/early July indicated a toss-up, with Hidalgo leading her challenger 48-47% among likely voters—a statistical dead heat.
The race is in many ways a microcosm of larger national trends, so some of its underlying dynamics are worth exploring.
Winning back the country clubhouses
Following a 2018 midterm cycle that saw independents and moderates in Harris County flee the Republican party, especially in the suburbs, the race should be a good indicator of whether that was an anti-Trumpian anomaly or a robust re-alignment of the electorate. The University of Houston poll offers a potential clue—del Moral Mealer leads among likely voters with advanced degrees 53-44%. This is increasingly uncommon in a modern GOP that has been hemorrhaging support among highly educated voters.
But suburban, wealthy, mostly white conservatives were instrumental in cementing the GOP’s rise to Texas political dominance. So, while this voting block is shrinking as the state diversifies and left-leaning transplants flock, there is evidence that the kingmakers of old may yet have significant sway, at least for the time being.
Hispanics trending right
The well-covered nationwide shift of Hispanic voters towards the GOP may also play an instrumental role in this race. Republican Mayra Flores flipped a predominantly Hispanic and historically blue house district in South Texas in June. Slightly further West, Republicans Cassy Garcia and Monica de la Cruz are hoping to ride a rightward shift among Tejanos and flip historically blue, deeply Hispanic districts of their own.
Alexandra del Moral Mealer is looking to carry that torch in Harris County. The racially diverse county is reliably Democratic, a fact often attributed to its non-white plurality. It has one of largest Hispanic population shares of any major county in the US—44% per the 2020 census. But already we see indications of this potentially becoming a strength for Republicans, not a weakness. In the same University of Houston poll, Hispanic likely voters actually favored del Moral Mealer against Hidalgo 47-44%.
Energy crisis backdrop
Soaring gas and electricity prices are hitting American households across the nation, but these issues bear added weight in Houston. Representing nearly a third of all US oil & gas jobs, around 250,000 Houstonians work in the energy sector. Even those who don’t likely work in an industry indirectly correlated to energy. It is not uncommon to find upscale restaurants peg prix-fixe meals to the daily price of a WTI barrel.
All of this makes Houstonians particularly energy-savvy and wary of political attacks on energy production, particularly fossil fuels. It is no surprise that Rep. Lizzie Feltcher of Houston was one of only four Democratic House members to vote against a gas price gouging bill in May. Hidalgo’s main area of expertise is in healthcare, another major employer in the area, but her views on energy are less clear. A candidate with a background in, say, energy finance may be able to convey significant gravitas in a city like Houston during a global energy crisis.
A November nailbiter
As they showed in 2018, Harris County voters are not immune to nationwide waves. Lina Hidalgo is currently embroiled in an ugly intra-party fight with Harris County DA Kim Ogg, whose feud with the county judge is well documented. In late 2021, Ogg launched a criminal investigation into controversial COVID-19 contract award practices and three of Hidalgo’s top aides were indicted by a grand jury earlier this year. Add to this a national mood quickly souring on Democratic leadership and the stars may just be aligning for Republicans to retake the office after a four-year sabbatical.
Hidalgo may yet be able to hold on despite her party’s headwinds and her legal troubles. After all, Harris County still has a distinctive blue tilt and local-level incumbents are notoriously hard to beat, even in wave years. But Alexandra del Moral Mealer is an intriguing GOP recruit that checks many of the boxes that persuadable moderates and independents may be looking for in the fall. This is a race to keep an eye on when voters cast their ballots on November 8th.