State Sen. John Whitmire and U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee would be neck-and-neck for first place if the Houston mayor’s race were held today, but Whitmire would sprint ahead in a potential runoff, according to the first major poll of the contest.

The poll released Tuesday confirms what many political observers long have suspected: high name recognition gives Jackson Lee and Whitmire an edge over the rest of the crowded field ahead of the Nov. 7 election.

However, Jackson Lee’s decades as a familiar face in Houston politics also could hurt her. Dragged down by the nearly half of voters who have at least a somewhat negative view of Jackson Lee, she would trail Whitmire by 18 percent in a runoff.

The poll, an online survey of 800 likely voters between July 12 and 20 by the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston, offers the first glimpse at which candidates already have established themselves as potential contenders.

Its results should be interpreted with caution, however, since there are months to go before the election and few of the candidates have begun spending in earnest on ads and outreach.

Renée Cross, senior executive director of the Hobby School, said in a prepared statement that the poll shows that Whitmire and Jackson Lee essentially are household names in Houston.

“Relatively few voters say they don’t know enough to have an opinion about either Congresswoman Jackson Lee or, to a somewhat lesser extent, Senator Whitmire, while more than half say they don’t know enough about the other challengers,” she said.

Other declared candidates include City Councilmember Robert Gallegos, former Councilmember MJ Khan, former METRO chairman Gilbert Garcia and attorney Lee Kaplan.

The filing period to get on the Nov. 7 ballot began Saturday and ends Aug. 21, which means there is ample time for other candidates to shake up the race.

In the mayoral race, a candidate needs a majority of votes — one more than 50 percent — to win outright and avoid a runoff election with the second-place finisher.

The University of Houston poll found that in a first round of voting, Whitmire would take about 34 percent of the vote compared to Jackson Lee’s 32 percent, within the 3.5 percent margin of error. The rest of the field drew less than 3 percent support, with 22 percent of voters undecided.

City of Houston mayoral race candidates Lee Kaplan, Robert Gallegos, Gilbert Garcia and M.J. Khan.
(Clockwise) City of Houston mayoral race candidates Lee Kaplan, Robert Gallegos, Gilbert Garcia and M.J. Khan.

In a runoff, the line dividing Whitmire and Jackson Lee would sharpen. He would take 51 percent of respondents’ votes compared to 33 percent for her.

Whitmire and Jackson Lee’s campaigns offered different spins on what the numbers meant.

“I am pleased by the support of so many Houstonians early in the campaign. Houstonians want a proven leader who understands the issues they care about and I am pleased they trust me to make the tough and smart decisions to see that city government meets the expectations citizens have a right to expect in our great city,” Whitmire said in a statement.

Jackson Lee’s campaign manager, James Sonneman, said in a statement that the poll showed it is a close race.

“Sheila Jackson Lee is ready to make a clear case to the voters that shows she has delivered for Houston for decades and will continue to deliver as mayor,” Sonneman said.

The rest of the field trailed the two leaders in a hypothetical vote.

On the broader question of who voters “definitely” or “might” consider voting for, however, 29 percent said they would consider casting a ballot for Garcia; 27 percent said they were open to considering Gallegos. Nineteen percent said the same about Khan, while 18 percent said they were open to considering Kaplan.

“This is a great poll for us,” Khan said, noting he only announced his candidacy last month. He said the poll shows he still has a path to win over conservative voters who are trending toward Whitmire now.

A Kaplan campaign spokesperson echoed the idea that the poll shows a way forward for candidates outside the top two.

“It’s not surprising the political insiders who have been in office for a combined 80-plus years while Houston’s problems haven’t been solved have high name recognition,” spokeswoman Jennie Johnson said. “We are confident that when voters hear about Lee Kaplan, this race will become very competitive.”

Of the survey respondents, 40 percent had a very negative view of Jackson Lee, compared to 8 percent of Whitmire. While the race officially is nonpartisan, Jackson Lee is particularly weak among Republicans, only 2 percent of whom said they would vote for her. Whitmire, like Jackson Lee, is a Democrat, but he would take 56 percent of the GOP vote in the first round.

Jackson Lee had strong support among women and Black respondents, of whom 37 percent and 65 percent said they would vote for her in the November election.

Several of the other candidates in the race say they are only beginning to stand up their campaign organizations.

Two of the other candidates in the field, Garcia and Kaplan, have more than $1 million in cash on hand to spend on campaigns, according to financial reports filed earlier this month.

Separately, pollsters found former county clerk Chris Hollins has an early lead in the city controller race, with 37 percent support compared to 29 percent for former councilman and county treasurer Orlando Sanchez, 19 percent for Councilmember Dave Martin and 12 percent for Chief Deputy Controller Shannan Nobles.

Note: This story has been updated to correct that Sheila Jackson Lee had strong support among women and Black respondents, of whom 37 percent and 65 percent said they would vote for her in the November election.

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Matt Sledge is the City Hall reporter for the Houston Landing. Before that, he worked in the same role for the Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate and as a national reporter for HuffPost. He’s excited...