I think there are two key things to keep in mind when contemplating Tuesday’s election results in Houston and what they may mean for 2013. First and foremost, I believe you have to see the Mayor’s percentage of the vote, which everyone would agree was underwhelming, as a reflection on her level of support and nothing else. To put it another way, this was her “generic” re-elect number, given that she wasn’t running against any one opponent but against a mostly interchangeable slate of “not Annise Parker” candidates. That’s bad, because some 49% of the people who bothered to vote said they wanted someone else, but it’s not necessarily as bad as it looks. Many incumbents do worse in polls against a generic opponent. Look at President Obama for a clear example of that. The flipside of this, which is also crystal clear with the President, is that it means they generally do better, sometimes much better, against actual named opponents. Every single person who might run against Annise Parker in 2013 has his or her own strengths and weaknesses, and many of them have their own record in public service that can be examined and critiqued. Change the choice from “I’d like somebody else to be Mayor” to “I’d like this specific person to be Mayor” – Paul Bettencourt, Ben Hall, Bill King, whoever – and some people who maybe aren’t too happy with Parker will decide she’s the preferable option. (Or not – it can certainly go either way.) Give the Mayor a single named opponent whose flaws and policy ideas she can attack, and the dynamic of the race changes, because it’s no longer all about her. Like I said, that may or may not ultimately work in her favor, but it will be different than this race was. We can’t know how that will go until someone actually decides to run against her. Further, while it’s easy enough to imagine Parker getting squeezed between a white Republican and an African-American Democrat, what happens if more than one of either or both decides to jump in? This is what I mean when I say it’s far too early to make any grand pronunciations about 2013. There are too many variables in play. I still believe, as I said before the election and before anyone else, that an underperformance by the Mayor would make it more likely she will draw a serious opponent in 2013. That’s not the same as saying I believe she’ll lose, or even that she’s more likely to lose. It’s far too early to tell about that.
The Mayor’s first term was affected by several factors that were beyond her control – things like the economy, the red light camera referendum, various Council hijinx. I believe she is likely to derive some benefit from there being fewer of these external factors over the next two years – I mean, how much more can there be? If it turns out I’m wrong about that, she may well decide this job is a curse and gladly hand it off to someone else. Be that as it may, there’s no shortage of things well within her control where she can and must do better. The Mayor’s biggest political liability isn’t the caprices of fate but the fact that she has done very little to expand her base of support, and quite a bit to antagonize and depress it. I think of the Mayor’s base primarily as people like me – urban progressives. As far as I can tell – I’ll have a better grasp on this when I get the vote canvass, but I don’t need numbers to see the basic problem outline – there’s a lot of discontent among people in my neck of the woods with the Mayor’s actions. First and foremost among them is the 380 agreement situation, which begins but now doesn’t end with Ainbinder and Washington Heights. The fact that Ainbinder chose Wal-Mart as its anchor tenant is another example of uncontrollable bad luck for the Mayor – if they had announced a deal with HEB, no one would have cared enough to kick up a fuss about it – but the decision to offer Ainbinder a 380 agreement in return for what appear to be minor, almost trivial, infrastructure improvements, along with still-unresolved questions about traffic, bridge safety, noise, drainage, and so forth, that was all on the Mayor and her unhelpful department heads. Pursuing historic preservation – which, one must admit, was something she campaigned on – won her more enemies than friends, as support for preservation is broad but shallow, while opposition to it is narrow but deep and fierce and activism-inspiring. However you feel about these things, the fact remains that there are fewer people in neighborhoods that should be her strongholds that are on her side, and more than aren’t. That’s not a good position to be in. I don’t know what she and her advisers have been discussing since Tuesday night, but if I were in on those conversations, I’d strongly recommend they spend less time worrying about who may or may not decide to run against her, and more time figuring out how to do something about this. And if they can’t come up with a good strategy for that, they’d best start working on their oppo research, because they’re going to need plenty of it.
Anyway. I’ll have some analysis of the other results tomorrow, and once I get my hands on canvass data, I’ll start bringing the numbers. In the meantime, here are some more overviews of the election results, from PDiddie, Stace, Greg, BOR, and EoW.
UPDATE: Here’s the Chron analysis, which covers much of the same ground as I did.