Democrat Lee Merritt suspends campaign for attorney general nine days after election day, clearing path for runoff

Rochelle Garza, left, and Joe Jaworski, Democratic candidates for Texas attorney general, will face off in a May runoff after candidate Lee Merritt suspended his campaign Thursday. (The Texas Tribune, The Texas Tribune)

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Civil rights lawyer Lee Merritt suspended his campaign for the Democratic nomination for Texas attorney general on Thursday, clearing the way for top vote-getter Rochelle Garza to face Joe Jaworski in a May runoff election.

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More than a week after election day, Merritt, who was less than 4,000 votes behind Jaworski for second place, conceded that he had failed to garner enough votes to make the runoff and endorsed Garza.

“She has demonstrated that she can run a campaign that can energize our base, that reflects the diversity of our party,” Merritt said in a press conference in Houston. “She and I had a conversation yesterday about my plans to join her on the campaign trail to encourage young progressive voters to get engaged in the process.”

Merritt said he was still within a "razor thin margin" of Jaworski but wanted to help consolidate support for Garza so she could focus on winning the general election in November.

"When I got into the race, Rochelle Garza wasn't in it," he said. "She represents a young, progressive, forward-thinking advocate that I wouldn't have joined the race if I thought she was in it. So even if we were to come out ahead, I would encourage the parties to get behind Rochelle Garza and focus on actually flipping that office."

Decision Desk HQ, The Texas Tribune’s election results partner, predicted last week that Garza would proceed to a runoff after she received around 43% of the vote, well short of the 50% threshold needed to avoid a runoff. On Thursday afternoon, Decision Desk determined Jaworski would advance to the runoff with Garza.

For the past week, the second-place finisher remained a question mark as Jaworski maintained a slight lead over Merritt as some absentee and provisional ballots continued to be counted.

Last weekend, Harris County also announced it identified around 10,000 votes, including 6,000 Democratic primary votes, that were not properly counted, adding to the uncertainty of the election result.

The runoff is slated for May 24. The winner of the Democratic primary will face the winner of the Republican primary runoff — either incumbent Ken Paxton or Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush. The Democratic nominee will face a significant uphill battle to beat the Republican nominee; Texas voters haven’t picked a Democrat as the state’s top lawyer since Dan Morales in 1994.

In a statement on Thursday, Jaworski said he enjoyed a cordial relationship with Merritt on the campaign trail and wished him well in his law practice.

“I’m looking forward to a robust runoff campaign with Ms. Garza, so that Texas voters can choose the best candidate to defeat Ken Paxton in November,” he said.

In a statement after Merritt's concession, Garza touted the endorsements from two of her primary opponents — last week, fourth-place finisher Mike Fields also asked his fellow candidates to forgo a runoff and allow Garza to focus on the general election — and made a pitch to Merritt's supporters.

"To Mr. Merritt’s supporters, I am committed to continuing to fight for our civil rights and to earn your support in this runoff election," she said. "People of color are the majority of the population of our state, and I look forward to working together with Mr. Merritt to ensure we have representation at the state level and do the hard work of turning out the vote in Texas."

During his time as Galveston mayor, Jaworski was an advocate for rebuilding public housing destroyed in the wake of Hurricane Ike in 2008 — a stance that contributed to his defeat in 2012 after a wave of anti-public housing voters chose his opponent. Jaworski, a trial attorney, is the grandson of famed lawyer Leon Jaworski, who served as a special prosecutor during the 1972 Watergate scandal.

Garza is a former ACLU attorney who has represented immigrants and transgender clients. Her representation of a 17-year-old undocumented immigrant who sought an abortion while in U.S. custody led to the creation of the "Garza notice," a government policy that informs pregnant immigrant teens of their right to abortion services.

Merritt had collected endorsements from state and national politicians, including Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

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