Two Houston Democrats face off in back-to-back elections for John Whitmire’s open state Senate seat

Molly Cook, an emergency room nurse, and state Rep. Jarvis Johnson, D-Houston, are facing facing each other in a special election to replace former state Sen. and Houston Mayor John Whitmire in Senate District 15. (Campaign Websites, Campaign Websites)

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The race to succeed Houston Mayor John Whitmire in the Texas Senate has narrowed to a runoff between state Rep. Jarvis Johnson and emergency room nurse Molly Cook — but first, the two Democrats are duking it out in a sleepy special election to decide who occupies the seat through the start of next year.

Saturday’s contest is largely symbolic: Cook or Johnson will be the first person other than Whitmire to represent Senate District 15 in more than 40 years, but with no legislative session scheduled this year, the winner is unlikely to cast a vote during the stopgap term.

Still, a win would bestow the authority of incumbency — and a potential fundraising bump from donors eager to support the favorite — heading into the all-important May 28 Democratic primary runoff. Saturday’s election could also signal what to expect in the runoff, which will effectively determine who represents the solidly blue district until 2029, and perhaps for decades to come. Incumbent senators can be tough to dislodge once in office, as Cook discovered when she lost to Whitmire by 17 points two years ago — his narrowest margin in 30 years.

With both candidates touting similar platforms, from abortion and LGBTQ+ rights to boosting public school funding, the race has come down to differences in style, background, and how each would approach life in a chamber dominated by hardline conservatives.

Johnson, a member of the House since 2016, has leaned on his experience, arguing he would be more effective in the role thanks to his relationships in Austin and knowledge of what it takes to shape and pass legislation. Cook, meanwhile, says her regular contact with emergency room patients — from those with pregnancy complications to victims of the 2021 winter storm — and her background in grassroots organizing would bring a much-needed fresh perspective to the upper chamber.

Though Johnson finished well ahead of Cook in the six-candidate March primary, drawing 36% to Cook’s nearly 21%, the top two contenders are battling over a much smaller slice of the electorate in Saturday’s contest. Through Monday, with only a day left of early voting, just 8,157 voters in the district had voted in person or sent in mail ballots that had reached the county clerk’s office — about 1.5% of the district’s nearly 550,000 registered voters.

Cook has outraised and outspent Johnson since the primary, giving her a financial edge she did not have in the initial round.

The district, home to a diverse cross-section of nearly 1 million Harris County residents, carries major political weight for Democrats. Shaped like an upside-down horseshoe, it covers some of Houston’s biggest liberal strongholds — including Montrose, The Heights and Acres Homes — and blue-trending neighborhoods that are key to Democrats’ aspirations of flipping Texas, such as Bellaire and suburban pockets of northwest and northeast Harris County.

A ‘completely different’ race

Johnson faced a similar gauntlet of primary and special elections in 2016, when he sought the House seat of lawmaker-turned-mayor Sylvester Turner. He said it has been a struggle to explain to voters not only why he’s asking them to turn out three times in a three-month span, but also why Saturday’s election even matters.

“It's been hard, because you’ve got to explain to people over and over again, and they go, ‘now, why’s that?’” Johnson said. “And then you can't really give a true, heartfelt explanation.”

Jeronimo Cortina, a political science professor at the University of Houston, said the silver lining for both campaigns is that they generally know who to target: hardcore Democratic voters who reliably turn out for primaries year after year.

“The ones that are likely to be engaging in these [elections] are the core base,” Cortina said. “The fact of the matter is, to some extent, the campaigns have an easier job of knowing who are the core supporters of that particular campaign, and making sure that they're going to go out and vote.”

Cook said she’s unfazed by her distant second-place finish in March, arguing that “going from a six-way primary to a head-to-head special or head-to-head runoff” is “completely different.”

“I am talking to voters for hours and hours a day, and the data looks good, the response is enthusiastic, and I think that really came through in our fundraising reports,” she said.

In fact, Cook has won the backing of some heavy-hitting supporters for the last leg of the race.

Her financial advantage can be largely attributed to a political group called Leaders We Deserve, which describes itself as a sort of “EMILYs List for young, progressive courageous candidates” — a reference to the national group that backs female candidates who support abortion rights. Since early April, Cook, 32, has received some $190,000 from the group, which is led by David Hogg, the Parkland school shooting survivor and gun control activist, and Kevin Lata, who managed the campaign of U.S. Rep. Maxwell Frost when he was elected to Congress last cycle at age 25.

The support from Leaders We Deserve accounts for more than half of the $335,000 Cook has raised since the March primary, helping her outpace Johnson’s $220,000 haul over the same period, according to public campaign finance data that goes through last week.

Cook has also received an influx of small-dollar donations, with around 500 contributions of $50 or less coming in since March 5. She has outspent Johnson more than 2-to-1 during that span.

Johnson, 52, said he has routinely overcome fundraising deficits over the years, pointing to his initial run for Houston City Council, when he defeated the outgoing incumbent’s daughter. He went on to serve three terms on the council, from 2006 to 2012.

“I've always been outraised and outspent, but I’ve never been outworked,” Johnson said. “When I ran for city council, I never had endorsements. I just knocked on every door, made every phone call and worked in the community. And it always resonated.”

Cook targets Johnson voting record, PAC support

Perhaps the biggest source of tension in the race has been Cook’s attacks on Johnson over his support from a PAC that advocates for charter schools — which Democrats have increasingly opposed in recent years. The group, Charter Schools Now, has raised nearly half its money this cycle from Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings, a major Democratic donor. Much of its funding comes from GOP donors, however, including Walmart heir Jim Walton.

Cook has also taken aim at Johnson over his support for certain Republican-backed legislation, including a bill last year that would have incentivized school district employees to become certified as so-called school guardians, or staff who can carry guns in school. One of Cook’s online ads claims that Johnson “voted with the NRA to help arm teachers.”

Johnson said Cook’s criticism of his PAC donations was a matter of sour grapes, because she did not land the charter group’s endorsement herself. He said he has at times voted for GOP bills he opposes because, in return for his support, Republicans allowed him and other Democrats to amend the bills to make them more palatable. He said he supported GOP school safety legislation last year because it included a requirement related to safe gun storage that Democrats favored.

“You’ve got to learn how to be strategic and how you get things done,” he said.

Cortina said the attacks on Johnson’s voting record show how experience can be a double-edged sword for candidates, helping them garner fundraising, endorsements and name recognition among voters — but also creating a target for their opponents.

“The other question is, ‘What have you done? Have you met my needs, wants, and preferences?’” Cortina said. “That can backfire. So, as a candidate, you need to be very careful in terms of how you portray that experience.”

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