Why does Houston keep electing Democratic mayors?

In a razor-thin victory Saturday night Democratic candidate Sylvester Turner was elected mayor of Houston, following a trend of major cities in red states voting blue. 

Jon Shapley/Houston Chronicle via AP
Mayor-elect Sylvester Turner celebrates his victory at his election night watch party Saturday, Dec. 12, 2015, in Houston. Houston has elected longtime Democratic lawmaker Turner as mayor of the nation's fourth-largest city in a tight race against Republican businessman Bill King.

Veteran Democratic lawmaker Sylvester Turner beat his Republican opponent Bill King Saturday night to win election as the mayor of Houston.

Houstonians witnessed a tight race between the two candidates: Turner led King by under two percentage points, 50.96 to 49.04. Turner beat King by 4,000 votes, out of the nearly 212,700 cast.

Turner’s win is a victory for the Democratic party and for Turner himself. The state representative has been looking to the mayoral position for over two decades, with two failed campaigns in 1993 and 2003. Turner will be replacing Democrat Annise D. Parker as mayor of the fourth largest city in the US, where city term limits prohibit fourth terms for mayors.

As a long-time Democratic city, Houston is one of many large, blue cities within the borders of a large, red state.

American partisan politics used to be drawn along state borders, and “While there was always tension within states, they were bound by a common politics,” the Atlantic writes in 2012. But the new political divide in the US “is no longer about where people live, it’s about how people live.” Rather, “The voting data suggest that people don’t make cities liberal – cities make people liberal,” and the divide between blue city and red countryside continues to grow. 

All four of Texas’ major cities – Austin, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio – voted Democratic in 2012. Other major cities in red states that voted blue in 2012 include Atlanta, New Orleans, Birmingham, Tucson, Little Rock, and Charleston. 

But the 2015 mayor race in Houston was uncharacteristically close, which attests to King’s appeal as an “unapologetically moderate” Republican businessman.

“The reason why Bill King is being successful is he’s partisan-plus. He’s not just picking one party to win with,” state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Houston Republican who endorsed King, told the Texas Tribune. “In the city of Houston, there simply aren’t enough Republicans to run a campaign that exclusively relies on their support.” 

Recognizing how close the race was, leading Democrats came out to voice their support for Turner.

“The fourth largest city in the country remains in trusted Democratic hands with Sylvester Turner as Mayor,” Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement. 

“Sylvester believes that every Houstonian deserves safer neighborhoods, stronger schools and better infrastructure, no matter what you look like or what part of town you live in,” President Barack Obama wrote when endorsing Turner’s campaign Friday. “I agree. That’s why I am asking you to vote for Sylvester Turner for Mayor in the runoff election on December 12.”

And while Turner thanked King for a competitive and issue-driven campaign, he kept the partisan divide clear.

“A vote for me is a vote to go forward,” Turner told reporters Saturday night as the results came in. “A vote for Bill is a vote to go back.”

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