Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) is an institution in Houston — so much so that although the Houston area may have three female members of Congress, only Jackson Lee is commonly referred to as “the Congresswoman.”
Since she first defeated incumbent Rep. Craig Washington in the 1994 Democratic primary, Jackson Lee has been easily re-elected 14 times. However, on March 5, 2024 Jackson Lee faces her toughest re-election challenge ever from former City of Houston councilmember Amanda Edwards — a challenge that could end the storied congressional career of one of the 21 longest-serving current members of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Jackson Lee’s congressional career began with her 26 percentage point (63 percent to 37 percent) victory over three-term Congressman Craig Washington in the 1994 Democratic primary in Texas’s 18th Congressional District. The district is ultra-safe Democratic. Between 1996 and 2020, the Democratic presidential candidate has won between 71 percent and 77 percent of the vote. The winner of the Democratic primary in this district is thus always a lock to win in November.
Between 1996 and 2022, Jackson Lee won 14 consecutive Democratic primary elections, 10 of them unopposed. Even in the four primary elections where one or more candidates filed to run against her, Jackson Lee’s share of the vote was never lower than 67 percent. She averaged 80 percent, with a margin of victory between Jackson Lee and her next closest rival that ranged from a low of 49 points to a high of 88 points, with an average of 69.
A year ago, Houston area political observers thought Jackson Lee was unbeatable in the Democratic primary. But in March of 2023 Jackson Lee made the fateful decision to compete in Houston’s November 2023 non-partisan mayoral election to replace term-limited Mayor Sylvester Turner. She entered a race with a field already occupied by moderate white Texas state Sen. John Whitmire (D) and two progressive Black Democrats, former Houston city council member Amanda Edwards and former interim Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins.
As a result of Jackson Lee’s entry into the mayoral race, Hollins and Edwards both dropped out, with Hollins deciding to run for the position of Houston city controller and Edwards running for Jackson Lee’s congressional seat (while simultaneously endorsing Jackson Lee’s mayoral candidacy).
Last summer, while Jackson Lee focused her efforts on running for mayor, Edwards focused her efforts on the Democratic primary in the 18th Congressional District. While Edwards raised $1,308,196 between July 1 and December 30 for her congressional campaign, Jackson Lee raised a mere $77,164, since she was focused on her mayoral bid.
In the Nov. 7 mayoral election, Jackson Lee finished 6 percentage points behind Whitmire (42 percent to 36 percent). In the Dec. 9 runoff, she suffered a 28-point shellacking similar to the one she had inflicted on Washington back in 1994. During her mayoral campaign, Jackson Lee had logically avoided any comments about whether or not she would run for re-election. But in her concession speech on the evening of Dec. 9, she signaled that yes, she would seek re-election. She filed on Dec. 11, the filing deadline to compete in the March 5 primaries in Texas.
Jackson Lee’s decision to file for re-election caused her former congressional staffer Isaiah Martin to withdraw from the race, but Edwards, a former Jackson Lee intern, chose to remain in the contest. She is determined to achieve what no one else had ever achieved, a victory over Sheila Jackson Lee in a Texas-18 Democratic primary.
A recent public opinion poll of likely Democratic primary voters within the district, conducted by the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston, found Jackson Lee with a narrow 5-point lead over Edwards, 43 percent to 38 percent, with 16 percent undecided and 3 percent supporting a third relatively unknown and unfunded candidate (Robert Slater). While a mere 5 percent of likely voters did not know enough about Jackson Lee to have an opinion about voting for her, five times as many (25 percent) did not know enough about Edwards to be able to assess whether they would vote for her or not. This underscores Edwards’s potential for growth among a majority of undecided voters.
The Hobby School poll found Jackson Lee’s advantage in vote intention over Edwards highest among Black likely voters (52 percent to 36 percent), voters 65 and older (52 percent to 33 percent) and women (47 percent to 33 percent). In contrast, Edwards’s advantage in voting intention over Jackson Lee is highest among Latino likely voters (43 percent to 29 percent), men (46 percent to 39 percent) and independents (45 percent to 31 percent), in addition to enjoying a narrow 41 percent to 37 percent advantage among white voters.
With early voting already underway in Texas (Feb. 20 through March 1), Edwards’s prospects for victory over Jackson Lee will hinge largely on her ability to successfully introduce herself to the one in four likely voters who have no idea who she is, as well as her ability to mobilize white and Latino voters to turn out to vote in a primary election where Black voters normally account for around half of the electorate. If successful, Edwards can immediately begin planning her move to Washington, where her constituents could expect to have a new representative in the U.S. House for the first time in 30 years.
If Edwards fails, and the primary electorate remains dominated by the same voters who have returned Jackson Lee to office continuously since 1996, then “the Congresswoman” will be on her way to a 16th consecutive term in the House after the polls close on March 5.
Since Texas is one of nine states that uses a majority runoff electoral system for its party primaries, the presence of a third candidate in the race could, in theory, result in three more months of campaigning by Jackson Lee and Edwards in preparation for a faceoff in a May 28 runoff election.
Mark P. Jones is the Joseph D. Jamail Chair in Latin American Studies at Rice University. He is a professor in the Department of Political Science, the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy’s Political Science Fellow, and the faculty director of the Master of Global Affairs Program.
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