Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo wins tight race for reelection

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HOUSTON — Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, considered a rising star among Texas Democrats, overcame a vigorous challenge from a well-funded Republican opponent Tuesday night and barely held on to her seat overseeing the state’s most populous urban county.

Hidalgo faced a steep fundraising disadvantage, attacks tying her to the county’s high number of homicides and a midterm environment generally unfavorable to Democrats to beat Republican Alexandra del Moral Mealer, a West Point graduate and ex-Army captain, to lead the county for another four years — and with a greater Democratic majority on the county’s governing board.

Mealer conceded the race Wednesday morning.

In front of a crowd of supporters at Harris County Democratic Party headquarters in the Fifth Ward, Hidalgo framed the victory as a win over big-dollar donors, “dirty tricks” by the state’s elected Republicans and “political prosecutions” by Kim Ogg, the county’s Democratic district attorney whose office is pursuing felony charges against three Hidalgo staffers.

“To the naysayers who think I’ll be intimidated by conspiracy theories or by bullying or by political prosecutions, bring it on — we are just getting started,” Hidalgo said.

Harris County voters went for Hidalgo by a margin of less than 2 percentage points and just under 16,000 votes — while Democrat Beto O’Rourke won the county by more than 9 percentage points over Gov. Greg Abbott.

Despite unprecedented spending for a county judge race — Republican donors poured nearly $9 million since July into Mealer’s campaign — the GOP failed to take back a seat it lost four years ago.

Democrats grew their majority on the Harris County Commissioners Court — the county’s five-person governing board led by the county judge. Harris County Commissioner Adrian Garcia, a Democrat in Precinct 2, defeated Republican Jack Morman, who held the seat before Garcia won it four years ago. In Precinct 4, Lesley Briones, a Democratic civil court judge, defeated Republican incumbent Jack Cagle for a seat whose boundaries were redrawn last year to favor Democrats.

Mealer attracted six-figure donations from the likes of Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale, a well-known Houston business owner; Richard Weekley and Alan Hassenflu, Houston real estate developers and co-founders of Texans for Lawsuit Reform; Houston billionaire Jeffery Hildebrand; and the hard-right Defend Texas Liberty PAC, backed by donors including West Texas oil magnates Tim Dunn and Farris Wilks.

Hidalgo, meanwhile, raised about $2.4 million in the same period.

Mealer, who served for a decade in Afghanistan, sought to make the race a referendum on Hidalgo’s four years in office. She accused Hidalgo of failing to curb the county’s high homicide numbers, a trend seen in most of the country’s urban areas amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and she pointed to a criminal case backlog that dates to Hurricane Harvey, before Hidalgo took office.

She also pointed to the criminal indictment of three Hidalgo staffers, who face felony charges stemming from how they helped award an $11 million contract for a COVID-19 vaccine outreach campaign to a political consulting firm headed by a Democratic strategist. Hidalgo has defended the staffers and decried the indictments as politically motivated.

Mealer pitched herself to voters as a meat-and-potatoes candidate who would take the county back to the basics of public safety and roads after four years of Hidalgo — who came into office with an expansive view of county government and championed moves like county spending on early childhood education and a legal defense fund for immigrants.

“This campaign was always about good government and I am hopeful that we have played a role encouraging that going forward,” Mealer said in a tweet.

Hidalgo, meanwhile, defended the county’s public safety spending on her watch and sought to shift the debate to issues considered more favorable to Democrats. She tried to tie Mealer to former President Donald Trump and paint Mealer as an election denier — a label Mealer rejected; Mealer said Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election. Hidalgo also hammered Mealer for not taking a public position on the state’s near-total abortion ban, which the role of county judge has little to do with.

Disclosure: Texans for Lawsuit Reform has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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