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Molly Cook holds on to Houston-based Texas Senate seat in Democratic primary runoff

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Molly Cook holds on to Houston-based Texas Senate seat in Democratic primary runoff

May 29, 2024 | 11:02 am ET
By Renzo Downey
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Molly Cook holds on to Houston-based Texas Senate seat in Democratic primary runoff
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Molly Cook, an emergency room nurse, is running for Texas Senate District 15. (Molly Cook for Texas Senate)

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State Sen. Molly Cook appears to have narrowly defeated state Rep. Jarvis Johnson in the Senate District 15 primary runoff for the second time this month, setting the stage for her to hold on to Houston Mayor John Whitmire’s longtime seat in the upper chamber.

Cook led Johnson by 74 votes, with all precincts reporting according to unofficial results — well within the margin for a recount. The total also does not count late-arriving mail-in ballots.

Cook’s victory marked the second time she has defeated Johnson this month. Cook beat Johnson 57% to 43% on May 4 in a special election triggered when Whitmire resigned to step into the mayor’s office at the start of the year. She was sworn in on May 16 to serve out the term, through the end of the year. Now, Cook will appear on the November ballot for a chance to win a full term representing a diverse cut of Harris County.

Cook declared victory Wednesday afternoon in a statement that called back to her road to the Senate. She first ran for the seat in 2022, when she attempted a primary challenge against Whitmire.

“Winning a Texas Senate seat is a big deal, and it tastes extra sweet because it is born of sheer grit, determination, and teamwork,” Cook said. “We have organized for years, stayed true to our values, and built momentum that extends beyond this election.”

Johnson has not conceded, citing the outstanding mail-in and provisional ballots. In a statement on Wednesday, he said he was in conversations with his legal and political teams.

“Because the margin in this race is so small, we need to ensure that each and every ballot is included in the final count,” Johnson said. “Our goal is not to further delay the official results, we are allowing the behind-the-scenes process to run its course.”

Cook is the first person other than Whitmire to hold the seat since 1983. She is an emergency room nurse and community organizer who is the first openly LGBTQ+ member to serve in the Texas Senate.

On the campaign trail, Cook and Johnson expressed few ideological differences, with each promoting progressive platforms from supporting abortion access and LGBTQ+ rights to boosting public school funding. However, the two differed on how they would approach serving in the minority party.

Republicans currently hold 19 of 31 seats in the Senate, enough to control the chamber.

Johnson stressed the need to work with the majority to shape Republican-led legislation to a point that is more agreeable to Democrats. Meanwhile, Cook has said she plans to use her seat as a platform to take on Gov. Greg Abbott, Attorney General Ken Paxton and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the leader of the Senate.

Like the runoff, the special election earlier this month was a head-to-head matchup. Johnson appeared to be the frontrunner in the special election, having taken 36% of the vote to Cook’s 21% in the March 5 primary.

Following their special election loss, Johnson’s team explained that the campaign failed to turn out its base. Johnson’s campaign manager, Chris Watson, said the campaign did not spend its resources to combat what he called “misinformation” from Cook’s allies.

Johnson’s team said they were preserving their resources for this race, which queues up the candidate who will likely win a full term.

“We did not expend our resources,” Watson said. “We think our opponent did spend her resources wholly because this is a race you wouldn’t want to lose three times in a row, so I think it was more important for her than for us at this point.”

Cook, the relative newcomer, flipped the fundraising lead in the race after the March 5 round of the primary.

She outpaced Johnson’s fundraising largely thanks to contributions from Leaders We Deserve, a D.C.-based PAC co-founded by activist David Hogg to elect young, progressive lawmakers nationwide. The PAC spent $200,000 on Cook ahead of the special election and an additional $110,000 between the special and primary runoff elections.

Leaders We Deserve will also support former Miss Texas Averie Bishop in the House District 112 general election against state Rep. Angie Chen Button, R-Richardson, one of Democrats’ best opportunities for a flip in the House in November.

Johnson leaned on his experience during the race. Johnson served on the Houston City Council from 2006 to 2012 and succeeded former Mayor Sylvester Turner in the Texas House of Representatives.

Cook 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. She has also sought to position herself to Johnson’s left, attacking him for supporting certain Republican-backed legislation. Johnson 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.

The district, home to a diverse cross-section of nearly a 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 to flipping Texas, such as Bellaire and suburban pockets of northwest and northeast Harris County.

“I’m going to show up for every single vote, and then I’m going to turn around and work as hard as I can outside the Capitol to turn out every Democratic voter in this district so that we can get the fascists and the extremists out of office in Texas and move the needle on the values that we cherish,” Cook said during a debate last month.

Cook will run against Republican Joseph L. Trahan in November. However, the district is a safe Democratic seat, giving Cook the advantage.

Johnson will serve out the remainder of his term in House District 139, where Democrats elected Johnson’s ex-wife, Charlene Ward Johnson, as their nominee for November. Ward Johnson, a Houston Community College Board member, is currently unopposed in the general election.

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