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Moderate Republican Davis leading in state House race

November 7, 2018

State Rep. Sarah Davis, a moderate Republican who won a tough primary battle despite the opposition of Gov. Greg Abbott, was leading her general election challenger in incomplete returns Tuesday.

Three other Republican House members representing districts wholly or partly in Harris County — Mike Schofield, Gary Elkins and Dwayne Bohac — were locked in tight races as their challengers benefited from a surge of straight-ticket Democratic votes. Incumbents held comfortable leads in 19 other local House campaigns.

In the closely watched District 134 race, Davis, seeking a fifth term, faced Allison Lami Sawyer, 33, the co-founder of a company that develops gas leak-detecting cameras used on oil installations.

District 134 covers West University Place, Southside Place, Bellaire, Rice University and the Texas Medical Center. Most of its voters are well-off and highly educated, and during the campaign, many indicated they would split their votes between Democratic and Republican candidates.

Davis supporters at a Republican watch party at the Hotel ZaZa in the Museum District grew anxious Tuesday night as early returns showed the incumbent leading by a slim margin. Some said they took comfort in the district’s history of focusing on candidates more than parties.

John Michael Austin, a Rice University senior, noted that Democrat Hillary Clinton carried the district in the 2016 presidential race while Republican Mitt Romney carried it in 2012.

“I would say voters in Davis’ district are well informed, and considering her record, I’m sure they’ll support her again,” Austin said.

Davis said although she had a comfortable lead as of about 10:15 p.m. Tuesday, the race was not over. She also cautioned leaders of her party and said unexpected Republican losses statewide showed leaders were reaping what they sowed.

“On a state level, if we continue to govern from the fringe or from the far right, the election results that we’re seeing tonight should be perfectly predictable, because that’s not who Texans are,” Davis told the watch party crowd. “Regardless if you’re a Republican or Democrat, we’re Texans and we care about each other. We just want some common sense governance. If we continue to elect leaders who want to focus on very fringe issues, this party — my party — is going to continue to suffer losses.”

Davis’ Republican primary opponent, Susanna Dokupil, a conservative businesswoman, has argued that some of Davis’ views, such as her support for abortion rights, showed that she was insufficiently conservative. Dokupil lost by 12 percentage points despite the assistance of Gov. Greg Abbott, who said Davis was “absolutely hostile” to the governor’s conservative agenda. Abbott spent more than $223,000 running campaign ads against Davis.

Sawyer took the opposite tack in the general election, attacking Davis from the left. Sawyer was particularly critical of the incumbent’s co-sponsorship of Senate Bill 4, which authorizes police to inquire about the immigration status of people they detain.

Sawyer called the law “racist” and said support for such a measure was particularly inappropriate for a legislator from a city as diverse as Houston.

Davis lives in West University Place and is well known by District 134 voters, while Sawyer recently moved into the district to run against Davis. Davis’ high name recognition and incumbency helped her to raise far more money than her challenger.

In the most recent reporting period, from Sept 28 through Oct. 27, Davis raised almost $388,000, spent more than $106,000 and had more than $280,000 on hand. Sawyer raised about $36,000, spent about $13,000 and had about $15,000 available.

The challenger, however, hoped to benefit from the presence on the ballot of other Democrats popular in District 134, including U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who challenged Sen. Ted Cruz, and Lizzie Panell Fletcher, who sought to oust Rep. John Culberson.

The Davis-Sawyer contest drew widespread interest because Davis is regarded as the most centrist Republican in an increasingly conservative Texas House of Representatives. This led Abbott to target her with aggressive negative ads during the primary.

“She twists and turns to hide how liberal she really is,” a narrator said in one spot. “Sarah Davis: not just a liberal — a liberal you can’t trust.”

Sawyer told the Texas Tribune during the campaign that she never particularly wanted to enter politics and called fundraising “miserable.” But she made the decision to run against Davis in November 2017 because she felt she had to.

“My main problem — the reason I’m running — is I feel like the state is holding us back,” Sawyer told the Tribune. “And I just don’t think our representative, Sarah Davis, has any vision for Houston.”

Mike.Snyder@chron.com

Shelby.Webb@chron.com

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