Four years ago, a 27-year-old Colombian-born graduate student shocked the Houston political establishment by unseating County Judge Ed Emmett, Harris County’s top elected official. Emmett, a moderate Republican running for his fourth term, had won bipartisan praise for leading the county through Hurricane Harvey the previous year. He was expected to cruise to victory against Democrat Lina Hidalgo, a little-known political novice who was taking a break from her graduate work (a joint law and public policy degree from NYU and Harvard) to run for office in the county where she attended high school. 

Hidalgo wasn’t the youngest person to become Harris County judge—Roy Hofheinz, best known as the mastermind behind the Astrodome, was elected at the age of 24—but she was the first woman and the first person of color to lead what is now America’s third-most-populous county. She offered a fresh approach in other ways as well. Pledging to put an end to the county’s pay-to-play system, Hidalgo refused to take campaign donations from county vendors. She promised to fight the real estate developers responsible for unchecked growth, the polluters fouling the air and water, and the entrenched power brokers that had long ignored the county’s vast economic and social inequities. 

During Hidalgo’s four-year tenure as county judge, Houston business leaders have found themselves in a situation almost without precedent in local history—starved of political access and frozen out of lucrative contracts and appointments. As Rice University sociologist Stephen Klineberg observes in his 2020 book, Prophetic City, Houston has long been governed by the philosophy that “the only legitimate role for public policy is to facilitate and support private-sector development, all in the firm belief that this was the surest way to promote the common good.” Petroleum Club grandees muttered darkly about a progressive (maybe even a socialist) neophyte with no business experience and no appreciation of free enterprise. 

In Alexandra del Moral Mealer, the 38-year-old Republican candidate for Harris County judge in the November 8 election, these grandees believe they have their ticket back to the political ball. In some ways, Mealer presents herself as a right-wing version of Hidalgo—young, Hispanic, a political tyro, and a policy wonk with multiple graduate degrees. Like Hidalgo, Mealer is a relative newcomer to Harris County, having lived here for less than a decade. And like Hidalgo, Mealer came out of nowhere to defeat a well-known insider. In the Republican primary, Mealer forced a runoff with 67-year-old attorney Vidal Martinez, a pillar of the business community who has served on dozens of public and private boards. Despite a vicious campaign in which Martinez slammed her as a monolingual carpetbagger and tried to falsely tar her grandfather as a supporter of Fidel Castro, Mealer won the nomination with more than 75 percent of the vote. 

Bill King, a Houston businessman and former mayoral candidate, first met Mealer in January. He was impressed by her résumé—she attended West Point, served in Afghanistan as a captain in the Army bomb squad, then earned a dual JD/MBA from Harvard before moving to Houston to work as an investment banker for Wells Fargo—and her knowledge of the county budget. “I thought she would really make a great county judge,” said King, a former political independent who now serves as co-chair of the Forward Party of Texas. But given her lack of political experience and name recognition, he gave her little chance of securing the Republican nomination. 

Mealer won the primary in part by securing endorsements from a who’s who of Houston-area Republicans—including Senator Ted Cruz, businessman Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale, and influential right-wing radio host Michael Berry. In the general election, her tough-on-crime rhetoric has won her the endorsements of nearly all the local law enforcement unions, including the Harris County Deputies’ Organization and the Houston Police Officers’ Union. To the surprise of many political observers, she also won the endorsement of the generally progressive Houston Chronicle editorial board, which criticized parts of her platform but praised her plans to fight crime and reduce the backlog of criminal cases at the courthouse.

In a sign of the race’s significance, Mealer raised an astonishing $4.9 million dollars in just three months this summer, more than any other candidate in Texas except for Greg Abbott and Beto O’Rourke, and more than triple the amount raised by Hidalgo. Mealer’s top contributor was Houston real estate developer Richard Weekley, who gave her $400,000, followed by Fidelis Realty Partners CEO Alan Hassenflu ($350,000) and Hilcorp Energy CEO Jeffrey Hildebrand and his wife, Melinda ($350,000). Unlike Hidalgo, Mealer accepts donations from county vendors, while insisting that they will not receive preferential treatment. A Hidalgo spokesperson accused Mealer of “taking huge checks from political insiders, many of whom stand to benefit financially if she was elected.”

Defend Texas Liberty PAC, a powerful group funded by Texas oil barons Tim Dunn and Farris Wilks, contributed $100,000 to Mealer’s campaign. When I asked Mealer about her relationship with Dunn and Wilks—GOP megadonors who promote Christian nationalism, oppose LGBTQ rights, and support private school vouchers—Mealer told me that she has never spoken with them. “It’s great that they’re excited about [my campaign],” she said. “But I raised five million. In the scheme of things, one hundred thousand is a pretty small number.” 

On paper, Harris County doesn’t look like fertile ground for a Republican politician bearing endorsements from the likes of Cruz, Dunn, and Wilks. No Republican has won a countywide race since 2014. In 2020, Joe Biden beat Donald Trump here by 13 percentage points. But Hidalgo is seen as unusually vulnerable because of a series of questionable appointments and apparent ethical lapses. Her handpicked IT director, former Democratic state representative Rick Noriega, presided over a system crash in March that mistakenly caused the release of nearly three hundred Harris County defendants from pretrial detention. The same month, Harris County elections administrator Isabel Longoria, who was hired by a board chaired by Hidalgo, was forced to resign after a botched primary election in which 10,000 ballots were accidentally left out of the preliminary count. Three of Hidalgo’s staff members have been criminally indicted for allegedly steering an $11 million vaccine outreach contract to a well-connected Democratic vendor. 

Hidalgo denies any wrongdoing, calling the indictments—which were obtained by Harris County district attorney Kim Ogg, a fellow Democrat with whom she has frequently clashed—a political stunt. But the allegations have weakened her brand as a political reformer and left her open to accusations of cronyism. In a recent interview with Texas Monthly, Hidalgo acknowledged that Longoria was a poor choice for elections administrator but claimed credit for demanding Longoria’s resignation. Mealer’s campaign ads have attacked Hidalgo as corrupt and incompetent, while the Hidalgo campaign has painted Mealer as a far-right extremist, noting that Mealer waited until this month to publicly acknowledge that Biden legitimately won the 2020 election. 

To make the case for her reelection, Hidalgo points to her leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic—she quickly instituted a mask mandate and business-occupancy restrictions, bringing her into conflict with Republican state officials—and her management of the 2021 winter freeze. She touts her investments in early-childhood education, as well as in veteran and homeless services. The county’s homeless population has declined by 21 percent under her watch. When it comes to flood prevention, Hidalgo adopted a “worst first” model that provides mitigation funding to neighborhoods with the highest risk and the most people, rather than to areas with the highest property values. Her unabashed progressivism has given her a national profile; Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jane Fonda have come to Houston to campaign for her in recent weeks.

Perhaps Hidalgo’s biggest vulnerability is on the subject of public safety. A recent University of Houston poll found that 81 percent of likely voters in Harris County say that crime and public safety will be “very important” in choosing a candidate. Although murders have declined by 13 percent over the past year, and overall violent crime by 12 percent, violent crime is still significantly higher than when Hidalgo took office. From 2019 to 2021, homicides increased 59 percent—a rise that is in line with national trends but has still alarmed many residents. Although criminologists disagree on the causes of the nationwide crime surge, many believe that pandemic-induced frustrations, the recent surge in gun sales, and a general police pullback in reaction to protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd have something to do with it. “If this were some sort of local issue, the crime rate wouldn’t be rising nationally,” Hidalgo told me. 

In an attempt to pin the rising crime on Hidalgo, Mealer highlights Harris County’s landmark bail reform—the county now releases nearly all misdemeanor defendants before trial without having to pay bonds—as well as a years-long criminal case backlog that dates to 2017, when Hurricane Harvey flooded the downtown courthouse. Two independent analyses have found there is no evidence that the bail reform exacerbated crime. Hidalgo places much of the blame for the courthouse backlog on Ogg, the district attorney, whom she said has failed to prioritize the most serious felony cases. Mealer conceded that Ogg bears some responsibility for the backlog, but argued that Hidalgo should have provided the district attorney with more funding. “I’m not going around saying [Ogg] is the greatest district attorney ever,” she said. “But you need to give people enough resources to do their job.” (Hidalgo has increased funding for the DA’s office, although not to the extent requested by Ogg.) 

Mealer said she decided to run for county judge partly because she began feeling less safe in her neighborhood, a wealthy section of Houston Heights. She cited a string of recent burglaries and assaults she had read about on the community website Nextdoor. But when I asked whether Mealer had evidence that crime had gone up in her neighborhood, she acknowledged that she didn’t. “I don’t have the statistics, just the anecdotal stories we discussed,” she said—a surprising admission from a self-described policy wonk. (I lived in the same area from 2013 to 2021 and never felt particularly unsafe; several of my former neighbors told me they have not noticed a recent increase in crime.) 

Elections, though, are often more about perception than reality. And the perception in Houston—fostered by lurid, nonstop coverage on the nightly news—is that crime is out of control. In endorsing Mealer, the normally staid Houston Chronicle editorial board appears to have succumbed to the hysteria, writing that “even for those of us whose neighborhoods aren’t aglow in flashing police lights, the seemingly infinite ticker tape of suspect mug shots on the 10 o’clock news has us looking over our shoulders and praying that the next road rage incident won’t target our families.” Yes, the editorial board acknowledged, Houston’s murder rate is “in the middle of the pack among major cities.” But “statistics, of course, mean little” to crime victims. Perhaps—but shouldn’t they matter to journalists?

A recent poll of Harris County likely voters gives Mealer a slight edge over Hidalgo, even while showing O’Rourke with an eight-point lead in the governor’s race—an indication of the county judge’s unpopularity. Given Mealer’s strengths, Hidalgo’s weaknesses, and the generally favorable political climate for Republicans, the county judge race may be the Harris County GOP’s last, best chance to take back control from Democrats before demographic changes put the county permanently out of reach. 

“If Mealer can’t win in this environment, it seems like the local Republican party might as well pack up and go home,” I suggested to King, the former mayoral candidate who had recently issued a glowing endorsement of Mealer to his newsletter subscribers.

“I agree with that,” he said. 

Correction: A previous version of this story referred to “several highly publicized instances of misdemeanor defendants committing new crimes while out on bond.” Because none of the defendants in those cases was let out because of Harris County’s bail reform agreement, the reference has been cut.