HOUSTON - The high-stakes race for one of the most coveted positions in Houston politics has narrowed to two candidates vying to replace the late Texas Sen. Mario Gallegos.

Sylvia Garcia, a former county commissioner, will face state Rep. Carol Alvarado in a runoff that will make the winner the Houston area s most powerful Latina elected official.

Garcia garnered 45 percent of the vote compared to Alvarado s 42 percent in the special election called after Gallegos death last October. The remainder was spread among six other candidates, none of whom attracted more than 6 percent of the vote.

The voter turnout was shamefully low. About 94 percent of registered voters in the sprawling Senate District 6 failed to cast ballots.

The campaigns blamed the low turnout partly on cold and rainy weather during the early voting period, as well as the unusual January special election date that fell shortly after the Christmas and New Year holidays. More than half the vote was cast before Election Day, a point that s especially noteworthy because the Election Day weather was unseasonably pleasant.

The historically Hispanic Texas Senate district stretches across a wide swath of east and north Harris County. Its contours would seem to favor Garcia, whose old county commissioner precinct encompasses about 80 percent of the Senate district s voters. However, Alvarado never missed a chance to tout her close relationship with Gallegos and his family, putting his widow in her television commercials and working the polls wearing a button bearing his photograph.

Even some of Alvarado s closest political allies privately concede defeating Garcia will be difficult, especially after trailing in this weekend s election. Garcia s lead in the general election will help her attract campaign funds from contributors hoping to buy favor with the next state senator.

Gov. Rick Perry will set the date of the runoff, which will come in late February or early March.

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