Dutton, who has long represented House District 142 in northeast Houston, already faced a formidable challenger in Houston City Council Member Jerry Davis. However, the only female name on the ballot is the one raising eyebrows.
"When you're leading, you're never at a disadvantage," Dutton said. "But I think there are a lot of questions about what happened in this election."
A person named Natasha Ruiz finished with 20% of the vote on election day on March 3, without ever mounting a campaign. On March 4, ABC 13 called the woman's phone number filed with the Texas Ethics Commission on her campaign treasurer appointment. The woman who answered the phone said her name is Natasha Demming, that she never ran for office and that she is a truck driver living in Colorado.
Demming said she has not lived in Houston for years, though she is registered to vote at her elderly mother's home. Demming said she has no idea why anyone would sign her up to run for office.
Ruiz received 2,597 votes, or just 20% of the votes. Dutton finished first with 45%, and Davis made it into the runoff with 25%.
"We have never seen them. We never talked to them. They never showed up. They never had a sign. They don't seem to be a real person," said Dutton.
Davis did not disagree with Dutton's assessment.
"I ran my race. I saw her name: 'Ms. Natasha Ruiz,'" said Davis. "I have not had an opportunity to meet her or see her at any of the events. No signs in the yard—nothing."
Community Impact Newspaper also sent an email to Ruiz's email address as listed on the Texas Secretary of State's Office's website in mid-January requesting Ruiz participate in a questionnaire, but all emailed attempts came back undelivered. Community Impact Newspaper also obtained Ruiz's phone number from the Texas Democratic Party and left several unanswered calls and text messages over the following week.
On March 5, ABC 13 obtained the candidate filing documents from the Harris County Democratic Party. Those documents show Natasha Demming Ruiz listing her occupation as a "teacher." She paid the filing fee of $750 in cash. She filed on the last day of eligibility, Dec. 9, 2019, which the Democratic Party said was hectic, with many candidates, and no picture of her was taken.
The signature of Ruiz on the Treasurer document is markedly different than the candidate filing document. The filing document is always notarized, and filers have to swear to its accuracy.
ABC 13 then went to the home address listed by Ruiz on both filing and treasurer documents. Nobody answered the door when ABC 13 knocked. A short while later, a man who visited went into the home and shut the door, refusing to talk. Neighbors confirmed they saw the "Demming Ruiz" person and her mother at the home this week.
It is unclear what can be done at this point, though Dutton said he is considering taking legal action or contacting the Harris County District Attorney's Office.
Both Dutton and Davis said they are prepared to run in the runoff and win, regardless of whether this "ghost candidate" is real or not.
The Harris County Democratic Party said its records show a Natasha Ruiz came into the office to file paperwork to run. ABC 13 has not had a chance to examine the documents, but it has requested a copy.
From our partners at ABC 13.
Kelly Schafler contributed to this report.