Today we will look at the Harris County-specific judicial races, by which I mean the district courts plus two County Court benches. I’m going to begin with something a little different, which is a look at the distribution of how many votes each candidate received. We know that most people know little to nothing about most judicial candidates, yet there’s a surprising range of outcomes even in a year like this where one party swept all the elections. Is there anything we can glean from that? Let’s take a look.
Bench Democrat Votes Bench Republican Votes
178th K Johnson 684,467 165th Mayfield * 621,070
151st Engelhart * 681,602 CC#16 Garcia * 620,356
152nd Schaffer * 680,521 337th Magee * 620,322
129th Gomez * 677,144 61st Lunceford * 619,823
127th Sandill * 673,122 179th Guiney * 619,027
80th Weiman * 672,840 176th Bond * 617,013
125th Carter * 670,653 177th Patrick * 615,513
164th S-Hogan * 670,438 351st Ellis * 613,151
339th Jackson * 664,205 333rd Halbach * 610,904
507th Maldonado 663,465 338th Thomas * 610,756
133rd McFarland * 661,240 CC#1 Leuchtag * 607,896
174th Jones 660,685 334th Dorfman * 606,184
11th Hawkins 665,619 174th McDaniel 605,912
215th Palmer * 663,604 133rd Smith 605,601
334th Kirkland 658,759 11th Fulton 604,450
CC#1 Barnstone 656,755 507th Lemkuil * 601,461
333rd Moore 654,602 339th McFaden 600,896
338th Franklin 653,880 215th Shuchart 600,874
351st Powell 650,948 125th Hemphill 598,956
177th R Johnson 650,703 80th Archer 597,157
61st Phillips 650,248 164th Bail 596,556
176th Harmon 648,830 127th Swanson 594,224
CC#16 Jordan 647,122 129th Mafrige 591,350
165th Hall 646,314 151st Hastings 586,609
179th Roll 645,103 152nd Self 586,199
337th Ritchie 643,639 178th Gommels 580,653
Asterisks represent incumbents. Three benches – the 11th (Civil), the 174th and 178th (both Criminal) – are held by incumbents (all Democrats) who chose not to run for another term. The first thing we can tell from this is that incumbents did the best overall. Maybe that’s a name recognition thing, maybe that’s the effect of the legal community crossing party lines to support the judges they know, maybe it’s a random one year phenomenon. Interestingly, all but one Democratic incumbent (Terri Jackson in the 339th) is a Civil Court judge, while the Republicans are on Civil (Mayfield, Lunceford, Halbach, Leuchtag, Dorfman), Criminal (Garcia, Magee, Guiney, Bond, Patrick, Ellis), and Family (Lemkuil) benches. Maybe that means something, and maybe it’s just random.
The top votegetters for each party did about 40K votes better than the bottom. Because there’s an inverse relationship, this means that the margins of victory were very divergent. Herb Ritchie won by 23,317 votes. Kelli Johnson won by 103,786. I have no clear idea why Johnson, running for an open Criminal bench, was the top performer overall, but she was. Speaking as a Democrat, hers was far from the most visible campaign to me. Most of the incumbents were pretty busy with email and social media, with a few doing other things like billboards (Engelhart) and cable TV ads (Sandill). Among the non-incumbents, I’d say Kristin Hawkins and Steven Kirkland were the ones I heard from the most, followed by Hazel Jones and Julia Maldonado.
It’s become a tradition – since 2008, anyway, when Democrats in Harris County first broke through – for their to be calls to Do Something about judicial races after an election. In particular, the call is to Do Something about the effect of straight ticket voting on judicial elections. This year was no exception, though in the past this call has gone unheeded since stakeholders on both sides recognize the pros and cons from their perspective. In Harris County, there were about 71K more Democratic straight ticket votes than there were Republican straight ticket votes, which among other things means that every Democrat from Alex Smoots-Hogan up would have won their race even if we threw out all of the straight party votes. Of course, the people who voted straight ticket did vote, and it’s more than a little presumptuous to think that they would have either skipped the judicial races or done a significant amount of ticket-splitting had they not had that option. They just would have had to spend more time voting, which would have meant longer lines and/or necessitated more voting machines. Somehow, that never seems to be part of the conversation.
Of course, part of this is just another way to complain about the fact that we elect judges via partisan contests. We’ve discussed that plenty of times and I’m not going to get into it here. I’ll just say this: While one may not be able to draw conclusions about how a random person may have voted in the Presidential race this year, it’s highly likely that the Republican judicial candidates this year had previously voted for Greg Abbott, Dan Patrick, Ken Paxton, Sid Miller, and Ted Cruz, while the Democratic candidates would not have done so. If someone wants to base their vote in these races on how the candidates likely voted in those races, I don’t see why that should be a problem. People are going to vote based on the information they have.
Anyway. Let’s take a look at some districts. Here I’m going to go with the average vote totals for each party’s candidates in the districts that I want to highlight.
Dist R CJ Avg D CJ Avg R CJ Pct D CJ Pct
CD02 162,006 108,132 59.97% 40.03%
CD07 140,809 108,532 56.47% 43.53%
SBOE6 341,855 254,815 57.29% 42.71%
HD126 35,612 24,770 58.98% 41.02%
HD132 37,744 29,907 55.79% 44.21%
HD134 46,749 39,776 54.03% 45.97%
HD135 32,189 26,673 54.69% 45.31%
HD137 8,995 17,430 34.04% 65.96%
HD138 27,529 22,527 55.00% 45.00%
HD144 10,981 15,673 41.20% 58.80%
HD148 18,532 27,741 40.05% 59.95%
HD149 15,724 26,816 36.96% 63.04%
CC1 75,017 234,844 24.21% 75.79%
CC2 126,175 120,814 51.09% 48.91%
CC3 193,936 152,622 55.96% 44.04%
CC4 210,878 153,004 57.95% 42.05%
One point of difference between the district/county court races and the state court races is that these are all straight R-versus-D contests. There were no third-party candidates in any of these matchups. As such, I consider this a better proxy for partisan strength in a given district.
There are four Congressional districts that are entirely contained within Harris County. The Democratic districts are far bluer than the Republican districts are red. These districts are fairly solid for the GOP now, but they’re going to need some bolstering in the 2021 reapportioning to stay that way. It’s not crazy to think that one or both of them may include non-Harris County turf in the next redrawing.
As for the State Rep districts, I will first call your attention to the HD134 numbers, which you may note are just a little different than the Presidential numbers. Are we clear on what I meant by crossover votes? This is why we need to be very careful about using Presidential numbers to evaluate future electoral opportunities. I’d love to believe that HD134 is more Democratic than before, but the evidence just isn’t there.
Against that, I hope the HCDP is beating the bushes now looking for people to run in HDs 135, 138, 132, and 126, in that order. All of them need to be thought of as two-cycle efforts, to account for differing conditions, the slow pace of demographic change, and the fact that these are still steep challenges. There are only so many viable non-judicial targets in 2018 for Democrats, and these four districts should be prioritized.
I ask again: Is it time to stop thinking of HD144 as a swing district? Given that it went Republican in 2014, I suppose the answer has to be No, at least until Rep.-elect-again Mary Ann Perez can demonstrate that she can hold it in 2018. But note that HD144 is a lot more Democratic than before. The Democratic judicial average is six points higher than the top statewide candidates from 2012, and eight points above what President Obama got there in 2012. It’s higher than what Adrian Garcia got. Heck, Perez outdid herself by eight points from 2012. I’m sure Donald Trump had something to do with this, but that’s still a big shift. In 2016, HD144 was nearly as Democratic as HD148 was. Let’s keep that in mind going forward.
There’s a universe in which all four Harris County Commissioners are Democrats. There are more than enough excess Democratic votes in Precinct 1 to tip the other three, if we wanted to draw such a map. Said map would certainly violate the Voting Rights Act, and I am in no way advocating that. I’m just engaging in a little thought experiment, and pushing back in a small way at the notion that the division we have now is How It Should Be. The more tangible way to do that would be to win Precinct 2 in 2018. I’m not going to say that will be easy, but I will say that it’s doable. Like those State Rep districts, it needs to be a priority.
I’ll have a look at the other countywide elections next. As always, let me know what you think.