I’ve mentioned a couple of times that one place on the local ballot where Democrats could potentially gain some real ground is with the district Courts of Appeals. There are no competitive Congressional or State Senate races, the one competitive State House race in HD144 would be Democratic-favored in any Presidential year, and the countywide races have a greater dependency on the candidates themselves than any other contest. Republicans have done well in those races even as Democrats were winning district court benches, with the GOP successfully defending the offices of District Attorney and Tax Assessor in 2008 and 2012. The stakes are higher this year with the GOP hoping to keep the Sheriff’s office as well. Those races will get a lot of attention, with the outcomes less likely to be determined by partisan turnout levels.
The judicial races are where the candidates are mostly at the mercy of the blue/red mix. The wild card in those contests are for the 1st and 14th District Courts of Appeals, which encompass more than just Harris County. Jim Sharp broke through in 2008 to become the first (and so far only) Democrat in recent years to claim a spot on these benches, but several other races that year were fairly close, as each of the Democratic candidates carried Harris County. Republicans had a much easier time holding those positions in 2012, but the overall trend as well as the dynamic of this year’s Presidential contest suggests Dems may have a good shot at these. Let’s take a look at the numbers from the last two Presidential years and see if we can take a guess at what would need to happen for that to be the case.
Race Harris D Harris R Diff Others D Others R Diff Total
14th CJ 568,713 539,696 +29,017 199,332 258,576 -59,244 -30,227
1st Pl3 585,249 526,393 +58,856 209,510 250,194 -40,684 +18,172
1st Pl5 565,338 543,216 +22,122 198,502 259,452 -60,950 -38,828
14th Pl4 561,284 544,873 +16,411 194,751 261,775 -67,024 -50,613
14th Pl6 569,641 536,050 +33,591 198,463 257,779 -59,316 -25,815
14th Pl7 571,737 533,566 +38,173 198,849 257,265 -58,416 -20,245
Race Harris D Harris R Diff Others D Others R Diff Total
1st Pl2 567,793 572,351 -4,558 194,826 297,572 -102,746 -107,304
1st Pl6 565,699 572,594 -6,895 193,294 298,479 -105,185 -112,080
1st Pl7 565,258 572,326 -7,068 191,908 299,769 -107,861 -114,929
1st Pl8 560,865 575,397 -14,532 191,293 300,076 -108,783 -123,315
1st Pl9 567,466 570,529 -3,063 192,017 299,588 -107,571 -110,634
14th Pl3 580,356 557,224 +23,132 197,511 294,162 -96,551 -73,519
14th Pl4 555,639 580,450 -24,811 188,891 302,216 -113,325 -138,136
14th Pl5 557,972 578,436 -20,464 190,155 300,711 -110,556 -131,020
14th Pl8 575,206 562,417 +13,211 196,161 295,426 -99,265 -86,476
There are a couple of things going on here. The level of Democratic turnout in each year is roughly equivalent. The average dipped from 570,327 in 2008 to 566,250 in 2012, but that’a less than one percent. The Dem totals dropped a bit more in the other counties, falling from an average of 199,901 to 192,895, with the difference being exaggerated a bit by Jim Sharp’s showing in 2008. The bottom line remains that while the average Democratic candidate in these races received about 10,000 fewer votes in 2012, those totals didn’t affect the competitiveness of these races.
What did that were the Republican turnouts, which rose considerably in Harris and in the other counties, though for slightly different reasons. Republican voters in Harris County were far more likely to skip downballot races in 2008 than they were in 2012. It was the same way in 2004, with about ten percent of their Presidential voters disappearing for races like these, while Democratic voters were far more persistent about filling out their ballots. That pattern changed in 2012, with Rs and Ds about equally likely to fill the whole thing in. Some of that is no doubt the effect of straight-ticket voting, but there were still over 400,000 voters in Harris county who didn’t vote straight ticket in 2012. Maybe it was increased partisanship, maybe it was people absorbing the local message to vote all the way down, but whatever the case, it had an effect. As for the other counties, the increases are basically the result of population growth in Fort Bend, Galveston, and Brazoria Counties. Put the two together and you can see the effect.
Obviously, that makes winning these races this year a challenge, but I believe it can be done. Republicans have little to no prospect for growth in Harris County, and having Donald Trump at the top of the ticket is more likely to be a drag than an asset. Democrats need to put up a decent margin in Harris County, and they ought to be able to, but that won’t be enough. There needs to be some help in Fort Bend, Galveston, and Brazoria for there to be a fighting chance. I don’t know what is going on in those counties to try to boost turnout, though I know Fort Bend Democrats have been pretty active in recent years. I may be the only person in the state obsessing about these races as attainable targets for this year – these are low-visibility contests that have no immediate impact – but they represent an opportunity that we don’t often get, and it’s not like there are a bunch of legitimately exciting legislative or Congressional elections to focus on. The point I’ve been trying to make is that this is a good year to be thinking about other parts of the political bench, which includes county offices and judicial races. Remember, these appellate court positions come with six-year terms, so anyone who wins this year could if they chose run for a statewide bench in 2018 or 2020. There’s no downside to any of this, but we have to be aware of it first.