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February 17th, 2018:

Already projecting ahead to November turnout

Some in the political chattering class think the end results in Harris County this yearwon’t be all that different than what we’ve seen before.

Harris County may be awash in Democratic hopefuls for the upcoming primary elections, but don’t expect that enthusiasm to translate into another blue wave this fall.

Yes, local demographics are slowly pushing the region further left, and President Donald Trump – who dragged down the Republican ticket here two years ago – gives progressives a ready campaign talking point. Democrats also point to their nearly full primary slate as evidence of newfound strength.

It is unlikely those factors will be enough, however, to counteract Republicans’ longtime advantage in Harris County midterms, political scientists and consultants said. Not only do local conservatives turn out more consistently in non-presidential years, but Republicans also have the benefit of popular state- and countywide incumbents on the ballot, advantages made only more powerful by straight-ticket voting in November.

“There is a very slow, but steady demographic shift that will favor Democrats. I don’t know if it’s enough this year for a gubernatorial cycle,” Democratic strategist Grant Martin said.

Rice University political scientist Mark Jones agreed.

“Greg Abbott represents a red seawall here in Texas that I think will in many ways blunt the anti-Trump wave, and in doing so help hundreds of down-ballot Republican candidates across the state achieve victory,” he said.

[…]

Fewer than 54,000 Harris County voters cast ballots in the Democratic primary four years ago, compared to nearly 140,000 in the Republican primary. Come November, Republicans dominated down the ballot.

Though primary turnout certainly is not predictive of November performance, it can be, as University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus put it, “a good pulse check.”

Rottinghaus said he anticipates Democrats will perform better locally than they did in 2014, but still come up short in most local races, in large part because of their turnout problem.

“You’re definitely going to find a narrowed margin for most of these offices,” Rottinghaus said. Still, he added, “it would be hard to unseat the natural advantage Republicans have in the midterm.”

I feel like there are a lot of numbers thrown around in the story but without much context to them. Take the primary turnout totals, for instance. It’s true that Republicans drew a lot more people to the polls in March than the Democrats, but their margin in November was considerably less than it was in 2010, when the primary tallies were 101K for Dems and 159K for the GOP. Will anyone revise their predictions for November if the March turnout figures don’t fit with this “pulse check” hypothesis? Put a pin in this for now and we’ll check back later if it’s relevant.

But let’s come back to the November numbers for 2010 and 2014 for a minute. Let’s look at them as a percentage of Presidential turnout from the previous election


   2008 Pres  2010 Lt Gov    Share
==================================
R    571,883      431,690    75.5%
D    590,982      329,129    55.7%

   2012 Pres  2014 Lt Gov    Share
==================================
R    586,073      340,808    58.2%
D    587,044      317,241    54.0%

I’m using the Lt. Governor race here because of the significant number of crossover votes Bill White – who you may recall won Harris County – received in the Governor’s race. He did so much better than all the other Dems on the ticket that using his results would skew things. Now 2010 was clearly off the charts. If the share of the Presidential year vote is a measure of intensity, the Republicans had that in spades. I’m pretty sure no one is expecting that to happen again, however, so let’s look at the more conventional year of 2014. The intensity gap was about four points in the Republicans’ favor, but that was enough for them to achieve separation and sweep the downballot races.

What does that have to do with this year? The key difference is that there were a lot more voters in 2016 (1,338,898) than there were in either 2008 (1,188,731) or 2012 (1,204,167), and that the Democratic advantage was also a lot bigger. I’m going to switch my metric here to the 2016 judicial average, since there were even more crossovers for Hillary Clinton than there were for Bill White. In 2016, the average Republican judicial candidate got 606,114 votes, and the average Democratic judicial candidate got 661,284. That’s a pretty big difference, and it has implications for the intensity measure. To wit:

If Democratic intensity in 2018 is at 55.7%, which is what it was in 2010, then Dems should expect a base vote of about 368,335.

If Democratic intensity in 2018 is at 54.0%, which is what it was in 2014, then Dems should expect a base vote of about 357,093.

Well guess what? If Republican intensity is at 58.2%, which is what it was in 2014, then the Rs should expect a base vote of about 352,758. Which, you might notice, is less than what the Democrats would expect. In order to match the Democratic base, Rs would need 60.8% to equal the former total, and 58.9% for the latter.

In other words, if intensity levels are exactly what they were in 2014, Democrats should expect to win most countywide races. Republicans will need to be more intense than they were in 2014 just to keep up. And if Democratic intensity is up, say at 60%? That’s a base of 396,770, and it would require a Republican intensity level of 65.5% to equal it.

Where did this apparent Democratic advantage come from? Very simply, from more registered voters. In 2016, there were 2,182,980 people registered in Harris County, compared to 1,942,566 in 2012 and 1,892,731 in 2008. I’ve noted this before, but it’s important to remember that while turnout was up in an absolute sense in 2016 over 2012 and 2008, it was actually down as a percentage of registered voters. It was just that there were so many more RVs, and that more than made up for it. And by the way, voter registration is higher today than it was in 2016.

Now none of this comes with any guarantees. Democratic intensity could be down from 2010 and 2014. Republicans could be more fired up than we think they will be, in particular more than they were in 2014. My point is that at least one of those conditions will need to hold true for Republicans to win Harris County this year. If you think that will happen, then you need to explain which of those numbers are the reason for it.

Oh, and that “red seawall” that Greg Abbott represents? Republicans may have swept the races in 2014, but they didn’t actually dominate. 2010, where they were winning the county by 12-16 points in most races, that was domination. Abbott got 51.41% in 2014 and won by a bit less than four and a half points. Which was enough, obviously, but isn’t exactly a big cushion. Like I said, the Republicans will have to improve on 2014 to stay ahead. Can they do that? Sure, it could happen, and I’d be an idiot to say otherwise. Will it happen? You tell me, and account for these numbers when you do.

Will we ever get an Ike Dike?

We will when it gets funded. When might it get funded? Ummm…

If the Houston-Galveston region continues to boom for the next 60 years and sea level rises as scientists predict, a direct hit to Galveston from a massive hurricane could destroy an estimated $31.8 billion worth of homes, a new study says.

But Texas A&M researchers found that if the government builds a 17-foot barrier about 60 miles long from Galveston Island to Bolivar Peninsula, the potential residential destruction from a storm surge would drop to about $6 billion – a reduction of more than 80 percent.

The only problem: So far, Texas can’t get congressional funding to build the coastal barrier, a proposal that has been floated since Hurricane Ike threatened to make a run for Galveston in 2008.

“The numbers make sense,” said state Sen. Larry Taylor, a Friendswood Republican who has tried for years to get federal funding for a coastal barrier, estimated to cost up to $12 billion. “This investment is going to pay for itself time and time again.”

The cost-benefit numbers could change with additional data: The A&M study only looked at damages to homes and apartments from a storm surge – not flooding caused by rainfall – and excludes the potential harm to the region’s commercial buildings and its bustling ports.

[…]

U.S. Rep. Randy Weber, a Friendswood Republican, said some Republican lawmakers have pushed back against funding infrastructure as part of disaster relief, warning it sets a bad precedent.

Weber said he hopes to get the coastal barrier included in an infrastructure package if efforts to include it in disaster relief ultimately fail.

“This is foolish for us to just keep paying for these disasters over and over and over again,” Weber said. “How about something to prevent this from happening on the next go around?”

That story was from January, before the budget agreement that included disaster relief, but still no Ike Dike. I should note that the state has been officially asking for Ike Dike money since April, well before Harvey. But you know, there was Obamacare to repeal and tax cuts for millionaires to push and collusion investigations to obstruct. The Republicans have just had their hands full, you know? I’m sure they’ll get to it eventually. Hurricane season doesn’t begin for another four months, right? So there’s no rush.

Endorsement watch: Getting into the county

The Chron goes all in on county races, where they had not spent much time before. Two editorials, with two endorsements per, starting with Commissioners Court.

Adrian Garcia

County Commissioner, Precinct 2: Adrian Garcia

While we lament that he ever stepped down as Harris County sheriff, Adrian Garcia has our support in this run for Commissioners Court. Garcia, 51, is uniquely qualified in this race. He is the only candidate with experience overseeing a budget and staff on this scale. As former sheriff, he knows the problems of an overcrowded jail and would be a loud voice for bail reform. A child of northside neighborhoods, Garcia understands the challenges facing the people who live in Precinct 2, which covers east Harris County and a sliver of north Houston. That includes income inequality, environmental threats around refineries, chronic flooding and a general lack of leadership.

We were particularly swayed when Garcia concisely explained why he opposes County Judge Ed Emmett’s current proposal for a massive billion-dollar (or more) bond sale to fund flood prevention infrastructure. First, he said, the proposal is too vague and needs public hearings. Second, it should be overseen by an independent review board. Third, any bond vote should to be held on Election Day in November rather than hidden on some obscure date.

“Let’s not have Republicans be afraid of having a tax increase next to their names, on the same ballot that they’re on,” Garcia told the editorial board.

Penny Shaw

County Commissioner, Precinct 4: Penny Shaw

If Precinct 4 were its own city, the sprawling north Harris County metropolis would be the 10th largest in the United States, falling between Dallas and San Jose, Calif. Two Democratic candidates are hoping to replace Republican incumbent Jack Cagle as the politician in charge. Penny Shaw, 51, is an attorney specializing in business litigation making her first run for public office. Jeffrey Stauber, 55, is a 32-year veteran of the Harris County Sheriff’s Office who previously ran an unsuccessful race for sheriff.

These candidates agree on more than they disagree. They both complain that commissioners do far too much of their work behind closed doors. They both think the county needs to spend more on flood control, but they’re reluctant to raise taxes to pay for it. And they both give low marks to County Judge Ed Emmett for failing to do more to protect the county against flooding before Hurricane Harvey.

“Where was he when the sun was out?” Stauber asks.

Stauber would bring to this job decades of experience with county government. But Shaw makes a convincing case that she’s the candidate more likely to “shake up the system” and that she would give Latinas and women in general a voice that’s been missing on the court since Garcia’s departure. She also had the keen insight that commissioners court is “vendor-driven, not community driven” – a problem she hopes to change.

My interview with Penny Shaw is here and with Jeff Stauber is here. Adrian Garcia was my choice for Precinct 2 all along; I didn’t interview in that race but you can easily find past conversations with Garcia in my archives. Shaw has basically swept the endorsements in Precinct 4, which is pretty impressive given that Stauber is a really good candidate. As the piece notes, Precinct 4 is tough territory for Dems, but a decent showing there would at least help with the countywide efforts.

And on that note, the Chron picks their Clerk candidates.

District Clerk: Marilyn Burgess

The Harris County district clerk oversees the data infrastructure of the Harris County legal system, including jury summonses and the courts’ electronic filings. Democrat Marilyn Burgess earns our endorsement for this primary slot based on her focus on improving existing practices and her knowledge of office operations. Burgess, 63, calls for enhancing the hourly wage of clerks to reduce turnover, improving the website, adding diversity to the top level of leadership in the department and increasing outreach to improve minority participation in juries. As former executive director of Texas PTA and former president of North Houston-Greenspoint Chamber of Commerce, Burgess, who is a certified public accountant, is the only candidate in this race who has managed a large organization.

County Clerk: Diane Trautman

Stanart has been a magnet for criticism over his two terms, and Democrats should put forward a strong candidate if they want to take a real shot at winning this seat in November. That means voting for Diane Trautman in the party primary.

Trautman, 67, is the only candidate with both the political experience and professional resume to win this election and serve as an effective county clerk. She was elected countywide to the Harris County Department of Education in 2012. Her background features a doctorate from Sam Houston State with a dissertation on women’s leadership styles and managerial positions in the public and private sector. That includes serving as a principal in Conroe and Tomball ISDs. Meeting with the editorial board, Trautman emphasized the need to improve election security, such as by bringing in outside auditors and creating a paper trail for electronic voting booths. She also proposed ways to improve Harris County’s low turnout rates, such as by opening “voting centers” across Harris County on Election Day instead of forcing people to specific locations.

“We must do better if we want to call ourselves a democracy,” she said.

They gave Stanart more of a spanking in the piece, so be sure to read and enjoy it. As you know, I agree with both these choices. I await their calls in HCDE and the Treasurer’s race.