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September 10th, 2019:

The Harris County GOP thinks it can come back in 2020

They’re so adorable.

Never forget

Once a rock of Republican politics in Texas, Harris County has become nothing short of a nightmare for the GOP over the last four years as Hillary Clinton and Beto O’Rourke carried the county and Democrats dominated further down ballot in local races.

But as bad as it has been of late, party leaders say it’s foolish to consider Harris County blue, based on just two election cycles. They insist the party has learned key lessons over the last four years and made changes that will not just stop the Democratic trends, but lead to GOP victories in 2020 and beyond.

“We are still a strong force here,” Harris County Republican Party chairman Paul Simpson said.

He sees 2016 and 2018 as more of temporary Democratic run than a change of the guard. There have already been big changes that will affect 2020, he said, pointing to the end of straight-ticket voting, better minority community outreach and a renewed commitment to registering new voters as three things that will lift GOP candidates in Harris County.

That’s not to discount the pain of the last two election cycles. Shifting demographics and an emboldened Democratic Party that has registered new voters at record speed allowed Clinton in 2016 to win the biggest share of the vote for a Democratic presidential candidate in Harris since Texas icon Lyndon Johnson was on the ballot in 1964.

And in the governor’s race in 2018, Democrat Lupe Valdez — who ran a campaign that was mediocre at best — won Harris County over incumbent Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, becoming only the second Democratic gubernatorial candidate to carry Harris County in 25 years.

“There was shell shock,” Republican media consultant Vlad Davidiuk said.

[…]

Months before the 2018 election, Abbott’s political team was warning allies about what was happening in Harris County. That summer at a training session in San Antonio, Abbott campaign advisers told workers that Democratic-leaning voter registration groups such as Battleground Texas were making big gains registering new voters in Harris County.

Davidiuk, who was working with the Harris County Republican Party then, said others saw it coming, too.

“We didn’t have a response to that,” he said. “If there was a response, it was too fractured.”

That voter registration push has only grown the Democratic advantage at the polls the last two years.

“Our historic voter base is shrinking in both real and absolute terms,” the 2016 post election analysis says. “As a consequence, we are at risk of becoming a minority party within Harris County.”

Later it makes clear that “Donald Trump’s loss in Harris County and its down-ballot impact in 2016 could foreshadow future elections if we do not broaden our voter base.”

I’ve already said most of what there is to say about this. The rationales they give – it was Beto! straight ticket voting! Trump! why don’t those minorities like us? – are as predictable as they are pathetic and self-unaware. The straight ticket thing I’ve beaten to death (but feel free to reread this for one of my responses to that trope), but I think what we need here is to throw some numbers at these claims.


Year    R Pres   D Pres   R Judges   D Judges
=============================================
2004   584,723  475,865    535,877    469,037
2008   571,883  590,982    541,938    559,048
2012   586,073  587,044    563,654    568,739
2016   545,955  707,914    605,112    661,404

Republicans have basically not done any better at the Presidential level in Harris County since George W. Bush in 2004. They have grown some at the judicial level (the numbers you see above are the average totals from the District Court races, my go-to for measuring partisan vote totals), which highlights Trump’s extreme underperformance, but their growth (plus 70K from 2004 to 2016) is dwarfed by Democratic vote growth (plus 192K) over the same period. This is my thesis, which I’ve repeated over and over again and which has clearly not sunk in. This is the problem Republicans need to solve.


Year  R Judges   D Judges    R Str    D Str  R Str%  D Str%
===========================================================
2004   535,877    469,037  370,455  325,097   69.1%   69.3%
2008   541,938    559,048  343,919  391,488   63.5%   70.1%
2012   563,654    568,739  404,165  406,991   71.7%   71.6%
2016   605,112    661,404  401,663  472,030   66.4%   71.4%

These are the countywide straight ticket voting totals, and the percentage of each side’s average judicial total that came from straight ticket votes. Looked at this way, Democratic straight ticket vote total growth is proportionate to their overall vote total growth. In other words, the increase in Democratic straight ticket voters wasn’t inflating their overall strength, it was merely reflecting it. Meanwhile, fewer people voted straight ticket Republican in 2016 than they did in 2012. Sure, some of that is a reaction to Trump, but that’s still a big problem for them, and it’s not something that the elimination of straight ticket voting will help them with in 2020. Note also that Republicans have been pretty heavily dependent on straight ticket voting as well. I do not understand the assumption that its removal will help them.


Year  Voter Reg   R Pres%  R Judge%  D Pres%  D Judge%
======================================================
2004  1,876,296     31.2%     28.6%    25.4%     25.0%
2008  1,892,656     30.2%     28.6%    31.2%     29.5%
2012  1,942,566     30.2%     29.0%    30.2%     29.3%
2016  2,182,980     25.0%     27.7%    32.4%     30.3%

The first column is the total number of registered voters in Harris County in the given year, and the percentages are the percentage of each of the total registered voter population. As a share of all registered voters, Donald Trump did worse than John Kerry, while Hillary Clinton did better than Dubya. The share of all voters choosing Democratic judicial candidates increased twenty percent from 2004 to 2016, while the share of all voters choosing Republican judicial candidates declined by three percent. This is what I mean when I say that the Republicans first and foremost have a “not enough voters” problem in Harris County. Their second problem is that they have no clue what to do about it.

For what it’s worth, here’s a similar comparison for the off years:


Year  R Judges   D Judges    R Str    D Str  R Str%  D Str%
===========================================================
2002   333,009    270,564  185,606  171,594   55.7%   63.4%
2014   359,842    297,812  254,006  210,018   70.6%   70.5%
2018   531,013    651,975  410,654  515,812   77.3%   79.1%

Year  Voter Reg  R Judge%  D Judge%
===================================
2002  1,875,777     17.8%     14.4%
2014  2,044,361     17.6%     14.6%
2018  2,307,654     23.0%     28.3%

Couple things to note here. One is that there wasn’t much in the way of growth for either party from 2002 to 2014, though as we know there were some ups and downs in between. The 2018 election was a lot like a Presidential election in terms of turnout – you’ve seen me use 2012 as a point of comparison for it before – but one in which the Dems did a much better job. No Republican, not even Ed Emmett, came close to getting 600,000 votes. Here, I’ll agree that having unpopular politicians at the top of the ballot, like Ted Cruz and Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton, as well as having to fly under the Trump banner, helped propel Dems, in part because of former Republicans crossing over. But they were starting from a lower point to begin with.

Note, by the way, the jump in voter registrations from 2012 to 2014. Mike Sullivan deserves some credit for that, as he was the first Tax Assessor in a long time to not be hostile to voter registration, but this was also the point at which Dems started really focusing on registering voters. For sure, that has helped, and I’ve no doubt that Abbott’s people had reason to be alarmed going into 2018. I find it kind of amusing that Republicans are turning to voter registration themselves as a way forward. I have to wonder if that will lead to any bills getting advanced that would make voter reg easier and more convenient. My guess is still No, on the grounds that they probably figure they can throw money at the problem and would still rather have it be hard for Dems, but we’ll see.

I could go on, but you get the point. And as a reminder, the numbers themselves aren’t the whole story about why Republicans are struggling and will continue to do so in Harris County:

Simpson, for one, is glad to see the parade of Democratic presidential contenders coming to Harris County because it puts their ideas — particularly on climate change — front and center. Let them bring their calls for banning fossil fuels, he said.

“They don’t want us to eat beef, drill for oil or even use straws.”

Because it there’s one thing younger voters really hate, it’s trying to solve climate change. Way to be on top of the trends there, dude.

Big John may get a primary challenger

Drama! Maybe.

Big John Cornyn

State Sen. Pat Fallon, R-Prosper, announced Monday evening he is exploring a primary challenge to U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, potentially giving the state’s senior senator his most prominent intraparty opponent yet.

Fallon, a former state representative elected to the Texas Senate last year, told a Tea Party group here that he was forming an exploratory committee and moving on a quick timeline, hoping to have a conversation with GOP voters over the next few days. Fallon said that for six months, he had been hoping that a “viable conservative choice” would step up to take on Cornyn, but that person never emerged.

Addressing the True Texas Project, formerly the NE Tarrant Tea Party, Fallon pitched himself as a U.S. Senate candidate who would bring more energy and conviction to the fight that awaits Republicans in the general election. At one point, he said he hoped to galvanize Republicans much like Beto O’Rourke revved up Democrats last year in his closer-than-expected loss to the state’s junior senator, Ted Cruz.

“What would happen in Texas if we can finally have a candidate — a new one — that energized the right?” Fallon said. “That gave everybody in this room something to believe in, to say, ‘This person, I believe that they care, I believe that they will do as they say,’ and I have an eight-year record to prove that. You don’t have to take that leap of faith — compare our records.”

[…]

Fallon could be the third Republican to line up to challenge Cornyn in 2020, following two lower-profile candidates. One is Dallas financial adviser Mark Yancey, and the other is Dwayne Stovall, who finished third in the 2014 primary, behind Stockman, with 11% of the vote. Stovall was running as an independent against Cornyn this cycle until switching to the GOP primary last month.

Well, if you look at the picture in this story, you can see that Pat Fallon has the kind of square jaw and executive-style hair that ought to make him a serious challenger. Beyond that, well, you know. By all means, Republicans, boot out your long-term, well-funded incumbent for this guy. You won’t regret it, I’m sure. The Texas Signal has more.

What can we really do about I-45?

Urban planner Jeff Speck is once again warning us about the negative effects of widening I-45.

TxDOT cites three principal motivations for advancing the I-45 project: reducing traffic congestion, improving driver safety, and improving air quality. These laudable goals are apparently considered important enough to outweigh the significant costs discussed above. And they might be — if they were achievable.

Sadly, each one is a false promise. Decades of similar state projects around the U.S., each with its own ample justification, teach a simple lesson: highway widenings do not reduce congestion in the long run, and make both driver safety and air quality worse.

[…]

If I-45 is widened, it will be remembered that, in the decade prior, Houston enjoyed a brief glimpse of a better future. Downtown and Midtown have been reborn, lifted on a demographic shift that favors urban living. Regional bike trails grace the Bayou Greenways, and a brilliant Beyond the Bayous plan lays out an ambitious path for sustainable growth. Transit ridership is up, thanks to investment in light rail and a redesigned bus network. The mayor, members of city council, and county commissioners all sing the praises of a more walkable Houston. Sadly, all these trends will be reversed if Houston doubles down on its nation-leading commitment to fossil-fuel infrastructure.

This need not happen. Houston has the ability to stop the I-45 expansion in its tracks, just as Dallas stopped the Trinity Parkway. That proposed roadway was called “the worst boondoggle imaginable” despite costing only one-fifth of the current I-45 plan. It took a 10-year fight, but the good people of Dallas rose up and killed it.

Meanwhile, Houston’s fatalistic response to its TxDOT incursion has been to just “make I-45 better.” The well-resourced but cautious Make I-45 Better Coalition has proposed a collection of modifications, all good, that unfortunately do not begin to question the underlying folly of fighting congestion, car crashes, and tailpipe emissions by welcoming more driving.

Here’s how to make I-45 better: first, fix the parts that need repair, without making them any wider. At the same time, introduce congestion-based pricing on the entire roadway to maximize its capacity around the clock. Invest the proceeds in transit, biking, walking, and in those poor people who truly have no choice but to keep driving.

Unlike highway widenings, congestion-based pricing reduces traffic, driving deaths, and pollution, all while earning billions rather than wasting them. It has worked wherever it’s been tried, including London, Stockholm, and Sydney, and it is about to become law in New York City. Even Dallas has been experimenting with congestion-based pricing for years.

Speck has addressed the I-45 expansion plan before, and I find him very compelling. The problem, as I’ve said before, is that there is no current mechanism in Texas to do the things he advocates. TxDOT, as the name implies, is a state agency, with leaders appointed by the Governor. Houston has no authority to impose any kind of pricing on I-45, and TxDOT also has no authority under current law to do congestion pricing, because TxDOT does not operate the toll roads and toll-based HOV lanes that do have that kind of authority. The now-dead Trinity Parkway project was not a TxDOT project but a local project under the auspices of a regional toll road authority.

What I’m saying is that the fight over I-45 isn’t in Houston, it is – or it needs to be – in Austin, in the Legislature and the Governor’s mansion. You want TxDOT to have a different mission, one that emphasizes transit over highway widening, you need a different Legislature and a different Governor. You want cities to have the authority to impose congestion pricing rules, with the revenue to be used to boost non-automobile mobility, you need to get that new Legislature to pass a law allowing for it, and a Governor to sign it. We can take one step towards those goals next year, but the Governor and the Senate aren’t up for grabs till 2022 (yes, there are Senators on the ballot in 2020, but only one Republican-held seat is a realistic target, and that won’t be enough). What do we do till then? The Make I-45 Better Coalition may be a limited response to a big problem, but at least their goals are achievable in the current time frame. If we want to think big – and we should! – we also have to play the longer game.