Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

What it will take to win the District Court of Appeals benches

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.


2008

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


2012

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.

Related Posts:

3 Comments

  1. Greg Enos says:

    The proper term is simply “Courts of Appeals.” “District Courts” are trial level courts, along with various County Courts at Law. It is confusing because the Courts of Appeals have election districts and are not elected state-wide. But, they are not called “District Courts of Appeals.”

    The problem for Democrats is that even if Harris County tips slightly Dem, the other 9 counties are carried by Republicans in much large numbers and that still results in Republicans on the Courts of Appeals.

  2. Gary Bennett says:

    I would assume that the injuries occurred in large part because he did not immediately react to the scalding hot water, and they did not wish to remind people of his paralysis.

  3. Mainstream says:

    County GOP chair Paul Simpson had a strong campaign in 2014 to increase straight ticket voting among GOP voters for the increase in GOP strength. The county GOP made a concerted effort to figure why GOP voters were unwilling to vote the entire ballot, and to educate and correct this. I would normally expect GOP straight ticket voting to increase this November.

    This year, however, I could imagine lots of (relatively unpolitical and nonpartisan) Trump voters skipping the downballot contests, and many traditional (Bush-Romney) Republicans skipping Trump, and not taking the time to vote in every downballot contest.