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Precinct analysis: District courts

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.

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  1. Neither Here Nor There says:

    What Republicans were recommend by this site?

    The more Democrats win the more likely that border line Republicans will become borderline Democrats, people normally want to be on the winning side.

    Judges are not all the same, many if not most play politics because they don’t want to cross the wrong person or persons. What happened to Steve Kirkland, when he lost to a least qualified Democrat. That person should not be on a bench in my opinion, but she still is and I voted for her because she had a D in front of her name.

    Democrats need to play by the same rules as the other side, or just give up and hope that human nature changes.

  2. Greg Wythe says:

    “There‚Äôs 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 ….”

    I wound’t be so sure about this. I think the more preferable scenario would be to create three Dem seats that can withstand 2010-style returns, I’m not sure that either would require a violation of the VRA as it presently stands.

  3. […] Greg Wythe on Precinct analysis: District courts […]

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