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Mike Keasler

Statewide review: 2016 was like 2008, but not in a good way

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There’s no point in beating around the bush, so I’ll just come out and say it: Despite the excitement about increases in voter registration and heavy early voting turnout. statewide Democratic candidates outside of Hillary Clinton generally did not do any better than their counterparts in 2008. Republican statewide candidates, on the other hand, were generally setting new high-water marks for vote totals. Every statewide Republican other than Wayne Christian topped Donald Trump’s 4,681,590 votes, with all of them but one besting it by at least 100,000. Meanwhile, only Dori Contreras Garza’s 3,598,852 votes exceeded President Obama’s 2008 tally. Overall turnout was up in Texas (in absolute numbers, though not in percentage), but while Dem turnout was better than 2012, it didn’t hit any new heights. I fear we may be at a plateau, as we have been in the off years since 2002.

Why am I not more encouraged by Hillary Clinton’s 3.8 million-plus total? Because I estimate at least 100,000 of her votes came from people who supported Republicans in other races, and because the dropoff from her total to downballot candidates was enough to show no visible growth. For these purposes, I’m using judicial races as my metric, as I believe it is a better proxy for partisan intent. I used as a baseline for comparison between 2012 and 2016 two Court of Criminal Appeals races – the 2012 Sharon Keller/Keith Hampton race, and the 2016 Mike Keasler/Robert Burns race. I believe these contests are low enough profile to draw a relatively small number of crossovers, and in this particular case they were the only such races each year to have just a Libertarian candidate in addition, thus allowing for a more apples-to-apples comparison. I put all the county totals into a spreadsheet and then calculated the difference between the two. From a Democratic perspective, there’s good news, so-so news, and bad news.

I’ll get to the news in a second. You can see the spreadsheet here. I’ve put a list of the 62 counties in which Democrats gained votes from 2012 to 2016 beneath the fold. Take a look and then come back, and we’ll talk about what I think this means.

Ready? Democrats really killed it in the big urban counties. Harris, Bexar, Travis, El Paso, and Dallas combined for nearly 240,000 more Democratic votes in 2016, compared to 83,000 for the Republicans, a net of over 150K. Dems took such a big step forward in Harris County that HD144 might not really be a swing district any more, while HDs 132, 135, and 138 are now in the picture as pickup opportunities, with HD126 a little farther out on the horizon. I’ll have more to say about Harris County beginning tomorrow, but I feel like maybe, just maybe, we’ve finally turned a corner. I know that the off-year turnout issue is a problem until we can demonstrate that it’s not, but I believe it’s getting hard to dispute the assertion that there are just more Democrats in Harris County than there are Republicans. I also believe that national conditions will be different in 2018 than they were in 2010 and 2014. Doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily be better, but they will be different, and when you’ve consistently been on the short end of the stick, having conditions change – even if you don’t know how they will change – is a risk you ought to be willing to take.

Democrats also showed a nice gain in the big Latino counties (Hidalgo, Cameron, and Webb), while netting over 9,000 votes in Fort Bend. I’ll be looking at Fort Bend data later as well, and while this wasn’t enough to push any non-Hillary Dems over the top there, it’s a step in the right direction.

The so-so news is that Dems more or less held steady in most of the big suburban counties, by which I mean they mostly lost a little ground but not that much. Other than Fort Bend, Dems posted a solid gain in Hays County and barely gained more votes in Brazoria County than the GOP did. They had modest net losses in counties like Tarrant, Collin, Denton, and Williamson, such that one might feel we are at or near an inflection point in those counties. In math terms, the second derivative is approaching zero. This is a genteel way of saying that we’re falling behind at a slower pace. Better than falling behind in huge chunks, but still not good news.

The bad news is that in several other suburban counties, and basically all the non-Latino rural ones, Democrats got crushed. Montgomery County continues to be a sucking chest wound, with 21,087 more Republican votes and 8,432 more Dems. Comal County is Montgomery’s little brother, with continued steady growth and a deep red tint that shows no signs of abating. And if you’re old enough to remember when Galveston County was reliably Democratic, well, the score here is 10,335 more votes for the GOP, and 1,521 more for the Dems. So, yeah.

It’s the rural counties where things really become dreary. I said the Dems gained votes over 2012 in 62 counties. That means they lost votes in 192 others. Now, most of these are small counties, and the losses themselves were small in most of them; the average loss was 323 votes. But Republicans gained an average of over 700 votes in each of those counties, and as they say after awhile it adds up. Plus, some of these counties are now more exurban than rural, and like the suburbs are seeing steady growth. Two examples for you are Johnson County, northwest of Travis and home of Cleburne, and Parker County, west of Tarrant where Weatherford is. Those counties saw a combined voter registration increase of about 20,000. Of that, 17,201 were Republican and 449 were Democratic. That right there is enough to negate the Democratic net gain in Dallas County.

The single most eye-catching item in here is Polk County, up US59 between Houston and Lufkin; Livingston is the county seat. Unlike Johnson and Parker, it has about the same number of voters as it did four years ago. The difference is that in 2012 fewer than half of registered voters bothered, while this year nearly everyone did. Turnout in the Presidential race in Polk County was an mind-boggling 89.48%, and nearly the entire increase came from Republicans. In this CCA comparison, Mike Keasler got 12,183 more votes than Sharon Keller did, while Robert Burns improved on Keith Hampton by only 1,845 votes. All this with only 38,530 total registered voters. OMG, to say the least.

So what should we be doing about this? Well, we should keep doing what we’re doing in the urban counties, because it definitely bore fruit this year. I’d like to think we’re starting to maybe get a little traction in the suburbs, at least some of them, but it’s going to take a lot more resources and an effort that doesn’t just gear up at campaign time to really get that going. Mostly, we need to have a way to make sure we’re being heard in these places, because I don’t think we are, not outside of the faithful who are there. If I were a fabulously wealthy person who wanted to move the needle outside the urban counties, I’d throw a bunch of money at the Texas Organizing Project and ask them to figure out (and execute) a way to do for these suburbs and exurbs what they’ve been doing in Pasadena. It’s slow and methodical and just one piece of the puzzle, but we have got to start somewhere.

Data on the counties where Dem turnout grew is beneath the fold. More to come over the next week or so.

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Endorsement watch: CCA

The Chron makes its recommendations for the Court of Criminal Appeals.

Judge Larry Meyers

Judge Larry Meyers

Judge, Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 2: Lawrence “Larry” Meyers

Accusing someone of having “the feels” seems more at home in a teenager’s Facebook argument than in a dissenting opinion from the Court of Criminal Appeals, but that’s what Judge Lawrence “Larry” Meyers wrote in State v. Furr, alleging that his colleagues cared more about their feelings on the case than the objective standards of law. After 24 years on this bench, the long-serving member of Texas’ highest criminal court has certainly given up on the usual collegiality.

“We’re not there to get along,” Meyers, 68, said during a meeting with the Chronicle editorial board. “We’re there to do the right thing under the law.”

Judge, Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 5: Scott Walker

Consider this race as evidence against electing judges.

Democrats are offering a candidate who was removed from the Bexar County appointed attorney list after she refused to represent defendants who wouldn’t plead guilty – Betsy Johnson.

Republicans are running a Dallas-area defense attorney with a politically famous name and no record of public service – Scott Walker.

We were ready to toss this one up or take a look at third-party candidates, but in his meeting with the Chronicle editorial board, Walker demonstrated a workman’s experience in the criminal court trenches that earned our endorsement.

Judge, Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 6: Robert Burns

It doesn’t take a deep look at the Texas judiciary to see that the prosecutor’s office is often the first step towards earning a bench. The relationship between district attorneys, police and judges is a tight one, and years of wearing the black robes can give even the most dedicated neutral arbiter an unconscious tunnel vision that undermines fairness in our criminal justice system.

Robert Burns, who was first elected to a Dallas County criminal district court in 2006, understands that problem well.

“Too many judges want to side with the state or the police and not be fair and impartial,” Burns, 52, told the Houston Chronicle editorial board. “Just call it right down the middle. Be fair, and when you do make procedural decisions, make sure they’re decisions that result in guilty people getting convicted and innocent people being set free.”

Meyers is the only statewide Democrat in office, having switched parties in 2013 to mount an unsuccessful campaign for Supreme Court. I still don’t know what to make of the guy – he’s good on some things and not on others, and while he’s given a standard “the party left me” rationale for switching from R to D, I can’t say I’ve seen any clear evolution in his judicial opinions. Burns is a Democratic challenger to another longtime incumbent, Mike Keasler, who will have to resign his position in four years if he is re-elected because he will hit the mandatory retirement age of 75. He’s the clearest choice of the three.

Endorsement watch: High courts

Four more endorsements from the Chron, one of which goes to a Democrat:

Justice, Supreme Court, Place 5:The best choice to bring differing judicial philosophies and a wealth of trial experience to the all-Republican court is El Paso jurist and Democrat Bill Moody. Moody has occupied the 34th District Court bench for 25 years, and during that time has tried more than 500 felony and civil cases. Appreciating the essential role of the jury system, he successfully championed increasing juror pay to $40 first in El Paso and later statewide. Judge Moody says he would bring his experience as a trial judge to a court that too often has sided with big business defendants against plaintiffs. “This court is out of balance,” says the candidate. “We have got to go back and move more to the center and balance things.”

Moody was the high scorer among Democratic statewide candidates in 2006. Sweeping the newspaper endorsements that year probably helped him a little. He won’t get that this year, as the DMN went with the Republican incumbent, but I would still expect him to do well overall. For the one contested Court of Criminal Appeals race, the Chron stuck with incumbent Mike Keasler even if he is part of the problem with that court. I don’t think I can add anything to that.

Population and voting trends: 2004 and 2008 judicial elections

So we’ve seen how county returns changed in the Presidential election between 2004 and 2008. Obviously, there are many factors that can affect a Presidential election, even when there’s not really an active campaign going on in the state. How do things look at the judicial level, which is probably a closer reflection of party ID? To try to answer that, I compared two races for the Supreme Court, and two for the Court of Criminal Appeals: Scott Brister versus David Van Os in 2004 and Dale Wainwright versus Sam Houston in 2008; Mike Keasler versus JR Molina in 2004 and Tom Price versus Susan Strawn in 2008. My observations:

– Houston improved on Van Os’ percentage by six and a half points, going from 40.76% to 47.31%; Strawn did a bit less than five points better than Molina, 42.14% to 46.86%. (Note that both 2008 races included a Libertarian candidate, while neither 2004 race did. All percentages are based strictly on R/D vote totals only.) In doing so, Houston cut the 2004 deficit by 875,000 votes, while Strawn improved by 616,000 votes over 2004.

– One corollary to that is that Houston gained in more counties than Strawn did. There were only 28 counties in which Houston’s deficit was greater than Van Os’, with Montgomery and Parker being the places he moved backwards the most. Strawn did worse in 69 counties, adding Orange and Jefferson to the biggest loser list. Recall that there were 107 counties in which Barack Obama lost ground compared to John Kerry.

– The 20 counties in which Obama lost the most ground from Kerry differed somewhat from the counties in which Houston and Strawn combined did worse than Van Os and Molina. Counties that appeared in the former list but not the latter were:

Bowie: Obama’s deficit increased by 3436 votes; Houston gained 1303 while Strawn lost 867.
Galveston: -3082 for Obama, +2720 for Houston, and -1307 for Strawn.
Jasper: -1488 for Obama, +866 for Houston, and -656 for Strawn.
Liberty: -1416 for Obama, +1185 for Houston, and +155 for Strawn.
Harrison: -1385 for Obama, +530 for Houston, and -11 for Strawn.
Johnson: -1280 for Obama, +2745 for Houston, and +2005 for Strawn.
Henderson: -1239 for Obama, +1076 for Houston, and +427 for Strawn.
Tyler: -1094 for Obama, +501 for Houston, and -260 for Strawn.
Van Zandt: -1075 for Obama, +656 for Houston, and +178 for Strawn.
Lamar: -993 for Obama, +2185 for Houston, and +1208 for Strawn.

Obviously, the worst 20 counties for Houston and Strawn were not identical to those for Obama, but I did not find any examples where Houston and Strawn combined to lose votes while Obama gained them.

The ten best counties for Houston and Strawn:

County Brister W'wright Change Van Os Houston Change Dem net ================================================================== FORT BEND 87,872 96,887 9,015 66,748 95,069 28,321 19,306 DENTON 132,244 138,359 6,115 56,112 86,738 30,626 24,511 COLLIN 165,017 167,840 2,823 64,159 100,302 36,143 33,320 HIDALGO 39,076 32,270 -6,806 60,122 87,197 27,075 33,881 EL PASO 62,780 50,627 -12,153 93,239 118,844 25,605 37,758 TRAVIS 142,841 127,796 -15,045 190,168 228,493 38,325 53,370 BEXAR 234,526 222,471 -12,055 212,415 260,152 47,737 59,792 TARRANT 327,136 320,585 -6,551 201,026 266,375 65,349 71,900 DALLAS 328,697 280,688 -48,009 324,165 406,857 82,692 130,701 HARRIS 555,454 523,101 -32,353 464,815 577,134 112,319 144,672 County Keasler Price Change Molina Strawn Change Dem net ================================================================== WILLIAMSON 77,666 80,967 3,301 42,377 61,373 18,996 15,695 DENTON 130,850 139,868 9,018 57,294 83,774 26,480 17,462 EL PASO 58,240 53,893 -4,347 99,152 115,154 16,002 20,349 HIDALGO 35,930 33,109 -2,821 64,087 86,441 22,354 25,175 COLLIN 164,805 169,377 4,572 64,188 96,476 32,288 27,716 TRAVIS 140,473 125,335 -15,138 190,769 228,492 37,723 52,861 TARRANT 321,497 322,531 1,034 206,841 263,585 56,744 55,710 BEXAR 224,983 215,807 -9,176 220,717 267,444 46,727 55,903 DALLAS 319,890 283,343 -36,547 329,484 402,483 72,999 109,546 HARRIS 540,632 521,753 -18,879 474,278 574,945 100,667 119,546

Williamson was Houston’s eleventh-best county, with a net gain of 18,502, while Fort Bend was Strawn’s eleventh-best county, with a net gain of 13,574. Not much variance on this end, in other words.

– Finally, I said in my previous entry that if 2012 is to 2008 as 2008 was to 2004, Texas would be a tossup state at the Presidential level. That’s true, but all else being equal, the Republican candidate would still win Texas by a bit more than 200,000 votes. That same level of improvement would be more than enough to win both of these judicial races, however. Sam Houston would win by more votes in 2012 than he lost by in 2008, while Strawn would win by about 150,000 votes. Given that even Republicans think the political landscape in Texas could be quite favorable to Democratic candidates, we may see as much interest in Supreme Court and CCA nominations as we saw in Harris County this year for district and county benches. All standard disclaimers apply, of course, but keep that in the back of your mind.

Next in the series will be a closer look at the 2002 and 2006 judicial elections, which will be done in two parts. As always, your feedback is appreciated.

Hampton for CCA

Some good news from Grits.

Keith Hampton, a veteran appellate lawyer and chair of the legislative committee for the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, has announced his candidacy for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, lining up to run against Michael Keasler. Here’s Hampton’s campaign website.

The CCA is a cesspool, and any decent Democrat that commits to running against one of its awful incumbents deserves to be vigorously supported. Remember the name Keith Hampton next year. We need more like him on the bench.

How about that CCA’s reputation for fairness?

This is just precious.

The longest serving Judge on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, Lawrence “Larry” Meyers, has announced he is seeking re-election in 2010. The Court has been called a national laughingstock by one of its other members because of the actions of Sharon Keller and that was years before Keller made it even more of a laughingstock by closing the court in 2007 and refusing to accept a legal appeal from a person about to be executed.

[…]

Despite the poor reputation of the Court of Criminal Appeals, Meyers said in his press release, “I am seeking re-election to the Court to continue to be an objective voice and ensure that we maintain our reputation for delivering fair and just opinions,” said Meyers in announcing his candidacy for re-election.

Yes, the CCA’s well-known reputation for fairness and justice, which is somewhat like Wall Street’s reputation for transparency and honest accounting. As Michael Landauer suggests, it is to laugh.

Link via Grits, who notes that Justices Michael Keasler and and Cheryl Johnson will also be on the ballot next year. Only Keasler had a Democratic opponent in 2004, and that was JR Molina, so it really doesn’t count. Last year, the Dems left on CCA judge unchallenged, ran Molina against another, and a good candidate in Susan Strawn against the third. Strawn lost by six points 51.64 to 45.53, in the best showing for a Democratic CCA candidate since then-incumbent Charlie Baird lost with 46.03% in 1998. The Dems have been slowly but steadily gaining ground in these statewide judicial races – Supreme Court candidate Sam Houston did even better last year, getting 45.88% and losing by five points – and it’s not unreasonable to think that some good quality CCA candidates next year could score an upset or two. They’ll have Sharon Keller as an issue whether or not the State Commission on Judicial Conduct boots her off the bench. Grits has suggested before that judicial races will be the spearhead of a Democratic renaissance in statewide elections, and while I don’t necessarily agree with that – I think any reasonably well-funded Dem will have a fighter’s chance in the Governor’s race if Rick Perry survives the primary – I certainly do think that these races are vital and must be taken seriously. The last time the Dems ran three non-Molina candidates for the CCA was 1996. That can’t happen again.