Charles Kuffner and I have a bet: I think Texas' top vote-getting judicial candidates will outpoll gubernatorial candidate Bill White, while he insists White will outpoll them. While I wouldn't speculate that Texas Democrats will win any statewide seats this year, if history is any guide their biggest vote getters will be statewide judicial candidates, including Keith Hampton running against Michael Keasler for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Hampton's racked up a few newspaper endorsements, but even more critical may be the extent to which voters are aware of the CCA's recent dysfunction and aim their anti-incumbent ire at Keasler and other Republican judges. Libertarian candidates will likely siphon off enough anti-incumbent votes to keep these seats in Republican hands, but statewide judicial races have been getting closer every election cycle and I wouldn't be surprised to see incumbents' vote totals dip below 50% of the electorate.
Courts of Appeal
Among the most interesting races in this category are Morris Overstreet vs. Chief Justice Sherry Radack on the First Court of Appeals in Houston and Kurt Kuhn vs. Melissa Goodwin on the Third Court of Appeals in Austin.
Dallas District Attorney
It'll be particularly interesting to see the outcome of the Dallas DA's race, which I've suggested will be closer than the 60-40 blowout the incumbent is predicting. The Dallas News rightly points out that "At times, the race seems more a referendum on the current DA than a face-off between two experienced attorneys." Dallas is an expensive media market and it's virtually impossible for campaigns to develop a complex message or define a relatively unknown candidate like Danny Clancy. As a consequence, the only thing voters know about the DA's office is whatever they think they know about the incumbent: They'll vote for or against him, for the most part ignoring his opponent's credentials and record. Ironically, that dynamic is exactly how Watkins himself, then a political unknown, was able to defeat a long-time incumbent to earn his own first term; now the same situation confronts him.
Will Dallas and Houston judicial races stay blue?
Judicial races in Dallas and Houston will foretell in large part whether recent Democratic gains in those counties will translate into a permanent (for now) majority or if those jurisdictions will remain competitive. In addition, changes to the makeup of those counties' commissioners courts, both of which are presently split from a partisan perspective, may have as great an impact on their respective justice systems as anything the judges do.
The Bexar County DA's race on paper should be close, but challenger Nico Lahood drew opposition from local police unions and has spent too much time so far explaining a petty drug conviction from his 20s. In Victoria County, by contrast, police union support has gone to a Democrat after the incumbent Republican began actively prosecuting police misconduct, potentially putting the race in play although Republicans typically carry countywide races handily. In Galveston, the local paper endorsed Republican challenger Jack Roady over Democratic incumbent Kurt Sistrunk in what could be a tight race. In Collin County, Republican Greg Willis faces off for DA against Democrat Rafael De La Garza to replace incumbent John Roach (who's been on quite a tear recently), though a D victory there would be a stunner. Ditto for the Taylor County Sheriff's slot (Abilene), which has drawn two strong candidates but where the R has a major structural advantage. In Nueces County, the Republican DA appointed by Gov. Perry appears likely to fall to a Democratic challenger, while the Democratic Sheriff in Hays County may have trouble retaining his seat.
What do folks think of these various races and what other criminal-justice related contests are folks watching out there? Let me know in the comments