Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Court races will be spearpoint of Texas Dems' future statewide success

For the most part, the power of incumbency is an amazing inertial barrier to enacting change in the judiciary through the ballot box, as Texas' election results last night ably demonstrated.

Democrats challenging for statewide judicial seats couldn't quite get over the hump: Court of Criminal Appeals candidate Susan Strawn and the seldom-seen J.R. Molina, along with a pair of Texas Supreme Court candidates, all fell short of a majority, though once again they were the highest Democratic vote getters on the statewide ballot, posting especially solid numbers in urban areas.

Candidate Sam Houston in his Supreme Court race garnered 45.94% of the vote; Susan Strawn was close behind him with 45.60% of voters backing her bid for the Court of Criminal Appeals. That makes these judicial candidates the highest Democratic vote getters statewide. Their GOP opponents, Dale Wainwright and Tom Price, won with just 51.03% and 51.57% of the vote respectively, making incumbents on those courts easily the most vulnerable statewide races for Democratic pickups in 2010. (Perennial Libertarian candidates made up the difference.)

These high court races are getting darn close to winnable for Dems. In 2006, CCA Presiding Judge Sharon Keller was the GOP's lowest statewide vote getter (besides Gov. Perry, who was in a weird, 4-way contest), winning 56.73% of the vote. This year, incumbent CCA Judge Tom Price won with just 51.57%, a lower figure than the Presidential margin (McCain took 55.43% of the statewide vote; Sen. John Cornyn got 54.74%). These races are getting much closer, quickly!

Think of it this way, Court of Criminal Appeals candidate Susan Strawn, with a minimal budget and no voter outreach, got 92,695 more statewide votes than Democratic Senate candidate Rick Noriega who ran a significant grassroots campaign and was on TV in several markets. For whatever reason, Texas voters appear to dislike Republican judges in greater numbers than they do other statewide pols.

As Texas continues to shift demographically from rural to urban and the Latino vote increases in importance, these electoral trends all favor Democrats and it won't be long before Ds begin picking up statewide races, inevitably starting with judicial appellate seats. In close races where every vote counts, it will be judicial races, ultimately, that become the spearpoint of Democrats' statewide electoral success. Mark my words.

In other positive judicial election news for Democrats, challenger Woodie Jones knocked off Republican Ken Law on the Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals. Judge Law recently boosted his notoriety, and probably lost the election, after signing off on an opinion recently benefiting GOP whipping boy Tom DeLay that claimed money laundering laws only apply to cash, not checks.

The big Democratic coup of the night came in Harris County where incumbent Republicans were swept out by a wave of Democratic challengers, reminiscent of what happened in Dallas in 2006. Democrats won 21 out of 25 seats, with only four incumbents weathering the maelstrom.

Dems didn't fare so well in appellate races, Kuff reports, though "the Democrats did win one of the Appeals Court races that includes Harris County - Jim Sharp won the Court 1, Place 3 seat that Sam Nuchia lost in the GOP primary to Ed Hubbard by 50.57-49.42. All other Democratic challengers for the 1st and 14th Courts of Appeals lost by margins ranging from 20,000 to 50,000 votes, out of 1.5 million cast. They all carried Harris County, but only Sharp's 58,000-vote margin there was enough to make up for ground lost elsewhere." It should be mentioned that the GOP incumbents who won on the 1st and 14th appellate courts did so by slim margins buoyed by more conservative rural and suburban voters outside Harris County, but their districts in the near term are subject to the same trends as other Houston-area judicial races.

Meanwhile, in San Antonio, reported the Express News:

Bexar County voters Tuesday appeared poised to unseat two of three Republican district judges with more than four decades' combined experience on the bench, as well as elevate a veteran Democratic appellate jurist to chief justice of the 4th Court of Appeals.

Strong straight ticket voting made it unlikely that 379th District Judge Bert Richardson or 57th District Judge Joe Brown Jr. would hold their seats, appearing headed for defeat at the hands of Democrats Ron Rangel and Antonia “Toni” Arteaga, respectively. ...

Additionally, it appeared that 4th Court Justice Catherine Stone would win in her bid to succeed retiring Chief Justice Alma Lopez by defeating Republican Ann Comerio.

According to WOAI radio in San Antonio, "Another well known Republican at the courthouse, veteran Judge David Berchelmann, was very narrowly re-elected, beating Democrat Amber Alwais by 700 votes our of more than a half million cast."

Democrats also picked up an appellate court seat on the 8th Court of Appeals where Guadalupe Rivera defeated a GOP incumbent appointed by Gov. Perry. Two other successful Democratic challenges in local races mean Democrats now hold every judicial seat in El Paso County.

In Dallas, Democrats won every contested judicial seat, defeating Republican incumbents in every case except for Judge John Creuzot who'd switched parties to run as a Democrat. Dallas County has officially flipped and the 2010 countywide races will be a real transition point, one imagines, for that long-time Republican bastion.

Overall, though, it was a Republican night in most Texas judicial contests, despite President-elect Obama's national whipping of Texas' much-preferred presidential choice. But these judicial results show a significant loosening in what not long ago seemed like the GOP's iron grip on the state judiciary

If I were a Democratic strategist, in 2010, I'd make sure the party fielded strong candidates for all six appellate court seats that will be up (3 each on the Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals) and run a unified campaign on their behalf with a significant TV buy. If they're your statewide candidates with the best chance of winning, why the hell not? The Dems did a little of that for the Supreme Court candidates toward the very end of early voting, but in 2010 there should be a much more focused effort on winning these races, which will almost certainly constitute the vanguard of any Democratic success.

Winning those high court races was how Karl Rove first elected GOP candidates into statewide office after decades of Democratic dominance, and I've believed for some time now that, for similar reasons, the courts are Democrats' best, immediate chance to start winning statewide elections in Texas again.

Note to readers: Let me know in the comments about any other important judicial races you were watching that I missed covering here.


Anonymous said...

Cathy Stone (D) won chief justice 4th court of appeals in san antonio

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Thanks! I fixed it in the post. I thought I'd pulled one more paragraph from the SA Express News account than I had.

Anonymous said...

The new Dallas County judges ran a unified campaign, and it worked for them. I got a number of fliers in the last few weeks with all of them listed along with their accomplishments. An excellent tactic.

Anonymous said...

Grits you say that Texas is beginning to swing away from Republican Judges, yet there were so many that ran unopposed. That said, I think Texas has quite a long way before we can say we have a marked swing away from the Republican side of the house.

Looking at the polls statewide, is fairly clear that the good old boy system is well entrenched and will take decades to take apart.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

To 4:00, in the contested Tom Price-Susan Strawn race, the incumbent got 51.57%. Two years ago, the only incumbent with a contested race got 56.73%. Call me crazy, but IMO that's within spitting distance of seeing an upset in high court races within the next couple of election cycles.

That said, I'm not at all declaring that Texas has experienced "a marked swing away from the Republican side of the house." I'm saying that when the pendelum finally does swing that way, the numbers say the statewide court seats will be the first to flip.

Anonymous said...

gravyrug: Didn't work in Harris County. Republicans all ads together, but only the ones with opponents who had funny sounding names made it. Four out of dang near 25 Republicans were able to keep their bench.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

The difference is, 7:27, in Harris they were running against faceless Democrats generally with no records to criticize. Just using "liberal" or whatever as a scare word only gets you so far.

In the case of the Court of Criminal Appeals, there's a particularly uninspiring recent record to point to that could make the tactic a lot more poignant and effective. (E.g., Texas Monthly calling them "Texas' worst court," their obstinate resistance to DNA evidence in the Roy Criner case, their repeated benchslapping by SCOTUS and, lately, the 5th Circuit, the "We close at 5" episode, etc. ... the list goes on.) You can't run a negative ad against a phantom - that's a tactic best used against incumbents.

In any event, people don't know the judicial candidates and make their decision based on party affiliation, for the most part, so challengers may as well run unified campaigns. I don't know why the statewide court races consistently draw the highest vote totals (though I have my theories), but they do.

Anonymous said...

Dear 04:00 you are correct in the statement the "good ole boy" system remains in Texas.

But as history states, that system soon tires of it's self and the new system begins to over come the injustices done by the "good ole boy" system.

Unfortunately some of those Judges who have contributed to making Texas a laughing stock still remain in their places, but the next election should and will begin to tell the story and some of those "good ole boys" will indeed be looking for other employment.

Anonymous said...

Charles Kiker here:

Grits, straight ticket voting might have helped down balloter Dems in places like Dallas, San Antonio, Austin, and Houston. But out here in Swisher there were 638 straight ticket GOP voters to 540 Dems. I have a feeling that's true in most of the rural counties. If you draw a line from the north side of Dallas County east to Louisiana and West to New Mexico, there's not nary a blue county in the lot, most with 70% or more for John McCain. Swisher (Tulia) is one of the bluest of all these red counties, with "only" 66.25% for McCain. And Swisher County does not even have an organized Republican party. The Republicans for the most part just vote in the Democratic primary then vote GOP in the general. I think the only hope for the Dems out here is to get Hispanics registered and mobilized. To do that there will have to be Hispanic candidates, count chairs, and precinct chairs. Incidentally, Noriega ran well ahead of Obama in Swisher County,

Anonymous said...

Wow, I hope that by the time the next election rolls around, Judges won't be running on party lines.

A lot of experienced and fair Judges got defeated by people running on Obamas coat tails.

There are great Judges from both parties. I hope Texas fixes it's system.

Just because you are a democrat/republican, doesn't make you a great judge.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"I hope that by the time the next election rolls around, Judges won't be running on party lines."

The chances are greater that Rep. Lon Burnam will be the next Speaker of the House!

It would take a major concerted push from very powerful interests to get that done, and none of the necessary groundwork has been laid, to my knowledge, to remotely think that's got a chance of happening in 2009 in Texas.