Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Most appellate court races not competitive outside Houston

Now that filing deadline has past, I'm disappointed to see that Dems fielded no additional candidates besides Keith Hampton for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals this year, though they've got horses in all the Supreme Court of Texas races, including Bill Moody who topped all Democratic statewide vote-getters in 2006. (I predict Moody and Hampton will top all other D vote-getters in the November election.)

At the appeals court level, the majority of incumbents got a pass and only three of the 14 courts will see more than one contested general election. Seven appellate courts won't have any contested general election races at all, demonstrating that the practice of gerrymandering "safe" districts isn't limited to legislative seats.

The dearth of candidates also demonstrates that the Democrats' inability to find strong contenders extends to judicial races on the appellate level. It's particularly pathetic that Dems couldn't find someone willing to run against Larry Meyers on the CCA.

By far, the most action among appellate court races comes at the 1st and 14th Courts of Appeal in Houston.

The First Court boasts the most interesting judicial race in the state (to me, anyway), with Democrat and former Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Morris Overstreet challenging incumbent Chief Justice Sherry Radack, whose husband is a Harris County Commissioner. Two other Republicans on the court - Evelyn Keyes and Michael Massengale - drew both primary and general election opponents. At the 14th Court of Appeals there will also be three competitive general election races and one contested Republican primary for an open seat.

In each of the last two election cycles, First and Fourteenth Court general elections have been decided by one or two percentage points, making these races extremely competitive heading into November.

There are also two competitive general election races in the 5th Court of Appeals in Dallas, with Lawrence Praeger and Bonnie Lee Goldstein challenging incumbents Robert Filmore and Lara Myers, respectively. These appellate seats did not flip to Democrats along with county-level judicial seats in Dallas' 2006 and 2008 elections, but they've been getting more competitive and last go-round GOP incumbents barely fended off Dem challengers by a roughly 52-48 margin, putting them within striking distance depending on the dynamics of the race.

On the Third Court of Appeals out of Austin, Democrat Kurt Kuhn will face the winner of a primary battle between Melissa Goodwyn and Scott Field for an open seat in what will likely be a hotly contested race. Another possible close one may be Democrat Rebecca Martinez's challenge to incumbent Marialyn Barnard at the Fourth Court of Appeals in in San Antonio.

I'd be surprised if any of the other races in the appellate courts ended up being competitive in November. I don't know enough about the candidates to guess whether any GOP primary challenges might succeed. That said, as Ross Ramsey at the Texas Tribune noted, the list of candidates may still be incomplete:
Candidates had to file with the political parties by the close of business on Monday. The parties have ten days to get their ballots formalized and into the state's hands. And many candidates — two-thirds of the House, for instance — file with their local party officials instead of going to the state office. Those locals operate at what you might call different levels of efficiency, and not all of their candidate lists are available. The lists — and our database that results from them — will have some nicks and dents until the process is over.
And of course, there'll be a lot more action, too, in local criminal court races, to which I have only begun to pay closer attention. Perhaps the most immediate question: Will Harris County Democrats' judicial gains from 2008 continue in a mid-term election, or will the GOP stage a comeback?

Overall, with the exception of races for the Houston courts, the Dems half-assed slate in appellate court races reminds me of Jim Hightower's old quip that if God had intended people to vote, He'd have given them candidates.

See related Grits posts:


Charles Kuffner said...

"(I predict Moody and Hampton will top all other D vote-getters in the November election.)"

I'll take that bet, Scott.

First, I think Bill White is the strong favorite to be the leading Democratic votegetter. If he isn't, then either he's run a worse campaign than I expect, or something went very wrong for one of the other Republican incumbents.

Second, remember that there are a lot more votes cast in the Governor's race than in downballot races. In 2006, the Governor's race had over 200,000 more ballots than Moody's Supreme Court race.

One effect of that is that the Democratic candidate for Governor could get a lower percentage of the vote than Moody (or Hampton) and still get more votes. Look at it this way: Chris Bell got 43.3% of the two-party vote for Governor, which is to say 43.3% of the share between him and Perry. (Moody got 44.9% of the vote in his race.) Throw out Strayhorn and Friedman, distribute their share of the vote 56.7% to Perry and 43.3% to Bell, and Bell gets about 1,892,000 votes, which is 15,000 more than Moody. I even left the Libertarian candidate in the race and let him keep all of his votes.

And finally, speaking of the Libs, there will be a Lib candidate in Moody and Hampton's races. The Lib candidate in Moody's 2006 race got 4.06%, for almost 170,000 votes. There will be a Lib candidate for Governor, but they do much worse at the top of the ticket, where people are paying the most attention, than at the bottom. In 2002, for example, the Lib candidate for Governor got 66,720 votes (1.46%) out over over 4.5 million cast.

The bottom line is that 2006 was a strange year, and its conditions will not be repeated. Among other things, downballot Dems did better that year because they were essentially on level ground with the Rs in terms of money and name recognition, while the Dems at the top were vastly outgunned. At least with Bill White, that won't happen. For all these reasons, I believe he is the most likely candidate to lead the field for the Democrats.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Of course, Chuck, the court races also outpolled other Ds in 2008. The court races got more votes than Rick Noriega's Senate bid that year, and only Obama/Biden got more votes than Sam Houston (for SCOT), and just barely:

Houston: 3,525,141
Obama/Biden: 3,528,633

And in 2004:

J.R. Molina: 2,906,720
John Kerry/Joe Lieberman: 2,832,704

Or 2002:

Margaret Mirabal (SCOT): 1,978,081
Ron Kirk: 1,955,758

Bill White's a good candidate - better than Chris Bell, Tony Sanchez or Gary Mauro - but he's no Barack Obama.

So I'll take your bet: How 'bout loser buys dinner in the winner's town?

Charles Kuffner said...

I accept your terms, Scott. I'd rather bet on stuff like this than on UT-Alabama, anyway. :-)

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Excellent! Winner picks the restaurant. I'll look forward to it. :)

Atticus said...

The reason the Democratic totals in the 5th District aren't closer is that it also includes Republican-heavy Collin, Kaufman and Rockwall counties, along with Dallas, Grayson, and Hunt. Even with Dallas going blue, it's a tough race for a Democrat, although the numbers continue to improve.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

The same's true of the two Houston courts, Atticus - the districts are gerrymandered to make sure every Dem voting bloc is split and combined with large suburban and rural blocs that tend to vote R.

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