Harris County Democratic and Republican officials have looked at Tuesday's local election results and they agree: The GOP-dominated county government could be recaptured by Democrats as soon as 2008.
"Believe me, it's being discussed," said Republican Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt, a conservative leader.
"It's an amazing wake-up call," said Republican County Commissioner Steve Radack.
In an election when many ethnic minority voters didn't vote, Republican judicial candidates on the bottom half of the Harris County ballot won by an average of fewer than four percentage points - 52 percent to 48 percent.
The average margin four years ago was more than nine points.
If minority voters had been energized, as they might be in the 2008 presidential year, it could have been a Democratic sweep, some analysts said.
They point to Dallas County, long a GOP stronghold, where Democrats claimed every countywide seat elected Tuesday.
Countywide judicial races are considered a good indicator of party feelings. There are so many of them that voters tend to choose based on party affiliation rather than knowledge of individual candidates or issues.
The Houston Chronicle calculated the combined GOP margin of victory for all contested races for state district courts, which are elected countywide.
It was 3.9 percentage points, the smallest since at least 1998.
Some Republicans evaluating Tuesday's results said conservatives didn't get out to vote. Others said the problem might be that fewer Republicans voted straight-party tickets because the governor's race included two independent candidates.
Those lost straight-ticket votes might have benefited down-ballot judicial races that voters otherwise didn't bother with, Radack theorized.
Democrats noted that the margin in the judicial races was close even though ethnic minorities who generally vote Democratic skipped the election, which featured few Hispanic or non-Hispanic black candidates in showcase races.
In the 11 state House districts within Harris County that have Anglo majorities, voter turnout Tuesday was 36 percent. In the 12 with non-Hispanic black and Hispanic majorities, the turnout was 26 percent.
Also on my to-do list: Compare the baseline Democratic performance in HDs127 and 129, where Diane Trautman and Sherrie Matula overperformed relative to 2004 by 10 and 8 points, respectively. One of the tenets of the Run Everywhere philosophy is that putting strong candidates in less friendly districts like these is that they can help boost the overall performance of those districts, which in turn can create a nice little rising tide when applied to every GOP-held area. I need to see how well that holds up in those districts. It's certainly possible that there were just a bunch of R-plus-Trautman or R-plus-Matula voters out there. It's also possible that the presence of actual competition might have goosed GOP turnout as well. I don't think that's the case here, given that neither Joe Crabb nor John Davis did much in the way of campaigning. But it needs to be verified one way or the other.
My nominee for Understatement of the Century:
Former Harris County Democratic Chairwoman Sue Schechter said she regrets the party didn't put more money into the judicial races this time. It might have made a difference, she said.
Now then, regarding Dallas:
A national wave of Democratic voting and changing demographics swept Republicans out of power in the county as the GOP surrendered 42 judgeships, the district's attorney office and the county judge's seat.
Twenty-six years after a Ronald Reagan landslide put Republicans in control, Democrats retook the courthouse in a similar, surprising sweep.
"We didn't expect it, but it's fun," Democratic Party Chair Darlene Ewing said Wednesday. As late as 10 p.m. Election Night, she had been predicting Democrats would win, at best, 10 or 15 judicial contests.
"This is what happened in 1980, except this time they did it to us," said Michael Walz, executive director of the Dallas County Republican Party.
Like many of the judicial contests, the race to head the commissioners court was close, with only about 5,500 votes separating [Democrat Jim] Foster and [Republican Margaret] Keliher out of 378,000 votes cast.
"The Democrats came out in mass, and we were not out as strong," said Walz, the GOP executive director.
Walz said some Republicans took Perry's and Hutchison's elections for granted and stayed home not knowing a local landslide was in the making. Four U.S. House incumbents with safely drawn districts that include all or part of Dallas County won re-election.
"This election is a wake-up call to conservatives," Kenn George, the Dallas County Repubican chairman, said in a statement. "Republican candidates cannot continue to win if Republican voters do not show up to vote."