Depending on who you ask, either 2008 is going to be another successful year for the Harris County GOP, or it's gonna suck.
As he tries to keep the job of Harris County judge, Republican Ed Emmett is warning that his party has lost its 12-year voting advantage in local elections and needs to look for support away from the suburbs.
"We have got to make sure that the Republican Party gets its act together and moves forward," the county government chief told a Republican club Wednesday night. "We don't live in 1994, we don't live in 1998 ... we are facing a county that is changing demographically, and I don't mean just racially."
The statements by Emmett, the county's highest ranking Republican official, contrast with the tone that's been set by Harris County Republican Party Chairman Jared Woodfill.
He has said the GOP expects to win countywide races by close margins in the November elections, keeping about 25 judgeships in Republican hands along with district attorney, sheriff, county judge and other positions.
"Every cycle I have been chairman there is always this negative, defeatist mentality before the election." Woodfill said Thursday. "We are going to work like we are behind but we are not going to plan for defeat."
Emmett, who faces former district clerk Charles Bacarisse in the March 4 primary, also said that Republicans in Harris County simply got too accustomed to winning.
Emmett said that when he moved to West University Place in 2003 after 14 years in Washington, D.C., he saw Republicans winning elections but also noticed "that they have gotten lazy, and I don't mean the candidates, I mean mainly the (campaign) consultants."
"I saw campaign brochures that, basically, you just put clip-art on, you put an 'R' after your name and you expect you are going to win. Well, those days are gone," he added.
Emmett said many young voters have to come to see the GOP as mean-spirited and clubby, and that older Houston-area Republican activists have decreased their participation in campaigns.
As a result, he counseled, "We have to go house-to-house and carry a positive message of why Republicans can provide the government people want."
None of this is to say that the Democrats are sitting pretty, of course. For all the GOP-flavored bad news that we've seen so far this year, with more sure to come, the one thing that's been consipcuously absent has been any perspective from Democratic candidates on how they'd do things differently. I expect that to change at some point, but I feel like it's already been a lost opportunity. It's not enough for the voters to think that the current crowd is a bunch of bums - they have to think the other guys won't be bums, too. That, and fundraising, will be the Democrats' challenge this year.
I will say this, as someone who first started paying minimal attention to politics around 1992: I feel like the local GOP had a recognizable brand back in the early to mid 90s, one that clearly came through in its TV and print ads. It was a tough on crime/fiscally responsible brand that worked as a template for just about any candidate, and indeed I'd have sworn that some of those ads just simply substituted names and faces from earlier efforts. I don't feel like that brand has really existed in recent years, partly because the GOP hasn't had to run ads to win most races, and partly because that image just doesn't fit any more. I don't think they have any real advantage over the Dems in terms of defining themselves, especially to newer voters, and I think their association with President Bush and the national GOP does them no favors as it once had.
But hey, it's early, and nobody has spent any money yet. I think we're in for an election season like we haven't seen in a long time (1994 at least), and it's going to be fun, unpredictable, and annoying as hell by the time it's all over. I doubt I'll lack for material, that's for sure.
One more thing:
In presidential election years, about two-thirds of the votes here have been cast with the "straight ticket" option, indicating many candidates will win or lose based on party affiliation rather than voter evaluations of their campaigns.
The point is, that even in the low-information downballot races, individual candidates still matter, and straight-ticket voting only takes you so far. Countywide Dem vote totals in 2006 ranged from 277,000 to just under 250,000, meaning they got from 104,000 to 131,000 votes "on their own"; the same totals on the R side were 309,000 to 276,000, or 138,000 to 171,000 "on their own" votes. I submit to you that the non-straight-ticket votes will be vitally important as well.Posted by Charles Kuffner on January 25, 2008 to Election 2008