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November 16th, 2020:

A closer look at county races, Part 1

In this series of entries, I’m going to take a trip through the local election results pages on some counties of interest, to get a closer look at how they went this year and how that compares to 2016. We know Dems didn’t make the kind of gains they hoped for in Congress or the Lege, but there are other races on the ballot. How did things look there?

Harris County: We know the basic story of Harris County, where Republicans have claimed to get their mojo back. I’m not going to re-litigate that, but I will note that while things were mostly at stasis at the countywide and legislative levels, Dems flipped JP Precinct 5, long held by Republicans, though Constable Precinct 5 remained Republican. Beto carried all eight JP/Constable precincts in 2018, and while Biden only carried six in 2020, there still remain opportunities for Dems to win offices currently held by Republicans in Harris County.

Tarrant County: At a macro level, Dems were far more competitive in judicial races in 2020 than they were in 2016. None of the statewide judicial candidates got as much as 41% of the vote in 2016, while the range for statewide judicials in 2020 was 46.13% to 47.91%. In 2016, Dems fielded only one candidate for a district court bench; he lost by 15 points. In 2020, Dems challenged in 9 of 11 district court plus one county court race, with all candidates getting between 46 and 48 percent. This is basically where Harris County Democrats were in 2004, with more candidates in these races.

A little farther down the ballot, and Democrats flipped two Constable offices, in Precincts 2 and 7. Neither Republican incumbent had been challenged in 2016.

Fort Bend County: We know the topline, that Hillary Clinton won Fort Bend County in 2016, by a 51-45 margin. But there was no downballot effect – none of the statewide Democratic candidates won a plurality (all statewide candidates were below fifty percent). None of the Courts of Appeals candidates won, and none of the countywide candidates won, though most were around 48 or 49 percent. State Rep. Phil Stephenson won the Fort Bend part of HD85 by six points. Republicans won back County Commissioner Precinct 1 by finally running an untainted candidate against two-term incumbent Richard Morrison. Fort Bend was on the precipice, but it seemed like it had been there before.

As we know, Democrats broke through in a big way in 2018, and 2020 was more of the same. It’s not just that Biden carried Fort Bend by over ten points. It’s that every statewide Dem took a majority in Fort Bend, as did every Courts of Appeals candidates and every countywide candidate. Dems did not win back CC1, though challenger Jennifer Cantu did a smidge better than Morrison had done, but they did win the Constable race in Precinct 4; this was an open seat, as previous incumbent Trever Nehls ran unsuccessfully for Sheriff. Nehls had been unopposed in 2016.

Bexar County: Bexar is reliably blue at this point, and Biden’s 58-40 win is almost exactly in line with the October countywide poll we got. The big difference I see between Bexar 2020 and Bexar 2016 is in the legislative races. Phillip Cortez won HD117 back in 2016 by two and half points after having been swept out in the 2014 debacle. He won in 2020 by over 13 points. Tomas Uresti won HD118 in 2016 by ten points; Leo Pacheco won it in 2020 by seventeen. Rebecca Bell-Metereau lost the Bexar portion of SBOE5 in 2016 by 42K votes; she lost it by 24K votes in 2020, which is to say by 18K fewer votes. She won the district by 17K total votes, mostly boosted by Travis County, but she needed it to be closer in Bexar and it was. By the same token, Sen. Carlos Uresti won the Bexar portion of SD19 over challenger Pete Flores in 2016 by 34K votes. Incumbent Pete Flores lost the Bexar portion of SD19 to Roland Gutierrez by 33K votes, and he needed that margin to be as good as it was considering how the rest of the district went for Flores by 23K; Uresti had won the rest of the district by 3K in 2016. However you feel about the 2020 election in Texas, you would feel much worse about it if Rebecca Bell-Metereau had lost and Pete Flores had hung on. So thank you, Bexar County.

Williamson County: WilCo made news in 2018 when Beto carried the county, with MJ Hegar doing the same in CD31. I’ll get to the 2020 results in a minute, but first let’s remind ourselves where things were in 2016. Trump won WilCo by nine points over Hillary Clinton, John Carter beat Mike Clark in CD31 by 19 points, other statewide Republicans led by 16 to 19 points, and Tom Maynard led in SBOE10 by 16 points. State Rep. Larry Gonzalez had only a Libertarian opponent in HD52, Rep. Tony Dale won HD136 by eleven points. Republicans running for countywide office were all unopposed. The one Democratic victory was for County Commissioner, Precinct 1, which Terry Cook took with 51%.

Fast forward to 2020. Biden won Williamson County by about a point and a half – more than ten points better than Clinton in 2016. As with Tarrant County, his win was a solo at the county level, but the Democratic tide was much higher. Hegar lost to John Cornyn by three points, Donna Imam by five in CD31, and the other statewide Dems trailed by three to seven points. Tom Maynard carried WilCo in SBOE10 again, but only by four points. Dems had flipped HDs 52 and 136 in the 2018 wave, and both freshmen Reps were easily re-elected, James Talarico by three points in HD52, and John Bucy by 10 in HD136. Dems lost the two District Court races they challenged, and they lost for County Attorney, but they did oust the scandal-tainted Sheriff, by a massive 12 points. Terry Cook was re-elected as County Commissioner in Precinct 1 with over 57%, and Dems won Constable Precinct 1, while coming close in Precincts 3 (losing by five) and 4 (losing by two). It’s not at all hard to see Williamson as the next Fort Bend.

The point of all this is twofold. One is a reminder that there are more races than just the state races, and there’s more ways to measure partisan strength than just wins and losses. The other is that these much less visible races that Dems are winning is exactly what Republicans were doing in the 80s and 90s and into the aughts. Every election it seemed like I was reading about this or that traditionally Democratic county that had gone all Republican. There is a trend here, and we’d be foolish to ignore it. To be sure, this is happening in fewer counties than with the Republican march of the previous decades, but there’s a lot more people in these counties. I’ll take population over land mass any day.

I’ll be back with a look at more counties next time. Let me know what you think.

UPDATE: While I was drafting this, I received a press release from the TDP congratulating three Democratic Sheriffs-elect, all of whom had won offices previously held by Republicans: Eric Fagan in Fort Bend, Mike Gleason in Williamson – both of which were mentioned in this post – and Joe Lopez of Falls County, which is adjacent to McLennan and Coryell counties to the east; basically, it’s east of Waco. Falls was Republican at the Presidential level, with Trump carrying it 4,177 to 1,899, so I assume there was some reason particular to that race that assisted Lopez in his victory.

A bill to ban no-knock warrants

Probably won’t go anywhere, but well worth the effort.

Rep. Gene Wu

A bill pre-filed this week by state Rep. Gene Wu would ban no-knock warrants across Texas, marking the first major legislative response to last year’s botched drug raid that led to the deaths of two Houston residents and murder charges for a police officer.

Wu’s proposal, which he filed Tuesday, would bar magistrates from issuing warrants that allow police to break into residents’ homes without warning. After the practice came under scrutiny in Houston, Police Chief Art Acevedo began requiring approval from top-ranking police officials and the signature of a district court judge — not municipal court judges or county magistrates — before officers could carry out no-knock warrants.

Acevedo implemented the policy change after narcotics officers in January burst into a home on Harding Street in search of heroin, sparking an eruption of gunfire that killed residents Dennis Tuttle and Rhogena Nicholas and injured five officers. Police discovered only small amounts of cocaine and marijuana during the bust.

Shortly after the raid, Acevedo said no-knock warrants “are going to go away like leaded gasoline in this city,” prompting headlines that claimed the Houston Police Department would end the practice altogether.

Rep. Wu’s bill is HB492. The story references the recent HPD audit of the atrocious Harding Street raid, of which Rep. Wu was a harsh critic. I will note that the Mayor Turner task force report on police reform includes the recommendation of “a blanket ban on no-knock warrants for nonviolent offenses”. This bill would go farther than that, and it’s not clear to me if the Harding Street fiasco would have been covered by the recommended task force policy.

As with marijuana reform bills, there is bipartisan support for banning (or at least restricting) no-knock warrants, but any bill to do that seems doomed to me. As the story notes, a bill from 2019 that simply called for law enforcement agencies to submit reports on their use of no-knock warrants to DPS never got a vote in committee. Things have changed since then, but that’s just not a great sign. I hope I’m wrong about that.

Who cares how much it will cost to build the Ike Dike?

Imagine how much it will cost to recover from a catastrophic hurricane whose storm surge could have been mitigated by the Ike Dike. You know, like that hurricane from earlier this year that would have done exactly that had it hit 150 miles or so west of where it did hit.

The Army Corps of Engineers has revised its plan for a coastal barrier that would fundamentally alter the southeast Texas coastline, with massive sea gates across the Houston Ship Channel and 43 miles of dunes and renourished beaches spanning Bolivar Peninsula and Galveston.

The newest version of the coastal barrier, once known as the “Ike Dike,” was released Tuesday by the Corps and Texas General Land Office. While initial estimates said the project would cost as much as $32 billion, officials now peg the cost as $26.2 billion.

The plan incorporates feedback received during a contentious round of public meetings after the original plan was released in October 2018. Many coastal residents and environmentalists balked at a structure that they said could harm ecology and wildlife and tank property values.

But with three major hurricanes narrowly skirting the Houston-Galveston region this year during a particularly active season — 27 named storms — state officials noted that a project on the scale of the coastal barrier would protect the region for decades to come as the climate gets warmer and more volatile.

“The Corps of Engineers recognizes the coast as a extremely vibrant place to live and recognizes, and our metrics in the army show, that the Texas coast is leading economic growth for the nation,” said Mark Havens, deputy land commissioner for the General Land Office. “This hurricane season has given us pause because it’s given us too many close calls not to heed this warning.”

The Corps plans to convene three days of virtual public meetings, beginning Nov. 16. The public comment period will end on Dec. 14, and feedback will be incorporated into the final feasibility report, which the Corps plans to publish in May 2021. The Corps also emphasized interactive web features for the public such as 3-D virtual tours of some of the project’s features and flood impact maps.

Once the study is complete it will be proposed for congressional authorization and funding. If approved, it is expected to take 12 to 20 years to design and construct.

See here for the previous update. We are virtually certain to get a big honking infrastructure/stimulus bill from the Biden administration in its early days, and this project would fit nicely within it. All we need is for the Texas Congressional delegation to do its part. This will take a long time to build, as noted, so the less screwing around we do, the sooner we can get it started. In conclusion:

Indeed.