Dr. Murray takes a look at the GOP primary results in Harris County, beginning with County Judge Ed Emmett’s successful defense against Charles Bacarisse.
The first point to note is that while the 170,000 voter turnout in Harris County’s Republican Primary was about a third of that on the Democratic side, this was still a record vote for the party. Most of this turnout, Harris County Clerk Beverly Kaufman notes, was driven by interest in local elections, as opposed to the presidential race on the Democratic side. The top local Republican races were for the nominations for Harris County Judge and District Attorney. Today, let’s look at the first contest, where appointed incumbent Ed Emmett beat back a decidedly negative campaign by former County Clerk of Court Charles Bacarisse, winning the Republican nomination against Democrat David Mincberg in the November General Election. My personal take on this race is that Emmett’s success reflected five factors:
(1) The relatively heavy Republican turnout diluted the social conservative vote Bacarisse had counted on, to Judge Emmett’s benefit.
(2) Ed Emmett, enjoying the support of popular former Judge Robert Eckels and the two Republican County Commissioners, all of whom had voted for him last year to replace Mr. Eckels, had most of the county Republican establishment behind him in this race.
(3) That larger base of support enabled Judge Emmett to out-raise and out-spend Mr. Bacarisse and dominate television advertising down the stretch when local Republican voters were focusing in on the contest.
(4) And, the County Judge’s ads were clever (especially with his two vacation-seeking daughters) and positive (note the Robert Eckels spot), qualities one would not use to describe his opponent’s tv spots.
(5) Finally, as a recent appointee, Ed Emmett could present himself to Republican voters as a credible reformer not tied to recent scandals at the county courthouse. Facing a tough General Election environment with Democrats running against every county wide elected official on the ballot (no Democrats have won an at-large race in Harris County since 1994), the Judge looked like the best bet to hold the office (and a majority on Commissioners Court) in November 4, 2008.
I’m always a bit leery about giving credit to “Republican moderates” for a candidate’s primary win. The Harris County GOP has been unabashedly conservative since the Steven Hotze/Gary Polland faction forced Betsy Lake out as Chair in the early 90s. They’ve promoted their brand as conservative, they’ve put forth conservative candidates, and they’ve been pretty successful at it for a long time. It’s hard to imagine the primary electorate turning on a dime like that.
Having said that, I do think it’s fair to conclude that the high turnout benefited Emmett. I know Bacarisse had a poll in the field in February that showed him leading the race; by ten points, as I recall. How could that have been so far wrong? One explanation for that is a bad assumption about the makeup of the electorate. If Bacarisse’s poll was defining “likely voters” as the more hardcore triple-R types, that might have skewed things in his favor. I’m just guessing here – I only heard about this poll, I never saw it, so I could certainly be wrong about its sample and methodology.
Frankly, I think the biggest effect in Emmett’s favor was that he had higher name recognition than Bacarisse. I think Bacarisse did make the assumption that this was going to be a lower-turnout election, which would be won by whoever whipped up the faithful more, and that simply wasn’t the case. Enough people were interested in the two big local races on the GOP ballot – and that’s not counting the high-profile races that only covered part of Harris County, like HD130 and CD22 – to make it a fairly high-turnout affair, and I think more of those people were familiar with Emmett, who was on TV more and was speaking to a broader audience more than Bacarisse.
But here’s the thing. I think Emmett did pretty well among the conservative voters, too. I say this because farther down on the ballot, there were two primaries that were about conservative activists aiming to oust insufficiently ideological incumbents, and in those races they succeeded. I’m speaking about the HCDE Board of Trustees, where Michael Wolfe extracted his vengeance on two of his fellow members by getting his hand-picked challengers (Mike Riddle and Stan Stanart) elected in their place. You’d think if Bacarisse was sweeping up the conservative vote in the GOP primary, the precincts where he did well would correlate with where Riddle and Stanart did best. But that’s not the case. I went through the canvass data, separated out the precincts where Bacarisse won at least 50% of the vote, and those where he got less, and looked at how Riddle and Stanart did in those same precincts. Here’s what I found:
Bacarisse 10977 Bacarisse 50677 Emmett 8782 Emmett 69089 Undervote 3763 Undervote 27571 Bac Pct 55.6 Bac Pct 42.3 Turnout % 84.0 Turnout % 81.3 Riddle 8686 Riddle 58776 Peterson 6021 Peterson 38597 Undervote 8815 Undervote 49964 Riddle % 59.1 Riddle % 60.4 Turnout % 62.5 Turnout % 66.1 Stanart 9934 Stanart 68469 Garcia 4908 Garcia 28753 Undervote 8680 Undervote 50113 Stan % 66.9 Stan % 70.4 Turnout % 63.1 Turnout % 66.0
The numbers on the left represent the 213 precincts in which Bacarisse got 50% or more of the vote; the numbers on the right are the remaining 600+ precincts. As you can see, Riddle and Stanart actually did a little better in the precincts that Ed Emmett won. What that suggests to me is that there wasn’t a conservative surge for Bacarisse that was overwhelmed by a bigger wave of less ideological voters. It suggests that Bacarisse and Emmett both had support from conservative voters. Which in turn suggests that perhaps even the more partisan Republicans realize that just having the R next to their candidates’ names this year isn’t going to be enough to win, so they’d better put their best candidate on the ballot instead of just the most conservative one. At least, it suggests that for the higher-profile race. Farther down the ballot, where the races will be mostly under the radar, it was okay to go for the fellow traveler and hope for the best.