Precinct analysis: The appeals courts

Somewhat lost in the shuffle of the near-Democratic sweep of the Harris County judiciary this year was the near miss in the five races for the First and Fourteenth Courts of Appeals, which cover Harris and nine surrounding counties. Jim Sharp won his race on his third attempt at one of those benches, while four other Democratic candidates fell just short, winning between 48.38 and 49.35% of the vote. I have a Google spreadsheet that summarizes these races on a county-by-county basis, with their companion races going back to 2002. A few things we learn from this:

– Harris County is still the most important county in these races. In fact, it was the only county carried by any of the Democrats, though Fort Bend and Waller were very close. Earlier this year, I wrote the following:

As I see it, 51% in Harris County will require a strong effort elsewhere (Sharp had 48% elsewhere in 2006) to be competitive. A 52% showing in Harris puts you well within range. Win 53% in Harris, and you’ll almost be surely be called Your Honor at this time next year.

Jim Sharp got 52.65% in Harris County, and 50.58% overall. Next in line was Martin Siegel, who got 51.73% in Harris and 49.35% overall. I’d say that was a pretty good projection on my part.

– Having said that, Harris wasn’t the be-all and end-all to these races. Sharp’s margin of victory in Harris was about 59,000 votes. That would have been enough to barely carry Siegel across the finish line, with Joe Beverly and Mary Markantonis falling just short. It still would have left Bert Moser and Leslie Taylor out in the cold by a few thousand votes. Where the Democrats needed a big win in Harris to have a chance, the Republicans rode big wins in Brazoria County to keep them at bay. In Moser and Taylor’s cases, their deficit in Brazoria was bigger than their surplus in Harris, despite the fact that Brazoria’s voter pool was one-tenth the size of Harris’. Brazoria was slightly bluer overall and for the most part at the Appeals Court level in 2008 compared to 2004, but with more voters, so the total gap got a bit wider. Holding down the margin in Brazoria looks to be as important as running up the score in Harris if you want to win as a Democrat.

– The other two big counties are going in opposite directions. Fort Bend was nearly 50-50 this year, after being a 55-45 Republican county in 2004. I believe the appeals court candidates can carry Fort Bend in 2010 and beyond, which will make their jobs easier. Even better, given Fort Bend’s growth (193,000 votes cast in appellate races in 2008, compared to 154,000 in 2004), a blue Fort Bend means there’s that much less room for Republican candidates to make up ground elsewhere. One of those places is Galveston, which has been trending away from the Democrats in recent years. Part of that this year was Hurricane Ike’s effect on the island, but a big driver of it is growth in suburban-Houston areas like Friendswood. I believe Galveston will continue to redden, at least in the short term. Right now, its voting population plus Brazoria’s is about equal to Fort Bend’s. Even if Fort Bend goes blue next cycle, these three counties will be net red barring anything unusual for the foreseeable future. Again, minimizing the amount by which they are red will be greatly helpful to Democratic hopefuls.

– It’s hard to draw a conclusion based on the results from 2006, but I think the turnout model will be favorable to Democrats in 2010. The small rural counties were considerably redder this year than in 06 – I don’t know if this was an anti-Obama effect or just how it is normally, but the off-year status of the next election will lessen the Republican total. Brazoria and Galveston were a lot friendlier to Dems in 2006 as well. I think it’s critical that the Dems ensure all these races have good candidates in 2010, because I believe they will be very winnable. Putting some resources into Brazoria, Fort Bend, and Galveston would go a long way.

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