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How about those judicial races?

The Chron takes a look downballot.

Democratic judges who surprised Harris County in a 2008 rout because of strong turnout for Barack Obama are bracing for a tough fight in November after seeing the GOP, which had a clean sweep in 2010, continue to bolster its position statewide.

In the county’s 23 contested state district court races, 18 Democrats will have to overcome strong Republican momentum to keep their benches.

“It doesn’t look great,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “The state is trending conservative, so it will be difficult for Democrats to retain a lot of those seats.”

Although the judges are countywide races, they are too far down the ballot for most voters to study and make choices outside of party affiliation.

“A lot of these races are consumed and swept up in the general partisan trends,” said Rottinghaus. “Harris County certainly has flecks of blue, but there are elements that will drive the state to be more red this year.”

He said anger with Obama, as evidenced by the tea party, and the popularity of critics of the president, like Senate candidate Ted Cruz, will influence the election.

“The people at the top of the ticket are driving not only the turnout, but also much of the debate we’re having nationally, statewide and locally.”

Other experts said they do not expect a sweep, while well-known candidates on both sides will rise above the fray.

“I do not see a partisan sweep either way,” said political analyst Robert Miller. “Strong Democrats such as (Sheriff) Adrian Garcia will win, as will strong Republicans such as (district attorney candidate) Mike Anderson.”

It’s hard to argue with Miller’s prediction, but that doesn’t answer the question about the judicial races, which are primarily a function of base turnout. I’m not sure what Prof. Rottinghaus is basing his opinion on. Here’s a look at Presidential turnout levels in Harris County since 1992:

Year Republican Democrat =========================== 1992 406,778 360,771 1996 421,462 386,726 2000 528,965 418,143 2004 584,723 475,865 2008 571,883 590,982

I know from past study of 2004 races that George W. Bush received a number of Democratic crossover votes, so his total is a bit inflated. Still, the average Republican judicial candidate in a contested race received about 536,000 votes in 2004, and about 540,000 votes in 2008, while Democratic judicial candidates got 470,000 and 562,000, respectively. Was overall Republican turnout depressed in 2008? Maybe. Is it likely to be better this time around? Again, maybe. The Tea Party was clearly a factor for them in 2010, but that was largely due to bringing out Presidential year voters in a non-Presidential election. Those people are already factored into the equation for this year. How many Republicans who didn’t vote in 2008 are likely to come out this year, that’s the question. I suppose, as Prof. Rottinghaus suggests, that Ted Cruz could be amping up their excitement levels – Lord knows, Mitt Romney ain’t doing it – but if so he’s doing it while executing a Dewhurst-style avoidance campaign. (And I don’t know about you, but the only campaign ads I’ve seen lately are Obama ads, which run in fairly high frequency on cable. I swear, I never saw an Obama ad at this time in 2008, nor a Kerry ad ever.) The bigger question is where are new Republican voters coming from? Turnout levels in the Republican parts of Harris County were already very high in 2008, while turnout levels in the Democratic strongholds didn’t change much from 2004. As we know from the polls, the GOP’s base of support comes from Anglo voters, yet Harris County’s Anglo population is on the decline, at least relative to other populations. So again, where are new Republicans coming from?

On the flip side, it is certainly plausible that Democrats hit a peak in 2008 and that a fair number of new and irregular voters who showed up that year won’t bother this time around. Democratic enthusiasm and engagement seems pretty good from where I sit, certainly better than it was earlier this year, but 2008 was a historic year, and 2012 is a defensive one. This I think is the biggest factor, and it’s one I have a hard time quantifying. Demography and the current national atmosphere favor the Dems, but the Democratic base is more prone to enthusiasm deficits, and the effects of voter registration restrictions and voter intimidation efforts are unknown. Overall, I think the Democrats are in the better position, but I really don’t know how to feel about this election locally.

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  1. Cb says:

    The state is trending conservative? Really? What a keen observation…

    Harris County will be a toss up just like 2008.

  2. Mainstream says:

    Anectodally, I am encountering a fair number of Republicans and tea party types who are not planning to vote down ballot. They are unfamiliar with the names of the candidates and concerned that they might inadvertently help re-elect what they term a “RINO”, a Republican in Name Only.

  3. Greg Wythe says:

    Rottinghaus’ quote is either wildly incorrect or he should review several facets of political geography. He states that the “state” is trending conservative (highly questionable theory #1), and that this will somehow impact countywide races in Harris County (completely incoherent logic), which has “flecks” of blue. Here’s what that “fleck” looked like for Adrian Garcia in 2008: That’s a heck of a fleck, if I dare say so.

    I’d love to hear Rottinghaus expand on his quote since news reporters aren’t always able to match context of their story with what a quoted source says – particularly true for sources that haven’t performed this role for a number of years (to which, I raise my own hand on this score). As it stands, though, he doesn’t look like he knows what he’s talking about in regard to Texas, Harris County, or how countywide races work independently of statewide trends.

  4. Ron in Houston says:

    Are there any polls that survey the presidential race just in Harris County? I’m a firm believer that the top of the ticket controls the judicial races.

  5. Ron – Some of the recent polls have included a “Houston” subsample – see the Wilson Perkins one, for instance – but judging by their size and pro-Romney tilt (remember, the city of Houston voted 61% for Obama in 2008), I presume they mean “greater Houston area”, i.e., Harris, Fort Bend, Montgomery, maybe Galveston and Brazoria. I’m just guessing, since I’ve not seen anything specific. I presume we will see at least one Harris County-specific poll, probably sponsored by the Chron and/or KHOU, as was the case in 2008. But if there is such a poll, it likely won’t appear till after the start of early voting.