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Election 2002

We should have a full statewide slate

Nice.

Judge Gisela Triana

For Brandon Birmingham, a state district judge in Dallas, the 2020 race for Texas Court of Criminal Appeals started on election night 2018.

As he watched Beto O’Rourke win more votes than any Texas Democrat ever had in a statewide race, Birmingham — who himself won reelection that night with 100% of the vote in his countywide district — began to mull his own chances at winning Texas. Within weeks, he’d reached out to the state Democratic Party. By December, he’d sat down with party officials over breakfast in Dallas to discuss a possible run.

Now, as the 2020 election season begins in earnest after the start of the filing period Nov. 9, Birmingham is one of 14 Democrats seeking one of seven seats on the state’s two high courts — an unusually crowded and unusually qualified field for races that have over the past two decades plus proved suicide missions for Democrats. This year, with a controversial Republican president on the ballot and sky-high stakes for Texas Democrats, candidates are hoping the races look more like heroes’ journeys.

“In 2018, 2016, 2014, 2012, the last four cycles, the month of October was spent talking and begging people to come to us, to run for these kinds of offices,” said Glen Maxey, a former Texas House member who is coordinating statewide judicial races for the Texas Democratic Party. “That’s what’s different about 2020. We did not make a single phone call. … We have not twisted a single arm about doing this.”

In past years, Maxey said, the party was often scrambling to find “any qualified attorney” to put on the ballot. This year, nearly every race involves at least one sitting judge or justice with years of experience.

[…]

Strategists sometimes consider statewide judicial races the best measure of the state’s true partisan split: Whom do voters pick when they know little or nothing about either party’s candidate?

Statewide judicial races are “important to watch in terms of partisan vote behavior,” said Mike Baselice, a GOP pollster. They show a “good reflection of base Democratic and base Republican vote in the state.”

That also means that judicial candidates typically rise and fall as a slate: Most likely, either all of them will win or none of them will, strategists acknowledge. It’s a blunt theory, but it offers clear strategic guidance: A rising tide lifts all boats.

“We won’t have them each deciding to be at the same chicken fry in Parker County on the same Friday,” Maxey said. Instead, he said, they’ll tell nominees: “We need you to travel. We need you to be making appearances as seven people in seven different media markets every day, so that people are hearing a Democratic message about equal justice, all over, everywhere.”

I agree with Mike Baselice that judicial races do indeed do a good job of measuring partisan vote behavior. As you know, I’ve been using CCA races across the years as my point of comparison. I like judicial races at the county level even more because they are almost always straight up R-versus-D contests, but a lot of these go uncontested in counties that have strong partisan leans, so the statewides are the best overall proxy.

By that measure, 2018 was easily the most Democratic year in recent memory. The Supreme Court and CCA Democratic candidates ranged from 45.48% (in a race that included a Libertarian) to 46.83%, the best showing since Sam Houston got 45.88% in 2008 and Margaret Mirabal got 45.90% in 2002. I’d quibble slightly with the assertion that all the Dems will win or none of them will – there is some spread in these races, so if the state is basically 50-50, you could have a couple Dems sneak through while others just fall short. That’s basically what happened in Harris County judicial races in 2008 and 2012, after all. The presence or absence of third party candidates could be a factor as well, as more candidates in the race means fewer votes, and only a plurality, are needed to win. Again, this is only relevant if the state is truly purple, and the range of outcomes that include a split in the judicial races is narrow, but it could happen.

My one complaint here is that the story only names one Democratic CCA candidate, while teasing that there are many more. So I asked some questions, of reporter Emma Platoff and Patrick Svitek, reporter and proprietor of the Patrick Svitek spreadsheet of announced candidates, and now that Statewide tab is full. Here. for your perusal, are your Democratic statewide judicial candidates:

Amy Clark Meachum – Supreme Court, Position 1 (Chief Justice)
Jerry Zimmerer – Supreme Court, Position 1 (Chief Justice)

Supreme Court, Position 6 – Brandy Voss
Supreme Court, Position 6 – Staci Williams

Supreme Court, Position 7 – Kathy Cheng
Supreme Court, Position 7 – Lawrence Praeger

Supreme Court, Position 8 – Gisela Triana
Supreme Court, Position 8 – Peter Kelly

Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 3 – William Demond
Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 3 – Elizabeth Frizell
Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 3 – Dan Wood

Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 4 – Brandon Birmingham

Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 9 – Tina Yoo Clinton
Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 9 – Steve Miears

Kelly is a Justice on the First Court of Appeals, elected in 2018. He doesn’t appear to have an online campaign presence yet, but a search for “peter kelly texas supreme court” yielded this.

William Demond is a “constitutional rights attorney” in Houston. Elizabeth Frizell is a former County Criminal Court judge in Dallas who ran for Dallas County DA in 2018 but lost in the primary. This story in The Appeal has some information about her candidacy from that year. Dan Wood is a criminal appellate lawyer who ran for the Fifth Court of Appeals in 2012 and for CD05 in 2018.

Brandon Birmingham, the one candidate named in the story, was elected to the 292nd Criminal District Court in Dallas in 2014, re-elected in 2018.

Tina Clinton serves as Criminal District Judge Dallas County Number 1, which is a felony court. I don’t know why the nomenclature is different from the other District Courts as I had not heard of this kind of court before, but similarly-named courts exist in Tarrant and Jefferson counties as well. She was elected to this court after serving eight years as a County Criminal Court judge, and you can scroll down the 2018 election results page to see more judges like her. Steve Miears is a criminal and criminal appellate attorney from Grapevine.

And now we’re as up to date as we can be The Secretary of State is now providing candidate filing information, which tells me that as of Friday Lawrence Praeger was the only one to have formally filed. More are to follow, and I’ll keep an eye on it.

The Harris County GOP thinks it can come back in 2020

They’re so adorable.

Never forget

Once a rock of Republican politics in Texas, Harris County has become nothing short of a nightmare for the GOP over the last four years as Hillary Clinton and Beto O’Rourke carried the county and Democrats dominated further down ballot in local races.

But as bad as it has been of late, party leaders say it’s foolish to consider Harris County blue, based on just two election cycles. They insist the party has learned key lessons over the last four years and made changes that will not just stop the Democratic trends, but lead to GOP victories in 2020 and beyond.

“We are still a strong force here,” Harris County Republican Party chairman Paul Simpson said.

He sees 2016 and 2018 as more of temporary Democratic run than a change of the guard. There have already been big changes that will affect 2020, he said, pointing to the end of straight-ticket voting, better minority community outreach and a renewed commitment to registering new voters as three things that will lift GOP candidates in Harris County.

That’s not to discount the pain of the last two election cycles. Shifting demographics and an emboldened Democratic Party that has registered new voters at record speed allowed Clinton in 2016 to win the biggest share of the vote for a Democratic presidential candidate in Harris since Texas icon Lyndon Johnson was on the ballot in 1964.

And in the governor’s race in 2018, Democrat Lupe Valdez — who ran a campaign that was mediocre at best — won Harris County over incumbent Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, becoming only the second Democratic gubernatorial candidate to carry Harris County in 25 years.

“There was shell shock,” Republican media consultant Vlad Davidiuk said.

[…]

Months before the 2018 election, Abbott’s political team was warning allies about what was happening in Harris County. That summer at a training session in San Antonio, Abbott campaign advisers told workers that Democratic-leaning voter registration groups such as Battleground Texas were making big gains registering new voters in Harris County.

Davidiuk, who was working with the Harris County Republican Party then, said others saw it coming, too.

“We didn’t have a response to that,” he said. “If there was a response, it was too fractured.”

That voter registration push has only grown the Democratic advantage at the polls the last two years.

“Our historic voter base is shrinking in both real and absolute terms,” the 2016 post election analysis says. “As a consequence, we are at risk of becoming a minority party within Harris County.”

Later it makes clear that “Donald Trump’s loss in Harris County and its down-ballot impact in 2016 could foreshadow future elections if we do not broaden our voter base.”

I’ve already said most of what there is to say about this. The rationales they give – it was Beto! straight ticket voting! Trump! why don’t those minorities like us? – are as predictable as they are pathetic and self-unaware. The straight ticket thing I’ve beaten to death (but feel free to reread this for one of my responses to that trope), but I think what we need here is to throw some numbers at these claims.


Year    R Pres   D Pres   R Judges   D Judges
=============================================
2004   584,723  475,865    535,877    469,037
2008   571,883  590,982    541,938    559,048
2012   586,073  587,044    563,654    568,739
2016   545,955  707,914    605,112    661,404

Republicans have basically not done any better at the Presidential level in Harris County since George W. Bush in 2004. They have grown some at the judicial level (the numbers you see above are the average totals from the District Court races, my go-to for measuring partisan vote totals), which highlights Trump’s extreme underperformance, but their growth (plus 70K from 2004 to 2016) is dwarfed by Democratic vote growth (plus 192K) over the same period. This is my thesis, which I’ve repeated over and over again and which has clearly not sunk in. This is the problem Republicans need to solve.


Year  R Judges   D Judges    R Str    D Str  R Str%  D Str%
===========================================================
2004   535,877    469,037  370,455  325,097   69.1%   69.3%
2008   541,938    559,048  343,919  391,488   63.5%   70.1%
2012   563,654    568,739  404,165  406,991   71.7%   71.6%
2016   605,112    661,404  401,663  472,030   66.4%   71.4%

These are the countywide straight ticket voting totals, and the percentage of each side’s average judicial total that came from straight ticket votes. Looked at this way, Democratic straight ticket vote total growth is proportionate to their overall vote total growth. In other words, the increase in Democratic straight ticket voters wasn’t inflating their overall strength, it was merely reflecting it. Meanwhile, fewer people voted straight ticket Republican in 2016 than they did in 2012. Sure, some of that is a reaction to Trump, but that’s still a big problem for them, and it’s not something that the elimination of straight ticket voting will help them with in 2020. Note also that Republicans have been pretty heavily dependent on straight ticket voting as well. I do not understand the assumption that its removal will help them.


Year  Voter Reg   R Pres%  R Judge%  D Pres%  D Judge%
======================================================
2004  1,876,296     31.2%     28.6%    25.4%     25.0%
2008  1,892,656     30.2%     28.6%    31.2%     29.5%
2012  1,942,566     30.2%     29.0%    30.2%     29.3%
2016  2,182,980     25.0%     27.7%    32.4%     30.3%

The first column is the total number of registered voters in Harris County in the given year, and the percentages are the percentage of each of the total registered voter population. As a share of all registered voters, Donald Trump did worse than John Kerry, while Hillary Clinton did better than Dubya. The share of all voters choosing Democratic judicial candidates increased twenty percent from 2004 to 2016, while the share of all voters choosing Republican judicial candidates declined by three percent. This is what I mean when I say that the Republicans first and foremost have a “not enough voters” problem in Harris County. Their second problem is that they have no clue what to do about it.

For what it’s worth, here’s a similar comparison for the off years:


Year  R Judges   D Judges    R Str    D Str  R Str%  D Str%
===========================================================
2002   333,009    270,564  185,606  171,594   55.7%   63.4%
2014   359,842    297,812  254,006  210,018   70.6%   70.5%
2018   531,013    651,975  410,654  515,812   77.3%   79.1%

Year  Voter Reg  R Judge%  D Judge%
===================================
2002  1,875,777     17.8%     14.4%
2014  2,044,361     17.6%     14.6%
2018  2,307,654     23.0%     28.3%

Couple things to note here. One is that there wasn’t much in the way of growth for either party from 2002 to 2014, though as we know there were some ups and downs in between. The 2018 election was a lot like a Presidential election in terms of turnout – you’ve seen me use 2012 as a point of comparison for it before – but one in which the Dems did a much better job. No Republican, not even Ed Emmett, came close to getting 600,000 votes. Here, I’ll agree that having unpopular politicians at the top of the ballot, like Ted Cruz and Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton, as well as having to fly under the Trump banner, helped propel Dems, in part because of former Republicans crossing over. But they were starting from a lower point to begin with.

Note, by the way, the jump in voter registrations from 2012 to 2014. Mike Sullivan deserves some credit for that, as he was the first Tax Assessor in a long time to not be hostile to voter registration, but this was also the point at which Dems started really focusing on registering voters. For sure, that has helped, and I’ve no doubt that Abbott’s people had reason to be alarmed going into 2018. I find it kind of amusing that Republicans are turning to voter registration themselves as a way forward. I have to wonder if that will lead to any bills getting advanced that would make voter reg easier and more convenient. My guess is still No, on the grounds that they probably figure they can throw money at the problem and would still rather have it be hard for Dems, but we’ll see.

I could go on, but you get the point. And as a reminder, the numbers themselves aren’t the whole story about why Republicans are struggling and will continue to do so in Harris County:

Simpson, for one, is glad to see the parade of Democratic presidential contenders coming to Harris County because it puts their ideas — particularly on climate change — front and center. Let them bring their calls for banning fossil fuels, he said.

“They don’t want us to eat beef, drill for oil or even use straws.”

Because it there’s one thing younger voters really hate, it’s trying to solve climate change. Way to be on top of the trends there, dude.

How many contested judicial primaries should we expect?

We already know that we’re going to get primary challenges to at least one Democratic countywide officeholder, as County Attorney Vince Ryan has two challengers lining up against him, and DA Kim Ogg has at least one person who has announced interest in challenging her. Most of the county offices available are judicial, though, and now that the local judiciary (other than a few JPs) is entirely Democratic, the path to gaining a bench for yourself is limited if one doesn’t want to take on a Democratic incumbent. I had a conversation about this with some folks recently, and we were debating how many such challenges we may see this year. I thought the number would be relatively small, and I based that on the belief that there weren’t that many primary challenges to Republican judges in recent years. That was my intuition, but I didn’t know the actual numbers at the time. I’ve now had a chance to look through recent primary history, and this is what I found:


Republican judicial primary challenges

2002 - 5
2004 - 0
2006 - 4
2008 - 1
2010 - 1
2014 - 3
2018 - 1

That’s less than I had thought. A couple of notes here. I only looked at the years in which all the incumbents were Republican (so no 2012 or 2016), and I limited myself to district and county courts (so no statewide, appeals courts, or JPs). There were some contested races in years where a jurist had been appointed to complete the term of someone who had stepped down or gotten a promotion – in 2008, there were two such races, in in 2012 there were four, for example – but I put those in a separate category. Basically, from what I found, there were actually very few challenges to sitting judges who had served full term. Make of that what you will.

Now, a couple of caveats here. One possible reason for the lack of challenges to four-year incumbents may be because there often were benches vacated in the middle of someone’s tenure, which allowed for a challenge of someone who had been appointed. These judges presumably felt comfortable stepping down mid-term because they knew their replacement would also be a Republican, with district court judges being appointed by the Governor and county court judges being appointed by Commissioners Court. With the exception of Al Bennett, who was named to a federal bench, no Democratic district court judge has stepped down since the first set were elected in 2008. Some have declined to run for re-election, but no others have given Rick Perry or Greg Abbott the opportunity to pick their interim replacement. County court judges won’t have that concern now, but for the foreseeable future I don’t expect any district court judges to abandon their post before it expires if they can at all help it. That points towards more primary challenges than what we had seen in the past.

In addition, while there was no upward trend in primary challenges over time, I think we’re in a different era now, and I think people will be less squeamish about taking that plunge. Honestly, if there ever was a year to try it, it would be this year, because the extreme turnout expected due to the Presidential race ought to make most of these races pure tossups, and by “tossup” I mean the most important factor will be your ballot position, which is determined by random draw. We’re all going to need to be on guard for low-grade opportunists who hope to luck into a bench. I hope I’m overstating this concern.

Anyway. Unlike for executive offices, I don’t expect judicial challengers to announce themselves this early, but it will be filing season before you know it. What do you think will happen?

How good a stepping stone is Mayor of Dallas?

Stephen Young notes that being Mayor of Dallas has not been particularly helpful to others’ ambitions.

Rep. Eric Johnson

If he’s anything, Dallas mayor-elect Eric Johnson is an ambitious guy. He’s got degrees from Harvard, Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania, and took his seat in the Texas House of Representatives before turning 40. In the legislature, he’s sought out high-profile fights, sparring over things like criminal justice reform, gentrification and corruption in municipal politics. The resume that Johnson’s put together is almost too perfect for someone who aspires to hold higher state or federal office.

That’s what makes his current position so interesting. Saturday night, Johnson won the keys to one of the most useless big-deal jobs in the United States. Dallas’ mayor is, essentially, just an at-large member of the City Council. He or she gets to run the council’s meetings and can place an item on the council agenda if he or she wishes to do so, but the city manager draws up the city’s budget and has all the real power. Johnson has long been at the top of the list whenever people talk about potential replacements for longtime Dallas U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, but one has to wonder if that’s changed, given the mayor’s office’s challenges and history.

To find a former Dallas mayor who sought and won higher office after leaving city hall, one has to look at the way back to Earle Cabell, who resigned as mayor in February 1964 to run for Congress against incumbent Republican Bruce Alger. Since Cabell’s successful campaign, former mayors Wes Wise, Ron Kirk and Tom Leppert have all run unsuccessful campaigns for the U.S. House or Senate. Laura Miller, Kirk’s successor, couldn’t even win a Dallas City Council race 12 years after leaving office, getting trounced by incumbent Jennifer Staubach Gates in May.

I noted when Mayor-elect Johnson won the runoff that he was a politician with ambitions. Does this mean those ambitions are doomed? I don’t think so. I can’t speak to Wes Wise’s experience, but Ron Kirk ran for Senate as a Democrat in 2002, while Tom Leppert joined a primary that already had David Dewhurst and Ted Cruz. I wouldn’t extrapolate much from that.

I’d say three things will matter. One, does a good opportunity come along at a good time? I’d suggested Johnson might want to run statewide, but Young notes he has had his eye on Rep. Eddie Berniece Johnson’s CD30 seat. Maybe the timing will work for one of those options, and maybe it won’t. Two, does he build up his fundraising network enough to be a force in a more expensive race? And three, does he does a good enough job to make him look like an appealing candidate for whatever comes next? It’s not rocket science. This is one of those times where past history isn’t a great guide, but the basic fundamentals still apply.

On straight tickets and undervotes

As we know, straight ticket voting in Texas is now officially a thing of the past. It will not be an option in 2020, the next time there will be partisan elections. Thanks to the success of Democratic candidates in 2018, particularly in Harris County, there have been a bunch of questionable takes about how the existence of straight ticket voting was the propellant for these victories. I’ve scoffed at the implicit assumption in these stories that Democrats would undervote in disproportionate numbers in the downballot races once the straight ticket option was gone, and that got me to thinking. What do we know about the undervote rate now?

In every race, some number of people don’t vote. That number is reported by the County Clerk in the election returns. Higher profile races, district races, races at the top of the ticket, these tend to have higher participation. Judicial races, which are lower profile and at the end of the ballot, those unsurprisingly tend to be the ones with the most undervotes. If these are the races most likely to be affected by the loss of the straight ticket option, then what might that effect be?

That’s the question I wanted to try to answer. So, I looked at the undervote rates in past elections, to see if there were any trends. First, though, I needed to establish what the real undervote rate is. By definition, the people who vote straight ticket are voting in each contested election, so only the people who don’t vote a straight ticket can undervote. Thus, I started out by subtracting the combined straight ticket totals for the year, and calculated the undervote rates based on the remaining tallies. Here’s what this looks like:


Year  Regular  Lo under  Hi under  Lo pct  Hi pct
=================================================
2002  296,924    46,505    58,319  15.66%  19.64% 
2006  314,606    48,626    57,970  15.46%  18.43%
2010  264,545    38,014    45,326  14.37%  17.13%
2014  219,892    27,360    33,280  12.44%  15.13%
2018  287,429    33,572    39,564  11.38%  13.76%

2004  389,898    81,724    85,333  20.96%  21.89%
2008  449,307    81,416    89,306  18.12%  19.88%
2012  386,475    66,435    73,387  17.19%  18.99%
2016  451,827    63,226    69,344  13.99%  15.35%

“Regular” is what I called the number of votes cast by those who did not vote a straight ticket. As you can see, even as turnout has varied greatly from year to year, the number of “regular” voters has remained relatively static. The next two numbers represent the range of undervote totals for the judicial races, and the numbers after them are the rates for the undervotes, adjusted to account for the straight ticket voters.

What we see from this is that even as straight ticket voting has increased, the number of people not voting in judicial elections has decreased, relatively speaking. I would attribute that to the overall increase in partisanship in recent years. That suggests to me that when straight ticket voting goes away, voters are still going to be likely to vote in all, or at least nearly all, of the races on the ballot. There will be more undervotes than there are now – as I previously observed, the undervote rate as calculated by the County Clerk over all voters was in the three to four percent range this year. It will end up between that and the lower end numbers I show above. Do bear in mind that for City of Houston elections for At Large Council spots and for City Controller, the undervote race is often above twenty percent. We’re not going to see anything like that in even-numbered years. The vast majority of voters are going to completely fill out their ballots. We’ll see what the numbers look like in 2020, but I see no reason why the trends we see here won’t continue.

What about Neal?

Ross Ramsey reminds us there is a third person in the Texas Senate race.

Neal Dikeman

Libertarians and other third-party candidates have never won state elections in Texas and rarely make a meaningful difference in election results, with one big exception: As spoilers.

If recent indications of a close U.S. Senate race between U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican, and U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat, prove valid, a third candidate’s voters could spell the difference on Election Day.

“It will be the Libertarian voters who win this race,” says a hopeful Neal Dikeman, the Texas Libertarian candidate for the U.S. Senate.

[…]

Most polls have Cruz ahead of O’Rourke — but only by single digits. The most recent survey, from Quinnipiac University, had Cruz ahead by 9 percentage points among likely voters. Dikeman wasn’t included in that one, and none of the respondents said they would vote for someone other than the two major-party candidates.

For what it’s worth, covering a nine-point spread would be a big reach for a Libertarian candidate. Most of the time, in races with both Democrats and Republicans, third parties do well to get half that amount. Their mileage varies: Mark Miller and Martina Salinas, a Libertarian and a Green, combined for 8.6 percent in the 2016 race for Texas Railroad Commission; that same year, the presidential candidates from those parties, Gary Johnson and Jill Stein, combined for 3.9 percent.

But several late summer polls in the Texas race for U.S. Senate are closer than Quinnipiac’s latest, raising at least the possibility that support for Dikeman could amount to more than the final difference between Ted and Beto.

This was written before that Ipsos poll came out, but that doesn’t change the main point. The two points of interest is that there is a Libertarian candidate, which will affect the win number in this race, and that the polling we have seen so far has not really taken this into effect.

On point one, by “win number” I mean the actual minimum amount needed to finish first in the race. It’s not fifty percent because there are more than two candidates. I did a broad look at this before the 2014 elections, so let’s revisit that here. Each Senate race in recent years has had at least three candidates in it. What percentage of the vote was actually needed to win those races? Here’s a look:


Year    Lib  Green   Else  Total     Win
========================================
2014  2.88%  1.18%  0.02%  4.18%  47.91%
2012  2.06%  0.86%         2.92%  48.54%
2008  2.34%                2.34%  48.83%
2006  2.26%                2.26%  48.87%
2002  0.79%  0.55%  0.03%  1.37%  49.32%

“Win” is the minimum amount that would have won that year. There were write-in candidates in 2014 and 2002. The third party vote hasn’t amounted to much in these races, but it’s not nothing. As you can see, in each year after 2002, 49% was enough to win, and in 2014 48% was enough.

What about this year? Obviously, that depends on how much support Neal Dikeman ultimately attracts. History suggests that will be in the two to three percent range, but it’s at least possible it could be more. Given that nobody likes Ted Cruz, it may be that the number of Republicans who refuse to vote for him but won’t vote for a Democrat is higher than usual. If that’s the case, then Dikeman will be the beneficiary of that. It wouldn’t shock me if he got more like three or four percent.

We might get some feel for that if pollsters specifically included Dikeman in their candidate choices, especially now if everyone is switching to a likely voter model. Not because polling for third party candidates is particularly accurate – they almost always overstate third party support – but because it might give a clearer picture of the gap between Cruz and O’Rourke. I have to imagine that the Quinnipiac poll would have Cruz at something lower than 54 had Dikeman been named as a choice. Yes, the polls have included “don’t know” as a choice, but it’s not the same as an actual person. It’s my hope we’ll see polls like that going forward. After all, that 47% support Beto got in the Ipsos poll may be closer to a win than you might think.

Harris County 2018 voter registration numbers

From the inbox:

Thank you Harris County Voter Registration Division and Harris County Volunteer Deputy Voter Registrars for your passion, dedication, and commitment in registering eligible voters!


Current number registered:   2,291,037
Voters registered in 2017:      67,753
Voters registered in 2018:      41,369

That was from a couple of weeks ago, just before the registration challenge debacle. The registration deadline for this November is October 9, so there’s still time for that number to increase. Here’s how it looks over the past few cycles:


Year   Registered   Change
==========================
2002    1,875,777
2004    1,876,296      521
2006    1,902,822   25,526
2008    1,892,656  -10,166
2010    1,917,534   24,978
2012    1,942,566   25,032
2014    2,044,361  101,795
2016    2,182,980  138,619
2018    2,291,037  108,057

It’s crazy that in the first ten years of this century, the total number of registered voters in the county only increased by a net of 67K. In the next six years after that, up 350K and counting. Having a Tax Assessor that thought registering voters was more important than purging them sure makes a difference, doesn’t it? To be clear, while Ann Harris Bennett gets the credit for this cycle, Mike Sullivan was in the office for the 2014 and 2016 periods, so he gets his props as well.

As you know, I believe the increases in registration are directly related to the improved Democratic performance in 2016, and key to our chances this year. So to everyone who’s out there registering people, I say “thanks”, and “keep up the good work”. The numbers tell the story.

Lupe and Beto

Beto O’Rourke has a year-old, well-funded campaign for US Senate. Lupe Valdez doesn’t have anything like those advantages in her campaign for Governor. Will her lower profile effort have a negative effect on his higher profile one?

Rep. Beto O’Rourke

The race for governor is often the biggest spectacle in Texas politics, and the governor’s mansion the biggest prize.

But the contest between incumbent Republican Greg Abbott and Democratic nominee Lupe Valdez is forecast to be not much of a contest at all. Abbott, who in 2014 beat former state Sen. Wendy Davis by 20 percentage points, looms like Goliath on the political landscape, with Valdez lacking the weaponry to take him down. She needs more than five smooth stones.

Democrats have focused much of their attention on the remarkable campaign of Beto O’Rourke, the El Paso congressman who’s challenging incumbent Ted Cruz for Senate.

The Cruz-O’Rourke showdown is the marquee race of the season, and could change the fortunes of Democrats and Republicans alike.

With Abbott poised to spend more than $40 million to turn out the Republican vote and in the process help Cruz, the question becomes: does Valdez’s presence on the ticket hurt or help O’Rourke?

Lupe Valdez

“Compared to nothing, she helps,” said Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University.

[…]

Paul Quinn President Michael Sorrell, who Democrats recruited to run for governor, said Valdez’s presence on the ticket will have little impact on O’Rourke’s efforts.

“I don’t think Lupe makes a difference to this race,” Sorrell said. “People view Beto’s race as a separate entity from Lupe’s race.”

Veteran Republican consultant Bill Miller said Valdez could be a problem for O’Rourke and other Democrats because her campaign is so irrelevant.

“The Democrats believe she helps, but in my opinion she hurts,” Miller said. “She’s not going to be a strong candidate and her race is not a hot race. She’s going to be discounted early on and that won’t help O’Rourke.”

My inclination is to agree with Michael Sorrell. We haven’t had a situation like this in recent memory. In the recent years where we have had concurrent races for Senate and Governor:

– Wendy Davis’s gubernatorial campaign was much higher profile than David Alameel’s Senate campaign in 2014. Not that any of it made much difference.

– The four-way Governor’s race in 2006 defies comparison to anything else.

– Both Tony Sanchez and Ron Kirk had well-funded campaigns in 2002, with Kirk doing a few points better in the end.

Honestly, the real factor here is Greg Abbott and his gazillions of dollars, which would be a major concern no matter who was his opponent. Valdez has improved as a candidate after a rough start, and in the end I think she’ll raise a million or two bucks, which is a water balloon against Abbott’s fire hose but will at least allow for some kind of campaign activity. The main way Abbott can use his money to affect other races is by spending a ton on GOTV stuff, which again he’d do if he were running instead against Andrew White or Julian Castro or whoever your fantasy alternative candidate might be. He still has to contend with whatever chaos Donald Trump unleashes, whatever discontent the electorate may feel about Hurricane Harvey and gun violence, and other things that money may not be able to ameliorate. All things considered, I think Valdez’s campaign will have little effect on Beto’s. It’s unlikely to be of any help, but it probably won’t hurt, either.

(Yes, I wrote this before the property tax story came out. I still don’t think one campaign will have much effect on the other.)

Post-runoff thoughts

I suppose one’s view on Democratic primary runoff turnout is a matter of perspective. I wrote that it was way more than the turnout of any primary going back to 2006 – indeed, more than double the turnout of any year other than 2012. The Trib saw it differently:

As of 11 p.m. Tuesday, just 415,000 Democrats had cast ballots in the gubernatorial runoff. For reference, that’s a decline of almost 60 percent from the 1 million Texans who cast ballots in the March Democratic primary.

That’s the largest primary-to-runoff decline — and the smallest number of ballots cast — in the 14 Democratic gubernatorial primary runoffs held since 1920. That year, 449,000 Democrats voted, according to Texas Election Source‘s analysis of Texas State Historical Association data.

They also used words like low-key and abysmal. I have no idea what they were expecting, but I guess this wasn’t it. The DMN calls is “historically low”, with extensive quotes from the guy behind Texas Election Source, though he does allow that there are other ways of looking at this.

As for me, I was comparing turnout in any statewide primary, while the Trib and the DMN limited themselves to gubernatorial primaries. Which means that their most recent example is 1990, the year Ann Richards topped Jim Mattox in a vicious, nasty runoff. I think we can all agree that the Texas of 1990 was a little different than the Texas of 2018 is; I’m not even going to comment on the Texas of 1920. Be that as it may, here’s another look at runoff turnout:


Year     Runoff      March  Runoff%
===================================
2018    432,180  1,042,914    41.4%
2016    188,592  1,435,895    13.1%
2014    201,283    554,014    36.3%
2012    236,305    590,164    40.0%
2008    187,708  2,874,986     6.5%
2006    207,252    508,602    40.7%
2002    620,301  1,003,388    61.8%

Here I went back to 2002. In all cases, I took the number of votes cast in the busiest primary for that given year’s primary to the busiest runoff for the same year, which in some cases was the only statewide runoff. As such, we’re comparing races for President, Senate, and Governor to races for Senate, Governor, and Railroad Commissioner. Not perfect, I suppose, but at least it gives me data points from this century. You can make what you will of all this, as clearly it’s in the eye of the beholder, but I have a hard time lining up the Trib’s words with the numbers before me.

The primary wins by Veronica Escobar and Sylvia Garcia ensures that Texas will have at least two more women among its Congressional delegation. Gina Ortiz Jones and Lizzie Fletcher, and to lesser extents Jana Sanchez, MJ Hegar, Jan McDowell, Lorie Burch, and Julie Oliver could increase that number. They’re all Dems; thanks to Bunni Pounds’ loss in CD05 there will be no more Republican women in Congress from Texas.

Republicans may increase their female membership in the House, as Cynthia Flores won the right to succeed Rep. Larry Gonzalez in HD52 and Lisa Luby Ryan ousted Rep. Jason Villalba in HD114. Both will be favored in November, Flores more so. Democrats are actually down one in the House; Jessica Gonzalez ousted Rep. Robert Alonzo, but Trey Martinez-Fischer came back at Rep. Diana Arevalo’s expense, and Carl Sherman will succeed the retiring Rep. Helen Giddings. Dems do have something like 35 female candidates running against male Republican incumbents, and about a dozen of them have a chance to win that ranges from “top tier pickup opportunity” to “if the gods are truly smiling on us”. So, the story is far from over, but there are no guarantees.

As for the Senate, the Dems have two female candidates running in the swingiest districts, but both of them have female incumbents. There are also two female candidates running against male incumbents, in districts that are not as swingy. The single best chance of adding a female member to the Senate is in SD08, with Angela Paxton. Let that serve as a reminder that having more women in a particular group is not by itself an assurance of improvement.

Overall I’d say I’m happy with how things turned out. I was rooting for Fran Watson in SD17, but it’s not like Rita Lucido is an unsatisfactory choice. We have a strong slate, and statements from Watson and Laura Moser in support of unity will help us all get past the increasingly tiresome “establishment/outsider” narrative. By the way, about an hour after polls closed on Tuesday I got a press release from the Harris County GOP with “Far Left Lizzie” in the subject. So you know, that narrative didn’t quite take hold everywhere.

UPDATE: I had a slightly outdated turnout total for 2018, probably because I started writing this when there were still some precincts out. The number in there now is what is on the SOS election night returns page.

Are Texas Republicans really worried about Trump for November?

I mean, I guess they are. They’ve seen what has happened around the country, in other elections and other red places. I don’t know how worried they are, or how worried they should be.

This is a Red State where Trump remains popular among most Republicans and even some Democrats, a state that he won in 2016 by a slimmer margin that Republican Mitt Romney had four years before. And while political consultants for both parties agree he will be a drag on Texas Republicans in November, the growing question is just how much.

Fact: For the first time in a decade, Texas Republicans are having to worry about the vote drag their president could have on elections, much as Democrats suffered through eight years of Barack Obama, whom Texas Republicans loved to hate.

“Trump won’t be as much of an effect as he is in some northern states, but he will have impact here,” said Mark Jones, a Rice University political science professor who has been monitoring the “Trump effect” in Texas races for months. “In some of the down ballot races in Texas, the strategy you’re seeing is a modest embrace of Trump. … Republicans with strong brands like Abbott are not going to tarnish themselves by agreeing with him.”

Even so, Abbott confidantes privately acknowledge he likely will be re-elected by a slimmer margin than four years ago, when he beat Democratic rising star Wendy Davis by 20 points. They blame Trump.

“It’s not a question about whether there will be a Trump drag in Texas, the only question right now is how big it will be — and how many Republican incumbents will be in trouble,” said Harold Cook, a political consultant who is a former executive director of the state Democratic party.

“If you’re a member of Congress or state Senate or House incumbent who has a credible Democratic opponent, and you’re in districts that went for Trump less than 7 or 8 … points, you better be out working your ass off to get re-elected.”

I don’t disagree with any of this, but it’s hard to contextualize. The last two midterm elections in which there was a Republican President were 2002, when Dubya Bush was very popular, and 2006, when his approval rating had crashed and Rick Perry was fending off multiple challengers. The former was a great year for the GOP here and the latter was a lousy year for them (downballot, at least), but neither is a great comparison for this year. In the limited polling we have, Trump’s approval ratings are good with Republicans, terrible with Democrats, and not great with independents. How that compares with 2002 and 2006, I couldn’t say.

I think everyone expects Democratic turnout to be up this fall from previous midterms. The problem is that Democratic turnout has been so consistently crappy in previous midterms that there’s a lot of room for turnout to improve without making that much difference. We’d need to boost our baseline offyear performance by about fifty percent, to get to around 2.7 million, to really see significant gains. The good news is that basically everything would be competitive at that point, from the statewide races to a half dozen or more Congressional seats to enough legislative seats to make 2019 look like 2009. The bad news is that we’ve never come withing hailing distance of such a total, and Republicans have every reason to feel confident that it’s all just talk since we’ve never done anything like it.

So I just don’t know. I’m optimistic in general, and I really think good things will happen in Harris County and other areas that have been trending blue. I wish I knew how to quantify it, and I wish I knew how confident to feel beyond that.

Beto’s big haul

Wow.

Rep. Beto O’Rourke

U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, raised over $6.7 million for his U.S. Senate bid in the first quarter of 2018, according to his campaign, a staggering number that poses a new category of threat to Republican incumbent Ted Cruz.

The haul is easily O’Rourke’s biggest fundraising quarter yet, more than double his next-closest total for a three-month period. It also is more than any Democratic Senate candidate nationwide took in last quarter, O’Rourke’s campaign said.

Cruz has not released his first-quarter fundraising numbers yet, but O’Rourke’s $6.7 million total is on a different level than his previous hauls, which ranged from $1.7 million to $2.4 million. Those alone were good enough to outraise Cruz for three of the last four reporting periods.

Furthermore, the $6.7 million total came from more than 141,000 contributions — another record-busting number for O’Rourke.

[…]

O’Rourke’s campaign released the fundraising statistics Tuesday morning ahead of the April 15 deadline to report it to the Federal Election Commission. Cruz has not offered any numbers for the full quarter, though he disclosed raising $803,000 through the first 45 days of the year — a fraction of O’Rourke’s $2.3 million for the same timeframe.

Just as a point of perspective, Rick Noriega raised $4.1 million over the entire two-year course of his 2008 Senate campaign. Beto beat that by over 50% in just this past quarter. That’s mind-boggling. I went back a little farther than that and found that Ron Kirk raised $9.5 million in the 2002 cycle. Not a bad total, but Beto was already at $8.7 million as of February. So yeah, that’s a lot of lettuce.

At this point, the main question I have is how does he plan to spend it? The main reason why Texas is considered such an expensive state to campaign in is that there are something like 27 media markets, so it costs a bunch of money to run sufficient TV advertising to cover the state. I’m sure O’Rourke will do some of that – his name ID is still modest, and one never wants to let one’s opponent get in the first word about who one is – but that kind of old-media strategy just doesn’t jibe with everything we know about Beto. I’m hoping a lot of that is being banked for field/GOTV activity.

FEC reports are due April 15, and should be generally viewable later this month. In the meantime, some campaigns like Beto’s are releasing their numbers to the press, and so we get stories like this.

Houston Democratic congressional hopeful Lizzie Pannill Fletcher has raised about $1.2 million for the 2018 midterm election ahead of the May 22 runoff with Democratic rival Laura Moser, Fletcher’s campaign reported Tuesday.

Moser’s fundraising totals were not immediately available Tuesday, although an aide said the campaign has surpassed the $1 million mark. As of February 14, the end of the last reporting period, she had raised almost $765,000.

[…]

Fletcher’s campaign said that about $350,000 of her total has come in since the March 6 primary, in which she was the top vote-getter in a field of seven candidates. Moser came in second, but forced a runoff by holding Fletcher below 50 percent.

Culberson has yet to report his latest fundraising totals. As of the last reporting period he had raised more than $1.1 million.

I’d say the presence of seven candidates in the race, four of whom were well-funded and drew significant support, ensured that no one would top fifty percent, but never mind that. Fletcher was at about $860K as of February 14; Moser as noted was at $765K. Like I said, we’ll know soon enough what everyone has, and I’ll do a report so you can see it.

A look at past primaries

I think we can all agree that the 2018 Democratic primary season is already unlike anything we’ve seen in recent memory. And since I like putting expressions like that into numbers, I thought I’d try to do it here. First, let’s compare the number of contested Democratic primaries across non-Presidential years:


Year   State  Congress  Lege
============================
1994      10        11    33
1998       3         6    19
2002       6         8    26
2006       4         5    20
2010       4         5    11
2014       4         6    13
2018       3        20    37

“Lege” includes both the Senate and the House. We only have three contested statewide primaries, but we do have an eight-candidate race for Governor, so that’s something different. The number of contested primaries for Congress and the Lege are higher than we’ve ever seen, and there’s still a day left to file. Remember also that there were a lot more Democrats in the Lege in 1994 than now. We have a lot of multi-candidate races this year for the right to face a Republican opponent or fill a Republican open seat.

The number of contested races is one thing, but the most visible measure of interest in an election is how many people vote in it. Here are the turnout levels for Democratic primaries going back to 1994:


Year      Total    Pct RV
=========================
1994  1,036,907    11.47%
1998    664,532     5.95%
2002  1,003,388     8.21%
2006    508,602     3.99%
2010    680,548     5.23%
2014    560,033     4.12%

“Pct RV” is the percentage of Democratic primary voters to all registered voters. There were more RVs in 2002 than there were in 1994, so even though the total number of voters was about the same, the share of RVs is lower. We don’t know what the turnout total will be for 2018 yet, but this should give us a goal, which I’d peg at one million votes at a minimum. There were just over 15 million registered voters as of this November – that number will like increase for March – so a goal of ten percent participation would set the target at 1.5 million. This is something I’ll be keeping an eye on. A new high water mark here would further the narrative of Democratic excitement. The same old thing will not.

Would a contested primary for Senate be bad for Dems in 2018?

I have three things to say about this.

Rep. Beto O’Rourke

A primary showdown between two well-liked and well-funded Democrats would add an extra layer of time and money for [Rep. Beto] O’Rourke and potentially [Rep. Joaquin] Castro – and could make it easier for Cruz to brand the winner as an out-of-touch liberal if O’Rourke and Castro need to spend time winning over the state’s liberal base.

“A competitive primary will split the party, leave hard feelings and limit the ability to raise the money needed to compete in the general” election, said University of Houston professor Brandon Rottinghaus, author of a recent book on Texas politics. “Two competitive Democrats in the primary who have run in the past has fractured the party and created new fault lines that Dem voters weren’t able to cross.”

Rottinghaus brought up the 2002 election, in which former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk won a four-way Democratic primary to challenge Sen. John Cornyn for an open seat at the time. While Republicans were united behind Cornyn’s ultimately successful bid, Democrats were divided by geographical and ideological interests that made it harder to win the general election.

In recent years, big-name Democrats have largely stayed out of one another’s way in statewide races. State Sen. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth faced nominal opposition in her 2014 gubernatorial bid against Greg Abbott, which she lost. Democrats did not contest primaries in races for lieutenant governor or attorney general.

1. I dispute the notion that a contested primary is necessarily a “good” or “bad” thing for a party’s chances in November. I certainly disagree with the assertion about the 2002 Senate primary. For one thing, it was mostly overshadowed by the Tony Sanchez/Dan Morales gubernatorial primary. For another, Ron Kirk was one of the better-performing Democrats, getting a higher percentage of the vote than any Dem after John Sharp and Margaret Mirabal. I’m gonna need to see some numbers before I buy that argument. Plenty of candidates have won general elections after winning nasty, brutal primary fights – see Ann Richards in 1990 and Ted Cruz in 2012, to pick two off the top of my head. I’ll bet a dollar right now that if Ted Cruz is re-elected next year, a primary between Beto O’Rourke and Joaquin Castro will be very low on the list of reasons why he won.

2. We don’t know yet if Castro will run or not – he says he’ll tell us later this month. As was the case last week in Dallas, Castro has made multiple appearances at events with Beto O’Rourke, which for now at least has kept everything nice and civil. I’ve said that I don’t think Castro will give up his safe Congressional seat and increasingly high profile within the party for what everyone would agree is a longshot run against Cruz. (Though perhaps somewhat less of a longshot if the political conditions from that Kansas special election persist through next November.) If he does, however, and especially if he does in the context of having to win a March election first, then I’d suggest it’s because he thinks his odds of winning are better than the current empirical evidence would imply. Maybe he’d be wrong about that, but I believe if Castro jumps in, it’s because he really believes he can win, above and beyond the usual amount that candidates believe.

3. Whatever Castro does, I do hope Beto O’Rourke faces at least one primary challenger, even if that’s a fringe or perennial candidate. I want him to take it seriously and begin engaging voters as soon as possible. As I said before, I was wrong to be dismissive about the 2014 primaries and what they meant for that November. Whoever else runs, I prefer to see this primary as an opportunity and not a threat.

A theory about third parties

Before I get to that theory, have you ever wondered about the people who vote straight ticket Libertarian or Green in Harris County? I got to wondering about them, because that’s the sort of thing that I think about at times like this. Here are the total numbers of such people, grouped by Presidential and non-Presidential years, going back to 2000:


Year  Total votes  SP Lib  SP Green   Lib%  Green%
==================================================
2000      995,631   1,935     4,503  0.19%   0.45%
2004    1,088,793   3,343            0.31%
2008    1,188,731   4,017            0.34%
2012    1,204,167   4,777     1,759  0.40%   0.15%
2016    1,336,985   8,781     4,577  0.66%   0.34%

2002      656,682   1,159     1,399  0.18%   0.21%
2006      601,186   3,052            0.51%
2010      798,995   2,506     1,110  0.31%   0.14%
2014      688,018   2,922     1,180  0.42%   0.17%

“SP Lib” is the total number of straight party Libertarian votes, and “SP Green” is the same for the Greens. “Lib%” and “Green%” are the share of these straight party votes to all votes cast in the county. If you look at the election result pages on the HarrisVotes.com website, you will see that my percentages are lower than the ones shown there. That’s because they calculate the percentage of these votes as a share of all straight-party votes cast, not a share of all votes. I did it this way to see what if any trend there was for Libertarian and Green voting overall. For comparison purposes, 30.01% of all votes in Harris county this year were straight ticket Republican, with 35.35% of all votes being straight-ticket Democratic.

As you can see, in the Presidential years the Libertarians had been slowly ticking upwards, with a bit of a jump this year, though the trend is more erratic in the off years. The spike in 2006 is odd, because the Libertarian candidate for Governor received only 0.61% of the vote that year. If you wanted to vote outside the two-party box for Governor in 2006, you had plenty of choices. The Greens weren’t officially on the ballot in 2004, 2006, or 2008, so there’s less of a trend to spot. I’d say they do better in or right after a year where they have a Presidential candidate who gets some attention. Whether any of this will hold next year is not something I’m going to speculate about at this time. My mantra for the next twelve to eighteen months is “conditions in 2018 will be different than they were in 2014 and 2010”, and leave it at that.

That brings me to my theory, which applies to low profile races – not President, not Senate, not Governor, sometimes not other races. I’m limiting myself to statewide contests here, since that’s where you get most of the third party candidates that an individual voter sees. In my case, there was a Green candidate for CD18, a Libertarian for SBOE, and nothing else below the state level. I believe that in these races, which this year would be the Railroad Commission and the two state courts, voters for third party candidates can be broadly sorted into one of three groups. The first group is the party faithful, which as we have just seen is a relatively small cohort. There are probably a few more people who vote L or G as a first choice but don’t vote straight ticket, but that’s still a small group even in the context of just third party voters. Most of the people voting third party in these races aren’t voting third party as a matter of course.

So who are they? Group Two I believe is people who normally vote for Rs or Ds but who refuse to vote for their candidate in this particular instance. That may be because the candidate of their party is too/not sufficiently liberal/conservative for them, because that candidate supports or opposes a specific thing that is of great importance to them, because the candidate has ethical baggage, or because they just don’t like that candidate for some reason. In these cases, they don’t want to vote for the candidate of the other party, so a third party it is. Gary Johnson obviously got a lot of these votes in the Presidential race, but the downballot exemplar for this one was the Railroad Commissioner race, where Libertarian Mark Miller got a bunch of newspaper endorsements for being the most qualified candidate running.

The thing is, I don’t think there are that many races like that. I think in a lot of these races, people just don’t know anything about any of the candidates. So if you’re someone who (say) generally votes Democratic but aren’t that committed to it and you’re looking at a race for the Court of Criminal Appeals, you may say to yourself “well, I know I don’t want to vote for the Republican, but I don’t know who any of these other people are, so I’ll just pick one and move on”. These people are my Group Three.

What that says to me first of all is that both Republicans and Democrats are leaving some votes on the table in these downballot races by not doing a better job of getting their candidates’ names out there. That’s not much of a concern for the Republicans, who continue to win by double-digit margins, but it could eventually matter. I see this as an extension of a problem that Democrats are increasingly having in their primaries, where candidates like RRC nominee Grady Yarbrough have won races by a combination of pseudo-name recognition and random chance because no one knows who the hell these people are. I have many wishes for Texas Democrats going forward, and high on my list is for the party and the donor class to take these downballot primaries seriously.

One possible exception to this may be for Latino candidates. Look at the top votegetters for each party: Supreme Court candidates Eva Guzman and Dori Contreras Garza. My hypothesis is that Latino voters in a Group Three situation will choose a Latino candidate, even possibly one from their non-preferred party, instead of just randomly picking someone. Again, this is in races where none of the candidates are known to the voters, and thus there could be a different outcome if people had more knowledge. If we ever get to that point, maybe we’ll see that difference.

Finally, I believe my theory is consistent with the Libertarian candidate almost always doing better than the Green candidate does in these situations, for the simple reason that the Libertarian candidate appears on the ballot above the Green candidate. If it’s true that some people just pick a name after having moved past the first two candidates, then it makes sense that the first candidate listed after those two would get a larger share.

Anyway, that’s my theory. I could be wrong, and I doubt anyone other than me had given this much thought. I’ll get back to the precinct analyses tomorrow. Let me know what you think about this.

Endorsement watch: A Libertarian moment

The Chron thinks outside the box in endorsing for the Railroad Commission.

Mark Miller

Mark Miller

Our editorial board interviews scores of candidates for political office every election year, but seldom do we find ourselves wholeheartedly endorsing a nominee from the Libertarian Party. Then again, seldom have we met a Libertarian candidate like Mark Miller.

Ask this man anything at all about the Railroad Commission of Texas and he’ll give you a straight, smart answer informed not only by decades of working in the industry and teaching petrochemical engineering at the University of Texas, but also by a mastery of the issues facing the energy business and the state body that regulates it. He’s an affable retired oil and gas man with a doctorate from Stanford University who’s so interested in this agency he literally wrote a book on the railroad commission.

With impressive clarity and authority, Miller offers well-informed opinions on a litany of arcane issues involving the energy industry: why the Texas Legislature needs to resolve the conflict between the owners of surface rights and mineral rights, why the state should dramatically reduce the number of permits for flaring natural gas, why Texas needs to figure out how to plug oil wells left unplugged by companies that go bankrupt. This guy clearly knows what he’s talking about.

By comparison, none of the other candidates for this office have actually worked in the industry they propose to help oversee. Wayne Christian, the Republican nominee, earned a troublesome reputation as a combative bomb-thrower in the state Legislature; he helped craft a shamefully self-serving amendment exempting his own Bolivar Peninsula home from the Texas Open Beaches Act, and Texas Monthly twice rated him one of the state’s worst lawmakers. Grady Yarbrough, the Democratic nominee, is a retired school teacher whose background seems better suited to an education post. Martina Salinas, the Green Party nominee, is an earnest construction inspector from the Fort Worth area who, again, never worked in the energy business.

I don’t have any particular quarrel with the recommendation. Experience is a somewhat overrated qualification for the RRC, given that its Commissioners (those with industry experience and those without it) tend to be rubber stamps for the industry they purportedly regulate anyway. Certainly, Wayne Christian will do whatever his overlords tell him to do, so in that sense it doesn’t matter whether or not he understands anything about what he’s doing. Maybe Grady Yarbrough will take advice from other sources, who knows. At least he’ll have to be more visible if he somehow gets elected.

Endorsement aside – it would not shock me if Miller collects more than one such recommendation, given the other choices – the more interesting question is whether Miller can break the five percent barrier in this race. Libertarians and Greens have relied in recent years on statewide races in which there was no Democrat running to place a candidate who can top that mark and thus guarantee ballot access for all statewide races for their team. This year, those tricky Democrats actually ran candidates for all statewide offices, meaning the Ls and the Gs are going to have to do this the hard way if they want to be on the statewide ballot in 2020. (The hard way involves collecting a sufficient number of petition signatures, possibly with a little help from friends of convenience.) The question I want to answer is: Have any Libertarian or Green Party statewide candidates cracked the five percent mark in a statewide race that featured both an R and a D in recent years?

We go to the Secretary of State election returns for that. Here are the high statewide scorers for the Ls and the Gs in such races in Presidential years:


Year    Candidate     Party       Race    Pct
=============================================
2012      L Stott       Lib        CCA  3.26%
2012    C Kennedy       Grn        RRC  1.99%

2008      D Floyd       Lib        RRC  3.52%

2004     A Garcia       Lib        RRC  3.60%

2000     M Ruwart       Lib     Senate  1.16%
2000      R Nader       Grn  President  2.15%

(Note: There were no statewide Green candidates in 2004 or 2008.) Doesn’t look too promising. How about in the non-Presidential years?


Year    Candidate     Party       Race    Pct
=============================================
2014    M Bennett       Lib        CCA  3.61%
2014    M Salinas       Grn        RRC  2.03%

2010  J Armstrong       Lib     Sup Ct  4.04%
2010   A Browning       Grn        RRC  1.49%

2006      J Baker       Lib     Lt Gov  4.36%

2002  B Hernandez       Lib  Land Comm  4.12%
2002  O Jefferson       Grn        CCA  1.74%

(Note: There were no statewide Green candidates in 2006.) Not much better. Note that total turnout is a factor – Jack Armstrong (195K) received more votes than Judy Baker (188K) or Barbara Hernandez (180K), but he was running in a much higher turnout environment, so his percentage was lower. By the way, Mark Miller and Martina Salinas were both candidates for the RRC in 2014 as well; Miller received 3.15% of the vote, against R and D candidates who were much better qualified than the ones running this year. Make of that what you will. To get back to my original question, I’d say both Ls and Gs will be relying on their Presidential candidate for their best chance to crack the five percent mark. I’d give Gary Johnson a decent shot at it, but Jill Stein? I figure if Ralph Nader couldn’t get halfway there in 2000, Stein is unlikely to be the one. There’s always the petitions.

Once again with CD29

It’s all about the turnout.

Rep. Gene Green

Rep. Gene Green

On a Gulfgate-area side street lined with union halls, Hillary Clinton’s Houston field office and U.S. Rep. Gene Green’s congressional re-election outfit sit mere doors apart, a coincidental marker of the anticipated link between their races.

Green is squaring off against former Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia in the region’s marquee congressional primary, the outcome of which is expected to be swayed by the strength of the Democratic presidential fight in Texas.

The increasingly competitive contest between Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders stands to boost turnout in the 77-percent Latino 29th Congressional District, political observers said, likely shifting the electorate more Hispanic.

“Typically in Democratic primaries, the vote is only about 45 percent Hispanic,” local Democratic strategist Keir Murray said of the 29th District. “However, if you have something, an external factor like a hot presidential race that increases the overall turnout … because of the makeup of the population and the list of registered voters, the percentage of Hispanic voters is going to go up. There’s almost no way it can’t.”

Adrian Garcia

Adrian Garcia

Such a boost in Hispanic voting is expected to help Garcia.

“If this were a nonpresidential cycle, the advantage would clearly be with Green because of the historical turnout in the district,” Texas Southern University political scientist Jay Aiyer said.

However, he said, “The increased turnout is disproportionately low-propensity Latino voters. … And so that benefits Garcia over Green.”

Democratic participation in the 29th District, which curls around eastern Houston, hit a high-water mark in 2008, when nearly 54,000 voters cast a primary ballot, up from 5,000 two years earlier.

Few expect this year’s turnout to be quite as high.

Green’s campaign is anticipating between 35,000 and 50,000 Democratic primary voters, while Garcia’s expects between 12,000 and 54,000, the turnouts in 2012 and 2008, respectively.

We can’t have all this talk about turnout without looking at some numbers, right? I was curious what the relationship was between turnout in CD29 and turnout overall in Harris County. Here’s what it looks like:


Year    CD29    Harris     Pct
==============================
2002  11,891    95,396  12.46%
2004  10,682    78,692  13.57%
2006   5,037    35,447  14.21%
2008  53,855   410,908  13.11%
2010  11,777   101,263  11.63%
2012  12,194    76,486  15.94%
2014   6,808    53,788  12.66%

With the exception of 2002, the “CD29” number represents total ballots cast in CD29 in that year; in 2002, the County Clerk only reported ballots cast for the candidates, so undervotes weren’t included. “Harris” is the total turnout for the Democratic primary in Harris County that year, and “Pct” is the percentage of the total vote that came from CD29. Given that Gene Green was unopposed in each of those years, it’s reasonable to assume that his share of the total vote will creep up a bit. Let’s say it’s 15% of the overall total. If so, then Green’s team is projecting countywide turnout at between 233,000 and 333,000, while Garcia’s people have the much wider spread of 80,000 to 360,000. You can fiddle around with the numbers a bit, but I’d say the range that Team Green is predicting is likely to be on the mark. The early voting returns we’re about to start seeing will tell us much more. What’s your turnout guess?

Reps. Otto and Marquez join the retirement list

Another committee chair bows out.

Rep. John Otto

After a decade in the Texas House and fresh off his first session as chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, state Rep. John Otto, R-Dayton, announced Tuesday that he is not planning to seek re-election.

“I want to thank the voters of House District 18 for their support and encouragement over the years,” Otto said in a statement. “This was not an easy decision, but I never intended for this experience to be a lifelong endeavor. After accomplishing much of what I set out to do when first elected, the time is right for me to step aside.”

[…]

Along with announcing his retirement, Otto also endorsed Liberty County Attorney Wesley Hinch to replace him in the district, which covers Liberty, Walker and San Jacinto counties in southeast Texas.

“Wes Hinch has the values, integrity, and experience needed to serve House District 18,” Otto said. “I am honored to endorse him to be our next state representative.”

Otto was first elected in 2004 and like several other retirees is considered a moderate, which mostly means he wants to get stuff done rather than burn it down. It’s a bit amazing to realize that he defeated an incumbent Democrat, Dan Ellis, in 2004 – Ellis won in 2002 in what was a red but not overwhelmingly so district – John Sharp got more than 45% of the vote for Lite Guv in that 2002 race. By 2012, this was a 71.6% Romney district, so it will not be changing hands. One hopes Otto’s endorsed would-be successor is from a similar mold as he is.

Over in El Paso, a Democratic seat opens up as Rep. Marissa Marquez steps down.

Rep. Marissa Marquez

State Rep. Marisa Márquez will not seek reelection after representing El Paso for four terms in the Texas House.

The Democrat announced her retirement from House District 77 in a statement on her official website, saying she would remain an active figure in state politics.

“I am truly grateful to the many people who have worked with me on the passage of important legislation for our area and to my constituency for their support over the last eight years,” she said.

[…]

First elected in 2008, Márquez was considered somewhat of an ascendant among the outnumbered Democrats in the lower chamber. She was named by House Speaker Joe Straus as vice-chair on the House Committee on County Affairs in her sophomore term in 2011, and currently sits on the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

Rep. Marquez defeated longtime legislator Rep. Paul Moreno in a typically nasty primary, which made her less than overwhelmingly popular among her peers when she first arrived. She was viewed as a potential Craddick Dem at the time, which didn’t help either. That of course all blew over, and in the last session she made a valiant attempt at marijuana reform. President Obama carried her district 64-34 in 2012, so this is another one that will be decided in the primaries. The El Paso Times has more on Rep. Marquez. Best wishes to her and to Rep. Otto in the next phases of their lives.

Targeting straight ticket voting

From Trail Blazers:

Texas is one of only 10 states still doing straight-ticket voting but a North Texas legislator is hoping to change that.

At a hearing today, Rep. Ron Simmons (R-Carrollton) told the Elections Committee that doing away with such an option here would lead to a more informed voter and improve turnout in non-partisan ballot measure.

“The purpose of this bill is to increase the number of Republican elected officials thought out the state of Texas,” he halfway joked. “However I do believe the added benefit will be a more educated voter.”

But Glenn Maxey, of the Texas Democratic Party, said such a move could discourage voters.

“People are going to be standing in line for hours and hours because it’s going to take people not 10 minutes to vote but a half hour to do that kind of marking,” he said.

Bill Fairbrother, of the Texas Republican County Chairman Association, said cost is a concern.

“Think of all the additional machines, clerks, polling places … That instead of being able to click one box to take care of those races, you have to go back and choose on average 25 separate races,” he said.

However, both Maxey and Fairbrother noted that within their parties, there was division as those in more rural areas favored the bill.

Rep. Simmons wrote a TribTalk piece in February about this:

Rep. Ron Simmons

Every campaign season, candidates and interest groups spend hundreds of millions of dollars trying to “inform” voters. I use that word — rather than “educate” — on purpose.

Informing is nothing more than providing information to another party. Educating requires action on the part of the recipient, who must want to understand the information and absorb it. There’s no better example of this than at the ballot box. Anyone who has read our Founding Fathers’ writing would agree that their intent was for voters to be educated on the candidates and issues of the day. Unfortunately, current Texas law provides a way for citizens to skip spending the time and energy needed to become educated voters. It’s called straight-ticket voting.

Straight-ticket voting allows someone to simply select one box to vote for an entire slate of candidates from a particular political party. This often leads voters to elect candidates without any knowledge whatsoever of who they are. This subverts the purpose of our electoral process and puts the citizens of Texas at a severe disadvantage.

Virtually all voters educate themselves on candidates at the top of the ticket (president, governor, etc.). But many voters, partially because of straight-ticket voting, make little or no effort to educate themselves on the candidates at the bottom of the ticket running for offices that have the most direct effect on individual citizens — think county clerk, county commissioner, justice of the peace and state representative. These voters simply check the one box, either Democrat or Republican, and move on without giving it a second thought. This is bad for Texas.

I drafted a post at the time but had not gotten around to publishing it. Now seems like as good a time as any to rectify that, so here’s what I wrote in response to that.

Rep. Simmons has filed HB1288 to eliminate straight ticket voting. A different bill, to exempt judges and county officials from straight-ticket ballots in Texas’ largest counties, has been filed by Rep. Jason Villalba. I’ve nattered on about straight ticket voting in the past, and I’ll neither defend it nor condemn it today. I do, of course, have a couple of thoughts about this.

I agree that many voters are not fully educated about downballot candidates. Hell, a lot of voters are misinformed about the top of the ticket candidates, and of the top issues of the day. That problem is outside my scope here, but as a matter of general principle, eliminating straight ticket voting isn’t going to do anything to solve that problem. What it can and likely will do is reduce the number of people voting in those races. Maybe that means the average voter will be slightly more educated in those races, and maybe one can claim that’s a “better” outcome. I think that’s at best an open question.

Which leads to another question: Just how big an effect would this be? Putting it another way, if straight ticket voting were eliminated, how many more people would wind up skipping downballot races? I don’t have the bandwidth to do a thorough study, but here’s a quick and dirty look at the last four non-Presidential elections in Harris County:

Year Straight% CClerk% DClerk% Treas% ========================================= 2002 54.78% 6.74% 2006 47.67% 6.89% 7.99% 6.68% 2010 66.89% 4.50% 4.71% 3.93% 2014 68.04% 3.90% 4.09% 3.46%

“Straight%” is the total percentage of straight ticket votes, which as you can see has been much greater in the last two elections than the first two above. “CClerk%”, “DClerk%”, and “Treas%” are the undervote percentages for the County Clerk, District Clerk, and County Treasurer races. I picked those because they’re pretty far down on the ballot and they’d be targeted by Rep. Villalba’s bill. The County Clerk and District Clerk races were uncontested in 2002, so I don’t have a complete data set, but this suggests that more straight ticket votes means fewer undervotes, which is not too surprising. I wouldn’t draw too much of a conclusion from this, as the partisan environments are stronger now, with both parties making a priority out of urging their voters to fill in an oval in each race. The total effect isn’t that great – three percentage points in a 700,000 voter turnout context is a 21,000 vote difference – but it’s not nothing.

I don’t know what the numbers might look like if straight ticket voting were eliminated. I’m sure the parties would work that much harder to convince their voters to vote in each race. Not being able to depend on straight ticket voters for a potentially significant chunk of their final tally would likely spur these candidates to do more fundraising to raise their name recognition. Outside groups, for which there’s no shortage of money, might also take a greater interest in these races. There are a lot of factors to consider, but it wouldn’t shock me if 50,000 or even 100,000 voters in Harris County might have dropped off without participating in these past races in the absence of straight ticket voting. That’s a wild guess of up to 15% or so of total turnout. I’d expect something similar in other large counties. How much that might change if the parties, candidates, and outside interests responded as I envision is a question I can’t answer.

(If you’re wondering about Presidential years, the rate of straight ticket voting in the last three Presidential elections has been about the same in each – 64% in 2004, 62% in 2008, 68% in 2012. I don’t feel I have enough data to say anything even marginally useful.)

One point that I’ve made before in the context of proposals to separate judicial elections from the partisan voting process is that partisan labels are sometimes the only reliable piece of information voters have about a candidate. Most candidates who call themselves “Democratic” or “Republican” fall within a reasonably well-defined range of policy positions and cultural identifiers. There are plenty of variations, both mainstream (think Sarah Davis and Eddie Lucio and their respective stances on equality, for example) and extreme (think Kesha Rogers), but if you consider yourself a D or an R and you vote for a candidate with the same label but without knowing anything else about that candidate, the odds are pretty good that you’ve just voted for someone that you’d basically like and approve of. More to the point, you’ve probably just voted for someone you’d basically like and approve of more than any of the other options available to you in that race, and yes that includes races with more than two candidates. Is that enough information to justify one’s vote? Is it enough to justify the convenience of being able to vote quickly, instead of having to make the same choice you’d have made anyway several dozen times in a big county like Harris? If all we’re doing is making it take longer to vote, will we also take steps to mitigate that, like having more voting stations available at busy locations so the lines don’t get too long, or making it easier to vote by mail at one’s convenience? I know there are bills filed to do those things, but I don’t expect them to go anywhere.

These are some of the things I think about when I hear someone make the kind of proposals Reps. Simmona and Villalba are making. If Rep. Simmons’ bill were to pass and we found that the number of people voting in, say, County Clerk races was 20% less than in Governor’s races, would we consider that to be a good thing or a bad thing? You tell me. On the one hand, it would be harder to argue that the results of those elections were determined by uneducated voters. On the other hand, a lot of people spend a lot of time every post-election period bemoaning the low number of people who show up to vote. Bemoaning low turnout, and enabling it for what could be a lot of races by eliminating the one-button vote seems to me to be contradictory. Do we want everyone to vote or not? Do we think having some people vote in some races but not in others is the better way to do it? Killing straight ticket voting is an easy answer, though none of these bills may have an easy path to passage. How to get a better-educated electorate is a much harder question. What is it we really want? I’d say we should answer that first. PDiddie has more.

We need to understand why our voters didn’t vote

So now we know that Battleground Texas wasn’t pursuing a base turnout-increase model for the 2014 election, for reasons that have not yet been adequately explored. I’m mad about that, but I don’t want to get bogged down in that. I want to learn from what happened and I want to move forward, in whatever form. I refuse to accept that the way things are now is the way they will always be. It’s just ten years ago that much (mostly virtual) ink was spilled about how hard it is for Democrats to win the Presidency, what with Republicans having such a lock on the Electoral College. Things are a bit different today, and I daresay they will continue to evolve, usually as a result of things most of us (though not all of us) didn’t see coming.

Basically, at a national level we have had two elections in which that “Emerging Democratic Majority” has held sway, and two in which they stayed home. Here in Texas, Democratic turnout was significantly higher in 2008 and 2012 than it was in 2004, but turnout in 2010 and 2014 was basically indistinguishable from 2002. Here’s that chart again from my previous post:

County 2002 GOP 2002 Dem 2010 GOP 2010 Dem 2014 GOP 2014 Dem ===================================================================== Harris 330,801 272,032 423,275 334,098 358,425 299,255 Dallas 218,496 198,499 196,103 209,001 179,014 206,546 Bexar 133,733 124,129 161,443 131,397 156,144 134,876 Tarrant 195,384 125,416 208,976 123,200 213,812 138,944 Travis 93,524 110,026 95,431 127,803 91,372 155,335 County 2002 GOP 2002 Dem 2010 GOP 2010 Dem 2014 GOP 2014 Dem ===================================================================== Harris 17.64% 14.50% 22.05% 17.42% 17.53% 14.64% Dallas 18.08% 16.43% 17.13% 18.25% 14.83% 17.11% Bexar 15.14% 14.05% 17.88% 14.55% 16.27% 14.06% Tarrant 22.42% 14.39% 22.30% 13.15% 21.37% 13.89% Travis 17.18% 20.22% 15.80% 21.16% 14.00% 23.81%

We can argue all we want about why Travis County is “different” and whether or not Battleground Texas had anything to do with it, but the fact remains that Travis is the only county to improve performance over 2002 and 2010. Harris County saw a huge improvement in Democratic turnout in 2010, and then it basically disappeared in 2014. What I want to know – what I hope everyone would want to know – is why this happened.

Look at those numbers. Some 35,000 people that voted Democratic in 2010 did not turn out at all in 2014. Forget the Presidential year/off year conundrum for a moment. What happened to those voters? Why didn’t they vote last year? Maybe it would be a good idea to take a sample of 400 or 500 of those didn’t-show-up voters, and call them and ask them that question. Why didn’t you vote this year? What if anything could we have done differently to have gotten you to vote? I don’t know about you, but I’d sure like to know the answer to those questions.

And why stop there? Nearly half of the people who generally voted Democratic in 2012 didn’t show up in 2014. That’s true in Harris County, and it’s true in the state of Texas as a whole. Maybe instead of cursing our fate we could contact some of those people and ask them why they didn’t vote this year. We probably won’t like a lot of the answers we’d get. Some will be nonsensical, some will be deeply frustrating, some will be of the “shit happens” variety. But at least if we knew what those answers were, maybe we could do better the next time. We might also check on some of those brand-newly registered voters, and as those that voted why they did, and those that didn’t why they didn’t. Wouldn’t that be nice to know?

As I see it, we can accept that our turnout sucks in non-Presidential years, as it has done in the entire history of the United States going all the way back to 2010, or we can try to understand it and maybe do something about it. I don’t care who tries to find out the answers to these questions – this isn’t a scientific poll, it shouldn’t be a big expense; hell, a half dozen or so volunteers could probably make the 500 calls needed to get a decent sample of answers in fairly short order – as long as they share the answers they get. We can try to learn about what happened, or we can just give up and nominate Jim Hogan for Governor in 2018 and save us all a lot of heartache. I know which choice I prefer.

On BGTX, Wendy Davis, and the future

This has been a pretty busy Christmas break, as far as blog-worthy news has gone, so in order to preserve the small illusion that I’m taking a breather and recharging my batteries, I’m just going to give three quick thoughts on this Observer postmortem of the 2014 election and Battleground Texas, which you really should read.

1. I can’t tell you how stunned and disillusioned I am to read that their strategy for 2014 was a swing voter/crossover strategy, and not the base-building one that it sure sounded like they were going to do, and which was screamingly obvious we needed. I mean, even the most cursory review of election data for the past few cycles should have made this clear. The only semi-optimistic thing I can say about this is that I hope it proves, once and for all and beyond any semblance of a doubt, that nothing else matters in Democratic campaigning until we get our base turnout up. We had a huge leap forward from 2004 to 2008, then regressed a bit in 2012, but at least we made progress in Presidential years. Non-Presidential years have been a flat-lined albatross since 2002. I thought BGTX had figured this ridiculously easy insight out and was working on a plan to combat it. I can only hope they’ve figured it out now.

2. Much of the story is about friction between BGTX and the local and state Democratic parties and other organizations. I can’t speak to any of that – I get why the folks that were here first felt steamrolled, and I get why BGTX thought they could do things better – but I will say this: The story notes that in Travis County, there was a formal agreement between BGTX and the locals to work together. Well, if there was one honest success story in terms of performance in Texas in 2014, it was in Travis County. Here’s some data I’d collected for a post that I may or may not ever get around to finishing, about off-year turnout patterns in the five biggest urban counties:

County 2002 GOP 2002 Dem 2010 GOP 2010 Dem 2014 GOP 2014 Dem ===================================================================== Harris 330,801 272,032 423,275 334,098 358,425 299,255 Dallas 218,496 198,499 196,103 209,001 179,014 206,546 Bexar 133,733 124,129 161,443 131,397 156,144 134,876 Tarrant 195,384 125,416 208,976 123,200 213,812 138,944 Travis 93,524 110,026 95,431 127,803 91,372 155,335 County 2002 GOP 2002 Dem 2010 GOP 2010 Dem 2014 GOP 2014 Dem ===================================================================== Harris 17.64% 14.50% 22.05% 17.42% 17.53% 14.64% Dallas 18.08% 16.43% 17.13% 18.25% 14.83% 17.11% Bexar 15.14% 14.05% 17.88% 14.55% 16.27% 14.06% Tarrant 22.42% 14.39% 22.30% 13.15% 21.37% 13.89% Travis 17.18% 20.22% 15.80% 21.16% 14.00% 23.81%

The numbers in question are (for the top chart) the average vote totals for judicial candidates (*) in each year and for each party (I skipped 2006 because it was such an atypical down year for Republicans), and (for the bottom chart) the percentage of registered voters that each of those totals represents. As you can see, the only county with consistent growth, in terms of total numbers and share of registered voters, is Travis County. The Dallas County miracle is largely the result of the bottoming out of the Republican vote there; the Dem vote has grown somewhat, but not that much, and it backslid from 2010. Harris and Bexar are stuck in the mud, while Tarrant is still catching up to 2002. Whatever happened elsewhere in the state and with the Wendy Davis campaign, what happened in Travis County worked. We should learn from that.

(*) – These totals are from contested races only, for which there are a limited supply in Travis and Tarrant. I used statewide and circuit appeals court races in those counties in addition to the rare contested local judicial election; in Harris and Dallas I used district court races, and in Bexar I used district and county court races.

3. If I see any indication that BGTX plans to direct Texas volunteer effort and/or contributions to other states in 2016, I’m going to be very seriously pissed off. That’s not what we were promised, it’s not what anyone signed up for, and it’s not what we deserve. I don’t want to ever have to discuss this again.

As far as the story about Wendy Davis contemplating her political future, which I have not gotten around to reading yet but which Campos has, I see no reason why she can’t run again, whether it’s for SD10 in 2018 (she’d have as good a shot at it as anyone) or statewide again. Remember when we were all calling Rick Perry “Governor 39%”? Everyone had forgotten about that by the time 2010 rolled around. The public has a very short memory. As for Davis, if she has learned the lessons that should have been learned before this year, she might be a much stronger candidate next time out. Bottom line, she was a really good State Senator who won two tough races and served her district very well, and she’s only 51. I see no reason why she can’t have a second act.

Don’t expect the Kathie Glass effect to be much

Seems like every four years we talk about the possible effect of third party candidates on various races. Usually, it’s in the context of legislative races, where some candidates have won with less than 50% in recent years and one could make a case that the presence of a (usually) Libertarian candidate might have had an effect on the outcome. The subject came up for the Governor’s race a little while back, and I’m here to tamp down on any irrational exuberance.

Hop on the bus, Gus. Or don’t. Your call.

Don’t forget 1990.

That was the year a third-party candidate made a potentially game-changing difference in the Texas governor’s race, drawing slightly more than the number of votes separating Democratic winner Ann Richards from Republican Clayton Williams.

And while third-party gubernatorial candidates did not participate in Friday’s debate between Greg Abbott and Wendy Davis, they could help decide who will be the next governor of Texas.

“Third-party candidates can mean a big difference in close elections,” said Allan Saxe, an associate political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. “Third parties can rarely win. Generally, [they] play a spoiler role.”

[…]

Observers say this year’s Nov. 4 general election could provide a number of close races where a third-party candidate might change the entire dynamics of a race.

“In these contests there exists the possibility that were one or more third-party candidates not on the ballot … the outcome of the election would [be] different,” said Mark P. Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston.

[…]

Political analysts say third-party candidates could make a difference in the governor’s race.

Abbott, the state’s attorney general and GOP nominee, squares off against Davis, a state senator from Fort Worth and Democratic nominee. Libertarian Kathie Glass and Green Party candidate Brandon Parmer are in the race as well.

If the race tightens up, Glass and Parmer combined could draw as little as 4 percent of the vote and impact the result.

“That could mean the difference in a very close election,” Saxe said.

After all, in 1990, Richards won by claiming 99,239 more votes than Williams, and Libertarian Jeff Daiell earned 129,128 votes.

“Overall, the principal impact of the Libertarian Party and Green Party candidates this fall will be to provide voters with a different perspective on how to address many of the key challenges facing the state today,” Jones said.

A key example, he said, is Glass, “who is far and away running the most visible and vibrant campaign of any third-party candidate in Texas.”

I will admit, I saw the Kathie Glass Bus on the side of the road as we were heading back from Austin on 290 a couple of weeks ago. I was tempted to take a picture of it, but I was driving at the time, and I didn’t think Tiffany would have appreciated me hauling out my cellphone at that moment. Maybe some other time. In any event, I will admit that as far as that goes, Glass’ campaign has been more visible than some other Libertarian campaigns of recent years.

Nonetheless, I’m going to play spoiler as well. Here’s a compilation of all third-party candidate performances in Texas gubernatorial races since 1990. See if you can spot the problem.

Year Lib Green Other Total Win % ======================================== 1990 3.32 0 0.30 3.62 48.19 1994 0.64 0 0 0.64 49.68 1998 0.55 0 0.02 0.57 49.72 2002 1.46 0.70 0.05 2.21 48.90 2006 0.60 0 0.01 0.61 49.69 2010 2.19 0.39 0.14 2.72 48.64

Notice how in none of these six elections how the combined Lib and Green (and write-in, which is what the Other above represents) total has reached four percent? In fact, outside of 1990, it’s never reached three percent? This could be the year that it happens – the Kathie Glass Bus is quite impressive, after all – but if you’re going to write this story, you ought to acknowledge the history. Don’t get our hopes up without justification.

It’s my opinion from looking at as many election results as I’ve seen over the years that the higher the profile the race, the lower the ceiling for third party candidates, our wacky 2006 Governor’s race excepted. Honestly, outside of the hardest of the hardcore political junkies and members of the third parties themselves, I doubt more than a handful of people even know who the L and G nominees are. With all due respect to Kathie Glass and her bus, the people that will be voting for her are basically the people that always vote Libertarian and the people that for whatever the reason didn’t like the nominee from the party that they tend to vote for no matter how much they protest their “independence”. Frankly, if the base party vote is reasonably close to even overall – which at this point I don’t think is likely, but I could be wrong – the place where an L and/or G candidate could affect the outcome is down ballot. I went through this exercise before, to show that one doesn’t need to get 50% of the vote to win most statewide races in Texas due to the presence of other candidates, and as you can see the higher totals for third party candidates tend to be in the lower profile races. I’m not saying that Kathie Glass and Brandon Parmer can’t have an effect on the outcome of the Governor’s race. I am saying that if I had to pick one race where there might be an effect, I’d probably pick Railroad Commissioner or Supreme Court justice. I promise to look at this again after the election.

2014 Day 10 Early Vote totals

EarlyVoting

Here they are, and here are the full 2010 EV totals. The debate about what the turnout numbers mean continues apace. You already know what I think about that, so let me introduce a different perspective. We’ve been talking about these numbers mostly in the context of 2010. I’ve been saying that’s at least somewhat misleading since so much of the early voting explosion that year came from Republicans. I thought it might be useful to look back at previous to see how Democrats in Harris County performed in them, since as I’ve been saying it’s as much about who turns out as it is how many of them there are. To that end, here are the actual absentee plus in-person early voting numbers for the Land Commissioner race for 2002, 2006, and 2010, taken from harrisvotes.com:

Year Candidate Mail Early Total Pct RvD ======================================================== 2002 Patterson 22,114 79,879 101,993 56.1 58.0 2002 Bernsen 12,607 61,003 73,710 40.6 42.0 2002 Others 634 5,374 6,008 3.3 2006 Patterson 13,640 88,517 102,157 55.2 56.8 2006 Hathcox 7,945 69,703 77,648 42.0 43.2 2006 Others 477 4,629 5,106 2.8 2010 Patterson 36,216 221,145 257,361 59.2 60.3 2010 Uribe 16,450 152,832 169,288 39.0 39.7 2010 Others 733 7,098 7,831 1.8

“RvD” is the straight R versus D percentage. I have used the Railroad Commissioner race for similar purposes in the past; I had no specific reason for using the Land Commish race here, I figure they both recapitulate partisan participation reasonably well. Greg had the R/D number at 54.5/45.5 through Monday. However you feel about the numbers so far, they are better than what we have done in elections past. Does that mean they are as good as they could be? Is this where I thought we’d be as of today? No and no. But it is better than what we have done in past non-Presidential elections, assuming we don’t do any worse till the end of the week. We’ll see how it goes from here.

2014 first week EV totals

EarlyVoting

Here they are, and here are the full 2010 EV totals. Democrats still have a lot of work to do, at least in Harris County. I sure hope it happens, that’s all I can say.

We’re already seeing postmortems for this election – I guess some people like to be ahead of the game – and so we have this effort from yesterday’s op-ed pages. Author William Thorburn makes some valid points, but I think he’s reaching a bit here:

Battleground Texas, with its commitment to expanding the Democratic base by registering more voters and turning them out, had its first test with the 2014 Democratic primary. This year, 555,000 Texans cast a ballot in the Democratic primary, a total that for the third straight election year has been decreasing rather than increasing. In fact, this year’s total of Democratic primary voters is lower than in any year since 1920 when 450,000 voted. In 1920, however, the state’s total population was only 4,723,000, as contrasted with a current population of 26 million plus.

Having failed to recruit candidates for many county and state legislative offices, with no one willing to conduct a primary in 22 counties, and the lowest primary turnout in more than 90 years, the remaining test for Battleground Texas and the state Democratic Party is the performance of its statewide candidates next week. Should this year’s slate of candidates fail to do much better than those in recent elections, one must wonder whether Democratic big-dollar donors will continue to pour money into Battleground Texas or move their contributions and resources to more favorable territory.

I don’t recall candidate recruitment being part of BGTX’s mission statement. In fact, I’m pretty sure the county parties would have resented it like hell if they had tried. Be that as it may, his point about primary turnout is a bit weak. In 2002, with hot races for Governor and US Senate, Dem primary turnout topped one million; in 2006, with snoozers across the board, it was half that; and in 2010, with Bill White duking it out with Farouk Shami, it about 700K. Yet as we know, base Democratic turnout in each year was about the same. In 2008, during the most exciting Democratic primary in at least a generation, turnout was 2.8 million. In 2012, it was less than one fifth of that. In each case, November turnout was about the same. I don’t dispute his larger points, but there’s no correlation here.

Anyway. It’s the last five days of early voting. No time to lose. Let’s hope the numbers improve.

Sameena Karmally

Meet Sameena Karmally, whose race against Jodie Laubenbeg is important not for if she wins or loses but for what she represents.

Sameena Karmally

If Democrats are going to turn Texas purple, they need to do a lot of work at the local level. Long-hidden voters need to be identified, and organizational abilities need to be strengthened. To do that, Democrats need good candidates to run in local elections. Even if they don’t win, they’ll do their bit to put calcium back in the Democratic Party’s old bones. They might run in red districts with little chance of victory, but they’ll pave the way for future contenders.

But standing for election is hell—it’s costly, and it exacts an enormous personal and professional toll. Most people won’t do it if they don’t have a decent chance of success—and there aren’t many places in Texas these days where a Democrat has that chance. So big pockets of the state don’t have any Democrats of significance running locally, which further alienates ordinary people from Democratic politics. It’s a tenacious feedback loop that’s going to be difficult to break.

Some Democrats, though, are doing their part. Take Sameena Karmally, who’s been waging a long-shot effort in heavily Republican House District 89, which covers an area north and east of Plano. In a different context, Karmally would make a star candidate. She’s a lawyer and mother of two who grew up in the Metroplex. She’s smart and thoughtful, and has a compelling personal story: She’s the daughter of Indian Muslim immigrants, and worked her tail off to get to UT School of Law. This is one of those races that seems to embody the clash of the old Texas and new Texas, particularly because she’s running against state Rep. Jodie Laubenberg (R-Parker).

If you know Laubenberg for one thing, it’s that she became the public face of the coalition backing last summer’s abortion restrictions. Laubenberg sponsored House Bill 2, the legislation that Wendy Davis filibustered. During debate on the bill, Laubenberg famously said that a rape exception for abortion restrictions was unnecessary because hospitals “have what’s called rape kits,” so “the woman can get cleaned out.”

That remark earned her international notoriety, but at home, Laubenberg cruises from re-election to re-election. She hasn’t had a primary opponent since 2002, and hasn’t had to run against a Democrat since 2006. She has perfect scores of 100 from Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum and Michael Quinn Sullivan’s Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, wins awards from groups like the Young Conservatives of Texas, and is lauded by the NRA and pro-life groups. She’s the state chair of the influential American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which writes bills for conservative state legislators.

When Laubenberg first won her seat, it was a predominantly rural district. But the Metroplex has experienced explosive growth, and the nature of her district has changed. The last bout of redistricting cut off Laubenberg from the most rural areas, and now HD 89 is heavily suburban, with a growing immigrant population. Many of the district’s residents work for tech companies. The district is less Republican than it used to be, but on paper, it’s still looks prohibitive for Democrats. In 2004, every member of the Republican slate won more than 75 percent of the vote—in 2012, Mitt Romney won just under two-thirds.

The Texas Observer met Karmally in Plano to talk about her race.

Go read the whole thing, it’s worth your time. The point Karmally makes more than once is that the district is very different than it used to be – where it was once mostly rural, it’s now mostly suburban, with a lot of new residents – and that the biggest hurdle she or any Democrat in the district faces is that no one really knows who the Democratic voters out there are, or how many of them there are. They all have that “I thought I was the only Democrat here” reaction typical to such places when they meet Karmally or get invited to a Dem event. That’s what organizing is all about, and places like this, in Collin County – around here it would be places like Montgomery and Brazoria Counties, plus the fast-growing parts of western and northwestern Harris County; think HDs 126, 130, 132, and 135 – and it’s job one for Battleground Texas.

To put some numbers to this, since that’s what I’m all about, here are the last three off-year Railroad Commissioner results from HD89:

Year R candidate R votes R Pct D Candidate D votes D Pct =============================================================== 2002 Williams 17,281 75.0 Broyles 5,767 25.0 2006 Jones 19,498 69.1 Henry 8,706 30.9 2010 Porter 23,923 69.5 Weems 9,014 26.2

There were third party candidates in the RRC race in 2010 but not in 2002 or 2006, so that’s why the 2010 totals don’t add up to 100%. Note that the increase in Dem voters from 2002 to 2006 was greater than the increase in R voters in that period, but the increase in R voters in the tsunami year of 2010 was more than ten times as much as the increase in D voters that year. Needless to say, that pattern can’t continue. I don’t know what a realistic goal is for this district, but if you assume a modest bump in R voters to 25,000 total, then Dems need a boost of 6,000 voters – more than the total number of votes they got in 2002 – just to get to 40%. I say that not to rain on Sameena Karmally’s parade – she’s a terrific candidate, endorsed by the DMN, doing great work in a place where it’s desperately needed – but to add some perspective for when we see the final numbers. Adding six thousand votes here would be a super accomplishment. Dems will need to duplicate that kind of result all over the state to make a difference. It’s about the big picture as much as it is about any one race.

Saving SD10 and other benchmarks

The Observer looks at the race to succeed Wendy Davis in SD10.

Sen. Wendy Davis

Sen. Wendy Davis

It’s a steamy, hot summer morning in the Metroplex, and at the Dixie House, a Southern-style diner in east Ft. Worth where gravy flows like water, Libby Willis can’t find a moment to dig into her eggs and hash. She’s too excited about her campaign. Willis, the Democratic nominee in Senate District 10, is running in one of the state’s most important races for Democrats this cycle. It’s fallen to her—a first-time candidate with solid credentials—to defend Wendy Davis’ soon-to-be-former seat against Konni Burton, a fiery tea-party organizer who’d likely be one of the chamber’s most conservative senators.

Willis acknowledges that her odds are long in this Republican-leaning district. But the path to victory, she says, is simple enough. “We just got to get our people out to vote. That’s all there is to it,” Willis says. “This is not a sleepy year.”

Democrats faced a tough task holding onto the district even before Davis decided to try her hand at the governor’s race. Davis squeaked by in 2008 and 2012, when Barack Obama was at the top of the ticket and Democratic turnout was comparatively high. (Though Obama lost Tarrant County both times, Davis held on anyway.) But the last round of redistricting forced an early election in SD 10—the district now elects its senator in midterm years, when Democrats tend to falter in Texas. To hold the seat for Democrats, Willis will need luck, skillful positioning, a troubled opponent and an impressive field operation. That last part, Democrats hope, is where Battleground Texas comes in.

Battleground, the group started by former Obama campaign staffers with the aim of making Texas politically competitive, is spending most of its time and resources in the rocky terrain of the governor’s race these days. But down the ballot, the organization is trying to put muscle behind a dozen legislative candidates, running in marginal districts that should be fertile ground for Democrats. Dubbed the Blue Star Project, the effort aims to focus the group’s technical expertise and organizing ability on legislative races, with the help of a “coordinated field program and a full arsenal of data, digital, and communications expertise.”

What that means, in short, is that the group hopes to take the special sauce decanted from the Obama campaign’s field operation and drizzle it on legislative races here, where it might make more of a difference than it will against Greg Abbott, who has a 3-to-1 cash advantage over Davis. The most important of the races is SD 10. In the process, Battleground hopes to stake a claim to a continued future in the state.

Democrats everywhere hope this cycle will be more like a presidential year than, say, 2010, and if it is, Battleground could be part of the reason why. Willis says the organization is part of a longer push. “This is a multi-year effort. This is not one and done,” she says. “This is not, ‘Hey, we’re finished at midnight on November 4th.’ They are committed to continuing the work, which is fantastic. And really important.”

I basically agree with this, though as I’ve said before, SD10 in a Presidential year is no cakewalk, either. I feel pretty confident saying that Wendy Davis considered the odds of her holding onto SD10 versus her odds of being elected Governor when she was making her decision. At this point it seems clear to me that the Dems’ odds of holding SD10 are better with Wendy Davis at the top of the ticket than they would be with Wendy Davis running for re-election and essentially nobody at the top of the ticket. I mean seriously, who would our nominee for Governor be right now if Wendy Davis hadn’t taken the plunge? Ray Madrigal? Kinky Friedman? Gene Kelly? It’s pretty brutal when you think about it, especially when you add in the fact that Leticia Van de Putte would also not be running for Lite Gov if Wendy hadn’t led the way. I’ve heard some people complain that by raising people’s hopes in what is likely to be a losing cause, Davis and her candidacy could cause some major blowback and infighting after the election. I don’t doubt the possibility, but it’s hard for me to see how giving up and rolling over as Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick waltz to power was the better alternative.

The big picture also gets discussed.

Battleground Texas debuted in February 2013 to enormous fanfare. Democrats had just come off a spectacularly successful presidential election year: The blue portion of the electoral map had swelled in a way that made some gains seem semi-permanent. Formerly red states like Virginia, Colorado and Nevada had flipped, for reasons that included both shifting ideological coalitions and demographic changes. Other states, like Georgia, seemed to be in reach. Then there was Texas, the beating, blood-red heart of GOP electoral viability.

If the national Republican Party is a vampire, Battleground is intended to be the wooden stake. Founded by Jeremy Bird, the national field director for Obama’s 2012 campaign, and armed with the newest technology, techniques and tactics, the organization says it would do what the Texas Democratic Party couldn’t—or wouldn’t. Even if the group’s fresh-faced organizers don’t make a clean kill, softening Texas would mean national Republicans would have to spend time and money here. They’d win for losing. In a column for The New York Times, political reporter Thomas Edsall wrote a few months after Battleground’s launch that the group had “put the fear of God into the Texas Republican Party.”

If that fear was ever real, you can be sure that it’s dissipated a bit. Battleground has had a challenging first year and a half and its future is uncertain. Wendy Davis’ filibuster gave the Democrats what seemed like a viable shot at the governor’s mansion, so Battleground, which started as a long-term organizing project, wedded the group’s efforts to hers. Battleground handles the work in the field, and Davis’ campaign handles strategy and messaging. The two groups even share a bank account, called, promisingly, the Texas Victory Committee.

If Davis does well, Battleground has a chance to move up the clock on the state’s purple-fication. But if she doesn’t, Battleground stands to suffer along with her. The story of the 2014 election isn’t done yet, but Davis’ odds of victory seem slim. Even if she doesn’t win, Abbott’s margin over Davis matters quite a bit: If she outperforms expectations, Battleground—and the Democratic coalition more generally—will have something to show to donors and supporters come 2015. It’ll serve as a proof of concept.

If she does badly—if she ends up in Bill White territory, as seems possible—the whole thing will be a wash and Dems, having spent a hell of a lot of time and money for little in return, will be left asking themselves very tough questions about how best to organize themselves next cycle. A good deal of the enthusiasm that’s built up in the last year will fall apart. Battleground insists it’s here for the long term—but to make that a reality, the group needs to keep its raison d’être, and its appeal to big-money donors, intact. It’s an expensive operation to run. And some close to the state Democratic Party—which, mind you, doesn’t have a great track record of success itself—would like to see the party take on Battleground’s local organizing functions itself.

[…]

That’s one reason the Blue Star Project is important to the group—if Battleground can pick off a number of legislative races this year, it gives them a plausible claim to a future in Texas. None of the twelve races Battleground is assisting in are really “reach” districts, but Texas Democrats have had trouble pinning them down. If a couple of them flip blue in November, Jeremy Bird’s young group will argue it’s brought home enough trophies to justify another hunting trip.

The 2016 election cycle will likely see Clinton at the top of the ticket driving high turnout among the Democratic base, which means it could be a good year for Dems in legislative races here. In 2008, Democrats in Texas rode the coattails of Barack Obama’s popularity to win 74 of the state’s 150 House seats. It’s not realistic to hope for that again—not least because the state had another round of gerrymandering in between then and now—but it could be a more comfortable climate, and Battleground’s experience this cycle in down-ballot races could prove useful.

I’ve discussed the question of what a consolation prize might look like in the event the losing streak by Dems in statewide races continues. With the caveat that “expectations” and whether or not one has beaten them tend to be set by the chattering classes after the election and not before it when we might have argued about them, let me suggest a couple of bars for BGTX and Wendy Davis to clear.

The Bill White Line: This one is explicitly mentioned in the Observer story. White got 42.29% with 2,106,395 total votes, and I think it’s fair to say that these are minimum totals for any reasonable “success” story to be spun. More to the point, recall that White ran a campaign that was largely geared towards peeling votes away from Rick Perry. He was actually quite successful at that, as I have noted before, but in a world where the base Democratic vote remained at between 1.7 and 1.8 million for a third consecutive off-year election, it didn’t matter. For Battleground Texas to claim success in its goal of boosting turnout, we need to see all statewide Democrats collect at least 2 million votes. I thought that was a worthwhile and achievable goal even before Davis’ famous filibuster put her on the map. It’s surely on the low end of what we should aim for now.

The John Sharp Line: John Sharp scored 46.03% of the vote when he ran for Lite Gov in 2002. No Democrat has topped 46% statewide since. Sharp did this with slightly fewer votes than White – 2,082,281 to be exact – thanks in part to lower Republican turnout that year and a higher third-party vote total. I’d estimate the Davis campaign would need to reach the 2.3 million vote mark to get to 46%, which if she does achieve would also mean that the margin was less than ten percent. I don’t think there’s any question that crossing these lines would be the mark of clear and substantial progress, and by all rights should change the narrative from “Dems haven’t won since the 90s” to “Dems came closer than they have in any election since the 90s”.

Hold the line in the Lege: The story is about SD10, and it also mentions HD23. Both of those seats, as well as CD23, have the distinction of being held by Democrats but having been carried by Mitt Romney in 2012. (There are no Republican-held seats in the Lege or in Congress that were carried by President Obama in 2012.) Holding those seats, especially with SD10 and HD23 being open, would be a very nice thing to do regardless of what happens anywhere else.

Gain ground in the Lege: The next level up involves picking up a seat or two (or more) in the Lege, where as the story notes there are a few that could be attained with a focused turnout effort. The story covers most of the basics and I’ve blogged about the Blue Star Project before, so I’ll leave it at that. Suffice to say that any pickups, all of which would also be in districts that had been carried by Mitt Romney, would be a feather in the cap and another sign of real progress.

Win Harris County. Bill White carried Harris County in 2010, but that came with an asterisk next to it. No other Dem came close as the Republicans swept the county races again, as they had every year since 1998, a year that I trust sounds familiar. Dems increased turnout significantly in Harris County in 2010, but lost ground overall compared to 2006 due to the GOP tidal wave that year. We can’t do anything about that, but there’s plenty of room to grow the Democratic vote more, and in the absence of another GOP tsunami, winning Harris County and the substantial prizes that would come with it – the first Democratic DA in who knows how long, ousting the likes of Stan Stanart and Orlando Sanchez, maintaining the Democratic majority on the HCDE – would be sweet.

Win Fort Bend, advance elsewhere. Fort Bend County has trended the same was as Harris has, but a few points behind. Winning Harris County in a non-Presidential year would be a shot across the bow, while winning Fort Bend would be a brick with a note tied to it crashing through the window. Beyond that, pick your favorite red county and a reasonable goal. Thirty-five percent in Collin and Denton? Forty percent in Williamson? Forty-five percent in Tarrant? Go to the SOS webpage, use the Railroad Commission race as the benchmark, and go from there.

You get the idea. I don’t think you need a fancy Poli Sci degree to realize that these events are not independent of each other. It’s hard to imagine falling short of the Bill White Line while achieving the other goals, and it’s hard to imagine clearing the John Sharp Line without achieving at least some of them. Still, there will be some variation based on local conditions and candidate quality, and one hopes that the promised exit polls will give us some more dimensions to measure. I definitely agree with author Christopher Hooks that one way or another there will be a long discussion about the level of success of the tactics used in this campaign. I hope this has provided a starting point for discussing what those levels might look like.

DeLay gets off

Sure is nice to have friends in high places.

Who are YOU to judge me?

Who are YOU to judge me?

Siding with a decision made a year ago by a lower appeals court, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on Wednesday refused to reinstate money-laundering convictions against former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

In an 8-1 decision, the state’s highest criminal court backed a Texas 3rd Court of Appeals decision that reversed DeLay’s 2011 convictions on money laundering and conspiracy to commit money laundering. The court had ruled there was not enough evidence to prove that DeLay’s actions were criminal.

“We agree with the court of appeals that, as a matter of law, the State failed to prove facts to establish that the appellant committed either the object offense of money laundering or the inchoate offense of conspiracy to commit the same,” the criminal appeals court ruled.

[…]

Court of Criminal Appeals Judges Cheryl Johnson and Cathy Cochran wrote in a concurring opinion that although there was evidence DeLay knew — after the fact — of the transfer of the funds, there was no proof “he was directly involved.”

“Like some of Goldman Sachs’s dealings with a Spanish bank, the wheeling and dealing was a tad shady, but legal,” they wrote.

Judge Lawrence Meyers, the lone dissenter, says that the majority opinion “places a burden on the State that is impossible to overcome,” because an individual would have to be aware that his or her actions violates the Texas election code.

“In addition to placing this ridiculous burden on the State, which effectively repeals the statute, this holding also allows corporations who simply cannot be bothered to look up the law to get away with making illegal contributions,” Meyers said.

Here’s the decision. Given the way oral arguments went, this can’t be considered a surprise. Those of you looking for partisan angles, note that the one dissenter was the guy who decided to run for the Supreme Court as a Democrat. We’ve come an awfully long way to wind up here, but that’s the way it goes. I don’t really feel like thinking about this right now – too much else going on, and I always did think the case against DeLay was weaker than the cases against his henchmen. Whatever else, the world is a better place without Tom DeLay in a position of power, and at least we’ll always have that. Juanita has more.

A thought about the stealth campaign

Forrest Wilder writes about the un-campaigns being run by most statewide Republicans.

“Oozing charm from every pore I oiled my way around the floor”

But now comes a new twist: the art of the non-campaign. The candidate who doesn’t even bother to put on a show, doesn’t even pretend to reach the broad middle of the citizenry and instead appears behind closed doors to small groups of like-minded voters, if he or she appears in public at all.

That’s the kind of campaign that some Texas Republicans are now running, in particular Ken Paxton, who’s favored to become attorney general, and Dan Patrick, who’s the frontrunner for lieutenant governor. Their campaigns are marked by a general refusal to speak with reporters, engage with their opponents, hold press conferences, meet with newspaper editorial boards, publicly announce events in advance, or even run TV ads.

Instead, the two men are running “stealth” campaigns—as the Houston Chronicle recently put it—speaking to tea party gatherings or events closed to the press.

A talk-radio show host not known for his reticence, Patrick ran a boisterous campaign against his three rivals during the GOP lieutenant governor primary and later in a head-to-head runoff against Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. Now, he’s like the chupacabra: rumored but rarely seen in the flesh.

[…]

Ted Delisi, a GOP consultant quoted in the Chronicle, acknowledged that it’s “not the typical campaigning” but then implausibly tried to coin the approach as not being “covert,” but rather “the new overt.”

If anything, state Sen. Ken Paxton is even more covertly overt. Paxton is the overwhelming favorite to be the next attorney general—he faces an underfunded Democratic attorney with the somewhat helpful name Sam Houston. The highlight of Paxton’s resume so far is that he’s admitted to violating state securities law by accepting kickbacks from an investment firm without disclosing that relationship to regulators or his clients. And apparently he’s not eager to talk about it: Paxton has been almost completely AWOL.

I can find precisely one news account of a public appearance in the last month. On Sept. 8, he was the special guest of honor at a San Jacinto County Republican Party event, where he told the crowd that Obamacare would be “obliterated” if unspecified lawsuits were successful.

This isn’t news, of course. I’ve said before and I’ll say again here, Patrick and Paxton and the other Republican statewides (not counting Greg Abbott) simply aren’t interested in talking to anyone who isn’t a Republican primary voter. They don’t care about them, they’re not going to represent them, so why bother? They’ve already won the races that matter to them, the rest is a mere formality.

Again, none of this is new. But it got me to wondering: What if this lack of overt campaigning has a negative effect on turnout for Republicans?

We all know that the Democratic strategy for this year is based in large part on the unprecedented organizing efforts of Battleground Texas and other groups, with a healthy dose of energy from the Davis and Van de Putte campaigns and a general “had enough” feeling among the faithful. We also know that just as Democratic turnout had been flat for three elections running, Republican turnout had varied. In the landslide of 2010, some 500,000 Republican voters showed up that hadn’t voted in 2006; the vote total was also about 300,000 higher than it was in 2002. The big question – to me, at least – has always been “will those non-habitual 2010 voters show up again in 2014?” Clearly, if they do, then Patrick and Paxton and the rest are indeed on easy street, and they may as well start measuring the drapes and hiring staff. Polling models sure seem to think this is the case, which may be where those gaudy leads for Greg Abbott et al are coming from. Battleground Texas is doing great work, but it would take more than a miracle for Dems to be competitive if the Republican base vote is going to top three million as it did four years ago. If this is the expectation, then Patrick and Paxton’s behavior makes perfect sense even without taking into effect Patrick’s poisonous personality and Paxton’s equally toxic ethics issues.

But what if this isn’t the case? Voting tends to be a habit, which is why pollsters (among others) are so enamored with “likely” voters. Why would we assume that the first-time Republican voters of 2010 will be back for more in 2014? Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure some of them will. I don’t know how big a number that “some” is, but I’m pretty sure it’s not going to be 500,000. Suppose instead that their base number is about 2.7 million, or about what they had in 2002. Now things maybe aren’t such a slam dunk for Patrick and Paxton. Let’s say the efforts of BGTX are enough to boost Democratic base turnout to 2.3 million or so, an ambitious and impressive total given the starting point, but hardly out of the question. That brings the GOP’s polling lead down to eight points – right in line with that Wendy Davis internal poll, in other words – and you can imagine the potential to peel away a few more votes from those that might find Patrick and/or Paxton unacceptable. How likely is that? I don’t know, but it’s greater than zero. It’s a very different scenario from the 2010 turnout possibility.

Now I know, turnout is mostly driven by the top of the ticket. But Greg Abbott is running a very different campaign than Rick Perry did in 2010. Where Perry was his usual swaggering self, Abbott has been trying to put a softer face on the same kind of hard-right politics. He’s all about madrinas and overcoming adversity, and has arguably spent more time wooing Democratic voters than any other bloc. That may pay off for him, but there’s no reason to believe that such a voter would continue on to vote for Patrick and Paxton and so forth. More to the point, he’s not running the kind of base-revving campaign that Perry ran in 2010, at least not visibly. There may be stuff going on covertly that I’m not tuned in to, but surely we agree that Perry 2010 and Abbott 2014 are two different beasts. I don’t know how to compare them quantitatively. Maybe they will perform about the same in the end. I just know they’re different, and I wonder what the implications are. If we’re assuming that these previously unlikely Republican voters are going to turn out in droves again this year, and we see that Abbott is running a different campaign than Rick Perry did – whether Abbott’s campaign is different because 2014 is different, or 2014 is different because Abbott’s campaign is different is a rabbit hole I don’t care to climb down – then what else might be driving these people to vote this year?

The obvious answer to that question is “President Obama”, and the Republicans’ unrelenting animosity towards him. I can’t deny the strong possibility of that, but I will offer two points. One is that when given the chance to vote against him in 2012, Republicans turned out at about the same level as they did in 2008, and 2004 for that matter. That’s a different voter universe, of course, but it at least suggests to me that there are some limits to this as a motivating factor. The other is mixed into that chicken-or-egg question I posed above, which is simply that 2014 is different than 2010. The campaigns are different, the candidates are different – remember, outside of the judicial candidates not a single Republican is running for re-election statewide, and only Greg Abbott has been on most people’s ballots before – the issues are different, the economy is in much stronger shape…you get the idea. The end result may well look the same, but right now this election doesn’t resemble 2010 at all. Why should we assume that it will?

And that’s my main point here. A lot of what we’re seeing in this campaign seems to be based on the assumption that this election will be like the 2010 election, despite all of the obvious differences. Maybe it will and maybe it won’t – maybe these differences won’t amount to much – but I’d at least like to see it acknowledged that the assumption is being made.

On polls and turnout

Sen. Wendy Davis

Sen. Wendy Davis

So as you know, the latest YouGov poll came out on Friday, and it was ugly for Wendy Davis, showing an 18-point lead for Greg Abbott. PDiddie was despondent, EoW was trying to keep the faith, and Texpatriate was somewhere in between. I didn’t have a chance to say much about this poll in my discussion of the Davis internal poll, so let me put my thoughts here. I intend this more as a thought exercise than a deep analysis, so let’s see where this takes us.

1. If this is an accurate result, and assuming that the third party candidates collect about two percent of the vote, it suggests that Abbott is headed for a 58-40 win over Davis. That’s about the margin that Rick Perry defeated Tony Sanchez by in 2002. Do you think Wendy Davis will do no better than Tony Sanchez did? I have a hard time believing that.

2. With the same assumptions as above, if total turnout is about five million votes – basically the same as it was in 2010 – it suggests that Abbott will get 2.9 million votes while Davis gets 2 million, with the rest getting 100,000. Not many Texas Democrats have gotten two million votes in off year elections – John Sharp in 2002, and Bill White in 2010. White got just over 2.1 million in 2010. Do you think Wendy Davis will fail to get as many votes as Bill White? I have a hard time believing that, too.

3. White ran a different campaign than Davis did, aiming more at peeling votes away from Rick Perry. He was quite successful at that as we have discussed, but it ultimately didn’t matter since base turnout was too low. As we have also discussed before, Democratic base turnout in off year elections hasn’t changed since 2002. Davis, in conjunction with Battleground Texas, is working hard on raising base turnout. How successful will that effort be? I really have no idea. With the likely exception of that Davis internal poll, none of the polls we have seen published so far have given any suggestion that they have tried to measure this effect. YouGov, which uses a static sample and applies whatever model it assumes for the election to it, certainly doesn’t. This effort could be hugely successful yet fall well short of victory. The Chron story that Texpatriate cites quotes one expert that suggests this is about a ten-point race. Again giving two percent to third parties, that’s a 54-44 win for Abbott, or 2.7 million votes to 2.2 million in a five million voter turnout scenario. Assuming Davis doesn’t have a significant number of crossover votes – assuming, therefore, that the rest of the Democratic ticket has about that same number of votes as well – that would mean that BGTX’s efforts were worth a boost of about 400,000 or 500,000 over past elections. That’s a lot and ought to be seen as a big step forward and a solid foundation going into 2016 and 2018, but as noted it would not be nearly enough to pull out a win. Is that a reasonable expectation? Again, I don’t know. I really wish we’d get a little bit of reporting on this and less on what the same assortment of political scientists think about the same poll results on the same samples from the same pollsters.

I’m not going to say that Davis is winning, certainly not if her own poll numbers don’t say so. I don’t think the polls that we have seen are an accurate reflection of the race, but I have no evidence to back that up. I really have no idea what to expect, but I do know this much: The more we work on turning out our voters, especially voters the pollsters do not consider “likely” voters, the more wrong we’ll be able to say the polls were. That only happens if we do that work.

The run and hide strategy

Where’s Danno?

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte

Texas voters [were] treated to a peculiar sight Friday evening: a one-candidate debate.

Leticia Van de Putte, the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, [answered] questions in a Spanish-language television event without Republican rival Dan Patrick. He’ll be meeting with industry trade groups, his campaign says.

There may be no better illustration of the status of this year’s race for one of the most powerful positions in the state.

Van de Putte, a state senator from San Antonio but little-known statewide, has spent 31/2 months doing everything possible to gain attention for her underdog campaign.

She has inundated reporters with near-daily news releases and has invited some media to watch Spurs playoff basketball on television.

Her campaign has rolled out policies on education, jobs and health care. Last week, it started airing television ads.

Patrick, by contrast, has not yet run ads or held a news conference since winning the Republican runoff in late May. His campaign has put out an advance announcement about exactly one event in that time.

The Houston state senator has done many campaign events, particularly with tea party groups, but has not amplified his message beyond the room.

It may seem like an unusual strategy for a flamboyant radio show host who overwhelmed incumbent Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst this spring in part with pastorlike speaking talents.

To political analysts, however, it’s a familiar dynamic for a race with a clear Republican frontrunner in a state that has not elected a Democrat to statewide office in two decades.

There’s nothing mysterious about it. As I said about Ken Paxton, Dan Patrick has already talked to all of the voters he’s interested in talking to. He doesn’t think he needs to talk to anyone else, and he’s not interested in what anyone else thinks. I don’t see why this would be a surprise to anyone. It’s how Republicans have run statewide since 2002. No one noticed in 2006 because other than the bizarre, four-headed Governor’s race there weren’t any competitive races to discuss, and no one noticed in 2010 because it was the year of the teabagger. It’s only noticeable this year because we have a brand new (deeply flawed and thoroughly undistinguished) slate of Republicans and the strongest set of Ds top to bottom since 2002 that anyone has noticed the avoidance strategy. Until such time as Republicans think they might actually lose unless the actively engage voters outside of their primary, this is what we’re going to get.

If you read just one more story about Wendy Davis’ campaign

I would recommend you read this one, by Andrea Grimes.

Sen. Wendy Davis

Sen. Wendy Davis

In four months, Texans are guaranteed to elect a new governor for the first time in 14 years, and Davis’ battle stance is appropo: She’s been under attack from naysayers, pundits, and even members of her own party since before she announced her candidacy for Texas governor back in October. Today, she continues to fall well behind her Republican opponent, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, in statewide polls, though the most recent financial reports show that Davis out-raised Abbott in the last fundraising period, and she often boasts about a grassroots base that she says puts Abbott’s small but monied good-ole-boy network to shame.

But politicos on both sides of the aisle have worried that Davis, who took her Fort Worth, Texas, Senate seat in 2008 and held on to it in a hard-fought battle in 2012, has skyrocketed to fame too quickly, taking on the burden of running for statewide office before she, or the State of Texas, is ready. Following her filibuster of an omnibus anti-abortion bill that is expected to shutter all but a handful of abortion providers in Texas, even one of her fellow Democrats situated Davis as being unable to break away from accusations that she’s a one-issue candidate who peaked on a summer night in 2013.

And the national media has expressed a singular fascination with Davis’ footwear, cooing over the pink Mizuno sneakers she wore on the floor of the Texas Senate on June 25, 2013. That day, Davis stood for 13 hours, reading Texans’ abortion stories and unheard testimony from citizens who had, days earlier, been shut out of a committee hearing by a Republican lawmaker who called their concerns about reducing access to reproductive health care “repetitive.”

That bill eventually passed in a second special legislative session, with pro-choice Democrats and Republicans roundly outnumbered by their anti-choice colleagues. A Republican pundit quickly gave Davis the glib and sexist nickname “Abortion Barbie,” and conservatives have worked hard to try and make it stick.

But Davis’ policy bench goes deep, as does her bipartisan record: the Harvard-educated lawyer served on the Fort Worth City Council for nine years, overseeing remarkable economic development initiatives and voting in Republican primaries, even donating to Republican campaigns. When she ran for state senate as a conservative Democrat in 2008, she took the office from a Republican incumbent and later held on to the seat in a costly and combative race against Tea Partier Mark Shelton in 2012. In 2011, Davis filibustered in the state senate for the first time, opposing a $4-billion cut to education funding and forcing Gov. Rick Perry into a special legislative session. In 2013, she shepherded through a Texas version of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act with nigh-unprecedented bipartisan support, only to see it vetoed by Gov. Rick Perry.

If, despite this record, Davis is considered a one-trick pony in pink sneakers, what must we make of her opponent, Greg Abbott? Abbott frequently describes, only half-jokingly, most of his 12 years on the job as attorney general thusly: “I go into the office in the morning, I sue Barack Obama, and then I go home.”

[…]

Despite the fact that both parties are running very different, very big-personality candidates, Davis has almost exclusively borne the brunt of both legitimate and bad-faith criticism, and she has been the primary subject of an outsized share of the 2014 Texas statewide race coverage, perhaps because of her novelty as a viable Democrat—and a woman, at that.

And yet the strengths that make Davis a potential winner are, simultaneously, the very weaknesses that seem to bring her down. It all depends on who you ask.

To the anti-choice talk-radio crowd, Davis continues to be “Abortion Barbie,” too blonde and not nearly matronly enough to garner anything but outright misogynistic derision from Erick Erickson, Rush Limbaugh, and their ilk. To the national media, Davis is the sneaker-wearing—never, never forget the pink sneakers—underdog about whom a steady stream of “Can she or can’t she?” stories must be written until election day. To Texas political wonks, she’s a charismatic leader playing a losing hand as poll after poll shows her trailing Greg Abbott by double digits. To Texas’ long-beleaguered liberal media, she’s Moses without a map.

And Davis is also under tremendous political pressure to appeal to a wide array of moderate, liberal, and progressive voters that an ever-rightward leaning Texas GOP has long left behind.

To those who would or could support her, she variously: talks too much about abortion, doesn’t talk enough about abortion, secretly wants to militarize the border, wants to give all immigrants citizenship starting tomorrow, is an out-of-touch capitol insider, needs more experience in the capitol, should focus on Medicaid expansion, should get tougher on environmental concerns, should spend more time in the Rio Grande Valley, should stop pandering to people in the Rio Grande Valley, needs to recapture that filibuster spirit, should stop relying on the filibuster to carry her through November, and so-on and so-forth, and lo, the list lengthens as November 4 grows closer.

Wendy Davis just can’t seem to do anything right, and nobody on either side of the aisle seems to mind weighing in on the nuances of why, and how, she’s setting herself—and by extension, all Texas Democrats—up to fail this November.

Meanwhile, Greg Abbott—whose Republican party just weeks ago recommended “reparative therapy” for gay people and called for easing foster parents’ ability to use corporal punishment on their wards—is taking tens of thousands of dollars in campaign donations from Koch chemical companies before handing down favorable AG rulings that lessen the corporate behemoth’s public safety obligations, and all folks seem to want to know is what he’s thinking for the window treatments in that big, pretty governor’s mansion at 11th and Lavaca in downtown Austin.

If things look a little off to you, you’re not the only one who thinks so.

Grimes’ story is by far the best one I’ve read about the campaign, and it gets at a number of things I’ve thought about but haven’t been able to express nearly as well as she has done. It’s the first story I’ve seen that does more than just writes about what’s right in front of someone’s nose, or which complains about the campaign not doing the things that the writer wants the campaign to do.

I can’t begin to tell you how frustrated I’ve been at the lack of coverage and analysis on Battleground Texas and the Davis ground game. We’ve never seen anything like it before, and while I get plenty of email from BGTX telling me how awesome it’s all going, it would be nice to get an objective evaluation now and again. Yet one critic of Davis and her campaign after another, from Lisa Falkenberg to Bob Ray Sanders to Paul Burka write as if Davis is acting in a vacuum. (Forrest Wilder has been the exception to this.) Davis and BGTX clearly understand that she can’t win – hell, she can’t really compete – with the same Democratic electorate and turnout levels that we’ve seen since 2002, but no one analyze the polls beyond the headline numbers. How effective a job is BGTX, which wasn’t originally intended to be a force in 2014, doing? What are their targets, realistic and reach, for this year? How are they doing in high-growth, generally red suburban areas like Collin and Williamson, how are they doing in places Democrats have long abandoned like West Texas, and how are they doing in the critical Dem-heavy but turnout-light places in South Texas and the Valley? Do the Team Obama methods translate from Ohio and Florida, where voters are used to being harassed frequently contacted by campaigns, to a (shall we say) more laissez-faire state like Texas? How do the BGTX foot soldiers feel about the bad polls for Davis? So many questions, so little interest in the media in exploring any of them.

Actually, I’ve been saying all along that the Davis/BGTX ground game effort has never been seen before in Texas, but is that really true? The Bill White campaign had a lot going on, and Lord knows the Tony Sanchez campaign spent money like it was going out of style. What had they been doing by this point in the campaign? What is Davis/BGTX doing that they didn’t, and vice versa? I’m sure there’s a great story to be told there, if someone cared to look into it.

I honestly have no idea what to expect from the BGTX effort. I believe they’re having an effect, and I believe that effect will show up on Election Day, but I have no clue how much of an effect. One can certainly criticize the choices the Davis campaign has made in its messaging, and one can certainly believe that emphasizing various themes differently could put Davis in a better position to succeed – Grimes does so with gusto – but there’s no way to know. Nate Silver can simulate a thousand elections based on exogenous factors like the economy and various approval ratings and the accuracy of polls, but I don’t know how to predict the efficacy of a turnout operation, even one with the pedigree of Team Obama and its BGTX founders. They could be wildly successful at boosting base turnout from the recent anemic levels yet still fall well short of victory for Davis and the rest of the statewide Democratic ticket. The post mortem will have plenty of evidence to dissect, but until then we’re all talking out of our nether regions.

Anyway. Go read the whole thing and see what you think.

DeLay gets his day before the CCA

Looks like he might have had a pretty good day, too.

Who are YOU to judge me?

Who are YOU to judge me?

Oral arguments in Tom DeLay’s decadelong legal fight with the Travis County District Attorney’s office heated up Wednesday as Republican judges on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals questioned whether prosecutors could prove the former House majority leader illegally funneled corporate money to state candidates.

[…]

Presiding Judge Sharon Keller, one of the panel’s eight Republicans, was outspokenly doubtful about prosecutors’ ability to prove DeLay and his associates illegally funneled $190,000 in corporate donations to seven GOP candidates for the state Legislature in 2002.

The money was donated to DeLay’s state political action committee, Texans for a Republican Majority, and made its way into a Republican National Committee corporate donations account. Checks totaling the same amount then were distributed from a different RNC account to the state candidates.

[Travis County Assistant District Attorney Holly] Taylor said the scheme is illegal under state law, which bans corporate contributions to campaigns, but Keller and her colleagues were less sure.

“It seems like your theory of prosecution has some internal inconsistencies,” Keller said, referring to the money laundering argument. Judge Elsa Alcala also asked about the unprecedented nature of the state’s case, saying the original intent of the money laundering law was to target drug trafficking: “When I see this case, my first reaction is, ‘What are you talking about?’ ”

“The first time something happens, it’s still a crime,” Taylor responded.

Seriously, when was the last time Sharon effing Keller expressed that kind of skepticism in any prosecutor’s case? It’s like Dave Wilson not being a flaming homophobe – it’s just not in her nature. I have never bought into the idea that the CCA would be pro-Republican on DeLay’s behalf, but if this is how they actually go it will be hard to dismiss that idea. We won’t know till 2015 on that, so we’ll see. What do you think, am I reading too much into this? Texas Politics and Texas Public Radio have more.

Today’s the day for Tom DeLay at the CCA

Apologies for the excessive alliteration. I got on a roll and couldn’t stop.

Who are YOU to judge me?

Who are YOU to judge me?

DeLay’s appellate lawyer, Brian Wice of Houston, and Travis County prosecutor Holly Taylor will argue Wednesday before the state’s highest criminal court in Austin over whether the jury’s verdict should be reinstated or if DeLay will be exonerated.

A victory by DeLay ends the marathon case, but if prosecutors prevail with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, Wice says he has another point to appeal — that the $190,000 transaction for which he was convicted could not have been money laundering because a check, not cash, was used. The 3rd Court panel did not address that point in its opinion last fall.

[…]

In her appeal, Taylor argued for the state that the two Republican judges used “selected” evidence to second-guess the jury improperly. Wice, meanwhile, countered that “the state’s unprecedented gambit (to create a criminal offense) was correctly unmasked by the court of appeals.”

Over the years, both sides have taken turns complaining about the partisanship surrounding the case, often getting judges removed on allegations of political bias. DeLay also objected to being tried in Travis County, citing its Democratic leanings.

Given that backdrop, DeLay’s lawyers would now seem to have the advantage of arguing before a court with eight Republican judges and one Democrat, who was elected as a Republican before switching parties.

But the state’s highest criminal court also ordered DeLay’s trail, criticizing a 3rd Court panel for trying to short-circuit the legal process several years ago by ruling prematurely on DeLay’s cash vs. check defense during pre-trial arguments.

In their briefs for Wednesday’s oral arguments, Taylor recounted evidence she thought the 3rd Court ignored and Wice criticized prosecutors’ handling of the case, including a last-minute indictment rushed through a grand jury in one day after three years of investigation.

See here and here for the most recent entries in this long-running saga. I’ve said before that to whatever extent there’s a pro-Republican lean on the CCA, I think their pro-prosecution urge outweighs it. Be that as it may, if the CCA rules against DeLay I don’t think he’s going to get much joy re-litigating the “checks aren’t cash” argument. The CCA addressed that before, though apparently not in a “that’s all there is, there ain’t no more” fashion. One way or the other, we are approaching closure on this.

On defining success

It depends on what your goals are.

Suppose you were a Texas Democrat and a realist.

You want your candidates to win in November and to break the spirit-killing string of losses that started after the statewide elections in 1994.

But you have been scratching for reasons that this year will be different, from the two women at the top of the Democratic ticket to the Battleground Texas organizing efforts to the current Republican tilt to the right that — to Democrats, anyway — seems out of step with mainstream voters.

But the realist within is thinking about Nov. 5, and how to keep the embers going on the day after an election that — unless there is an upset — will mark another set of Republican victories.

Short of winning a statewide election, what would constitute good news for Texas Democrats in November?

Jeremy Bird, a founder of the Battleground Texas effort to build a Democratic grassroots organization in the state, has his eyes on volunteers, energized activists and the sorts of activity that could expand through 2016 and 2018. His group started a little over a year ago with talk of a six-year plan to make Democrats competitive in Texas. The somewhat unexpected rise of state Sens. Wendy Davis and Leticia Van de Putte as political candidates could accelerate that effort, even if neither takes office. His measure of a win, short of a victory: “Better than Bill White.”

White, a former Houston mayor, was the Democratic candidate for governor in 2010. He received 42.3 percent of the vote — better than any Democratic candidate for governor since Ann Richards’ loss in 1994, when she received 45.9 percent.

“Closing the margin is important; getting back to the Ann Richards numbers in 1994,” said Richard Murray, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “There’s not much opportunity for pickups in the Legislature, but closing the margin would help set the table for 2016.”

Glenn Smith, who managed part of Richards’ first campaign for governor in 1990, is not a fan of this kind of thinking.

“It’s my extremely strong opinion that you play every contest to win,” said Smith, who now runs the Progress Texas PAC, which supports Democratic candidates and causes. “You set everything on winning. There is nothing else. If you start even mentally thinking that we’re okay at 46, then you might end up at 42. You can’t get in that mind-set. It’s true in sports, in every competitive walk of life — you have to set a course to win. You can’t begin cutting the goal to something short of winning, or your plans will suck.”

I’ll settle this: They’re all right.

Look, there’s no question that winning is always the goal and that losing is failure. There are no consolation prizes, no moral victories, and no partial credit. Greg Abbott will govern the same way whether he wins by one vote or one million votes, just as Rick Perry did when we were all calling him “Governor 39%”. So will Dan Patrick, and so will the rest of them. Another shutout means another four years of the same old shit we’ve had since George Bush was first elected.

That doesn’t mean all losses are created equal, however. Democrats haven’t just lost every statewide election since 1996, we’ve lost them badly. Here are the top five statewide Democrats by percentage of the vote in the Rick Perry era:

Year Candidate Office Pct ===================================== 2002 Sharp Lt Gov 46.03 2002 Mirabal Sup Ct 45.90 2008 Houston Sup Ct 45.88 2008 Strawn CCA 45.53 2006 Moody Sup Ct 44.88

It’s about changing the perception almost as much as it is about winning. Winning obviously does that splendidly, and it comes with a heaping helping of other benefits, but after all this losing, coming close will mean something, too. Going from “Democrats last won a statewide election in 1994” to “Democrats came closer to winning statewide than they had in any election since 1998” matters. It will make recruiting and fundraising a lot easier, and not just for the star candidate or two at the top but for candidates up and down the ballot. It virtually guarantees that Hillary Clinton contests the state in 2016. It puts Ted Cruz squarely in the crosshairs for 2018.

As such, I respectfully disagree with Jeremy Bird. Doing better than Bill White isn’t progress. We need to do better than John Sharp. I’ve been reluctant to say stuff like this out loud – it’s not my place to set expectations – but the question was going to come up sooner or later. It’s not just about vote percentage, either, but also about turnout, since that’s what Battleground Texas’ mission is. I’ve talked at length about turnout and how Democratic levels of turnout have been flat in the last three off-year elections. I can’t say offhand what a minimally-acceptable level of improvement in that looks like to me, but I feel confident saying that if we’re achieving Sharp levels of vote percent, we’re doing fine on turnout.

Let’s also acknowledge that the original mission of Battleground Texas was to make Texas competitive in future Presidential elections, and that when they first showed up Wendy Davis was just another State Senator and we were all (okay, I was all) doing fantasy candidate recruitment for Governor. Davis’ arrival on the scene and BGTx’s integration with her campaign changed their focus, but they were never supposed to be about 2014. The whole point was that unlike traditional campaign machines, BGTx would stick around and keep working for the next election and the one after that. Obviously, having serious candidates that have generated real excitement at the top of the ticket has jumpstarted BGTx’s efforts, but it’s reasonable to expect that BGTx has their own metrics and their own timeline.

So yeah, they’re all right. And just because I’ve drawn a line somewhere doesn’t obligate anyone to recognize or respect it. We all agree that winning >>> losing, but beyond that it’s all open to interpretation.

TPJ files amicus brief in DeLay appeal

It’s almost time for Tom DeLay to go to court again.

Who are YOU to judge me?

Who are YOU to judge me?

A government-watchdog group on Tuesday petitioned the state’s highest criminal court to reinstate the money-laundering and conspiracy convictions of former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom Delay, moving to join a brewing legal fight before a scheduled June 18 court hearing in the case.

DeLay, a former Sugar Land Republican, was convicted in November 2010 by a Travis County jury of raising almost $700,000 in corporate contributions through Texans for a Republican Majority, a political action committee, and using those funds to help Republicans win a majority in the Texas House in 2003.

Corporate contributions to Texas politicans have been barred since 1903, and prosecutors alleged that DeLay directed a criminal conspiracy to illegally launder corporate funds into Texas House races, an argument that watchdog group Texans for Public Justice said is correct and should result in reinstatement of DeLay’s conviction. The group filed an amicus brief Tuesday with the state Court of Criminal Appeals.

[…]

Calling the dismissal of DeLay’s conviction a “partisan, result-oriented ruling” by the appeals court, Craig McDonald, executive director of the watchdog group. “Facts show that DeLay and his co-conspirators knowingly broke Texas election laws.”

The amicus brief is here, and TPJ’s press release is here. It should be noted that DeLay’s legal team succeeded in getting one of the Democratic judges removed from the panel; the remaining Democratic judge dissented on the opinion to overturn DeLay’s convictions. As I’ve noted before, it will be interesting to see if the CCA’s notoriously pro-prosecution biases overwhelm any partisan sympathy they may have for DeLay. I will also note that it was eleven months between arguments before the Third Court of Appeals and their ruling, so I wouldn’t expect a final decision any time soon.