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Election 2020

PPP: Biden 48, Trump 46

And here’s poll number two, which is technically about the Texas Senate race but I’m counting it as a Presidential poll for consistency.

MJ Hegar

Public Policy Polling’s newest Texas survey finds that John Cornyn has basically no profile in Texas. Only 27% of voters have a favorable opinion of him to 34% with an unfavorable one and a 39% plurality don’t have any opinion about him one way or the other. The numbers when it comes to his job approval are similar-29% approve, 33% disapprove, and 38% have no opinion.

Cornyn’s lack of a profile with Texans make him susceptible to the overall political winds in the state, and those are blowing the wrong way for Republicans right now. Only 46% of voters approve of the job Donald Trump is doing to 51% who disapprove, and Joe Biden leads him by 2 points at 48-46.

Cornyn starts out with the lead over likely general election opponent MJ Hegar 42-35. But when you dig into the undecideds (23% of the electorate) for Senate, 59% of them are voting for Biden to only 25% who are voting for Trump. In an era where ticket splitting is less and less of a thing, those people are likely to end up voting the same party for Senate as President. If the undecideds broke that way, Hegar would have the slightest of leads over Cornyn. This is likely to be a highly competitive race.

Our first Hegar-Cornyn poll of 2020 bears a strong resemblance to our first Beto O’Rourke- Ted Cruz poll of 2018. In that poll Cruz lead 45-37, an 8 point lead similar to Cornyn’s starting out point. We pinpointed then that the race might end up close because Cruz had just a 38% favorability rating- and that’s a lot better than the 27% Cornyn starts out with here.

After O’Rourke won the nomination and became better known over the course of the year, he was able to build the race into a tossup. Hegar (who currently has just 34% name recognition) is likely to do the same in the months ahead if she wins the nomination.

PPP surveyed 729 Texas voters on June 24th and 25th on behalf of EMILY’s List. The survey was conducted half by calls to landlines and half by texts to cell phones, and the margin of error is +/-3.6%. Full toplines here.

See here for the other Thursday poll, and here for the poll data. The fact that it was commissioned by Emily’s List answers my question about why they polled MJ Hegar and not also Royce West. This result is pretty consistent with that Fox poll that had Cornyn up on both Dems by ten points, but with a larger share of the “undecided” vote being Dems. If I had to guess, West would probably have done about as well against Cornyn in this poll, as was the case with the Fox poll. It’s clear that the biggest threat to Cornyn is Donald Trump’s sagging fortunes in Texas. The better Biden does, the worse off Cornyn is. Also, too, Trump’s approval rating (46 approve, 51 disapprove) is pretty lousy, and another example of him being stuck at that level in his “vote for” support. Keep keeping an eye on that. Oh, and with these two polls in the books, the average over the ten total polls is Trump 46.8, Biden 44.8, still just a two-point gap. Carry on.

UT/Trib: Trump 48, Biden 44

We had two Presidential polls drop on Thursday. Here’s the first, I’ll do the second for tomorrow.

President Donald Trump would beat former Vice President Joe Biden in Texas by 4 percentage points if the election were held today, according to a new poll from the University of Texas and the Texas Politics Project.

The Republican incumbent’s narrow lead four months before the election suggests Texas, a state where no Democratic presidential candidate has prevailed since 1976, is competitive in 2020.

The poll found 48% of Texas registered voters support Trump, while 44% support Biden. Partisans are sticking with their nominees at this point, with 91% of Republicans saying they’d vote for Trump and 93% of Democrats supporting Biden. Among self-identified independent voters, Trump holds a 41-27 edge over his challenger.

Men favor Trump, 53-41, while women favor Biden, 48-43. Among white voters, 59% favor Trump, while 79% of Black voters favor Biden. Among Hispanic voters, Biden holds a 46-39 edge.

Republican candidates haven’t lost a presidential race in Texas in four decades. Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 9 percentage points in 2016 in the closest race since Bob Dole beat Bill Clinton here by 4.9 points in 1996. The biggest Texas winners over 40 years were Ronald Reagan (27.5 percentage points in 1984) and George W. Bush, the former Texas governor who won both his 2000 and 2004 contests by margins of more than 21 points.

Voters are split on the job Trump is doing as president, with 46% giving him good marks — a group that includes 85% approval among Republicans. Slightly more, 48%, say they disapprove of the president’s job performance, including 93% of Democrats. In a University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll a year ago, 52% approved of Trump’s performance while 44% did not.

A high level view of the poll data is here; we don’t get full questions and crosstabs. The UT/Trib poll subsamples are often wonky, so don’t pay too much attention to the Black and Hispanic numbers. The April UT/Trib poll had Trump leading 49-44. Of the eleven (now 12, counting the one for tomorrow) poll results we’ve had since Biden became the Dem nominee, only three have shown Trump leading by more than two points, and two of those three are UT/Trib polls. Trump’s 48% “vote for” number is also higher than his 46% approval number, which is a relatively rare thing for him; I’ve got a post in the works on that but there’s been so damn much news this week I’ve been unable to get to it. Anyway, bottom line is it’s a close race. At this point, that should surprise no one.

Three runoff stories

Just a sample from three high-profile and highly-contested Democratic primary runoff races.

TX-SEN: MJ Hegar versus Royce West

MJ Hegar

No two issues have impacted the Texas primary runoffs like the coronavirus pandemic and the protests surrounding George Floyd’s death, but as early voting begins Monday, the latter is looming especially large at the top of the ticket.

In the Democratic runoff to challenge U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, state Sen. Royce West of Dallas is hoping to harness the energy of the moment to pull past MJ Hegar on her seemingly well-paved road to the nomination. The former Air Force helicopter pilot has the backing of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, but West is increasingly seeking to train his party’s attention on the opportunity his candidacy represents, especially now.

“Democrats have got to decide whether they want to continue to be a victim of history or make history,” West said in an interview. With his election as Texas’ first Black senator, he added, Democrats can go the latter route.

Sen. Royce West

West said the “stars have aligned” for him in the runoff, playing to his profile as not only a Black man but also a seasoned legislator who has focused on criminal justice reform, authoring a 2015 state law that aimed to expand the use of body cameras by police in Texas, for example. And he has taken heart in recent primaries elsewhere, most notably in Kentucky, in which candidates of color have ridden the momentum of growing calls for racial justice.

To be sure, Hegar, who is white, has also increased her focus on issues of race and policing, and on Monday, she is holding a virtual news conference with the family of Javier Ambler, a Black man who died last year in the custody of Williamson County sheriff’s deputes. West and then Hegar called for the resignation of the sheriff, Robert Chody, after the circumstances of Ambler’s death came to light earlier this month.

Asked in an interview how she stacks up against West when it comes to meeting the moment, Hegar reiterated her tight focus on the general election.

“I think that you know me well enough to know that I’m running against John Cornyn,” she said, reciting her contrasts with Cornyn. She did argue her November-focused bid means she is already running a “coordinated campaign that is lifting up” down-ballot candidates, including candidates of color.

It should be noted that since this story was written, Amy McGrath has pulled ahead of Charles Booker in that Kentucky Senate primary. You can make whatever you want of the parallels, but the state of that race has changed since original publication. I’m mostly interested at this point in the candidates’ finance reports. Hegar has consistently been the better fundraiser – and I continue to be a little perplexed how a 26-year incumbent like Royce West has had such a hard time raising money (*) – though she’s not exactly performing at Beto levels. Still, with a Presidential race at the top of the ticket, just having enough to get her name out there is probably enough. Hegar is closer to achieving that level of resources than West is, and there’s more promise of national money for her at this time.

(*) – Yes, I’m aware of the claims made that the DSCC has pressured donors to avoid West. This story notes that the person who made those claims has not provided the names of any such donors, so color me a bit skeptical. Certainly not out of the question that this could have happened, but right now the evidence is thin.

CD24: Kim Olson versus Candace Valenzuela

Democratic voters in North Texas’ 24th Congressional District next month will select the candidate — retired Air Force Col. Kim Olson or former school board member Candace Valenzuela — they want to challenge Republican Beth Van Duyne in one of the fall’s most highly anticipated congressional contests.

The decision between Olson and Valenzuela is punishing for many Democrats who see both women as capable of beating Van Duyne, the former Irving mayor endorsed by President Donald Trump. The ultimate goal, Democrats sandwiched between Dallas and Fort Worth have said all year, is flipping the seat that has been occupied by Rep. Kenny Marchant for eight terms.

Marchant is one of several Texas Republicans retiring from Congress this year as the state becomes more competitive for Democrats. Marchant easily won his seat 16 years ago but beat his Democratic opponent in 2018 by just three percentage points. Local and national Democrats see the seat as theirs for the taking and a key component of keeping their majority in the U.S. House.

“We all feel like we’ve been in a holding pattern and we’re waiting for the choice to be made,” said Angie Hetisimer, a Tarrant County precinct chair and member of Indivisible Grapevine, which works to help elect progressive candidates. “I think for me and most of the people I talk to, we just want 24 to flip. Luckily we have two fantastic candidates.”

Given there is little light between Olson and Valenzuela on policy — both fluctuate between moderate and progressive on different questions but would be reliable votes for the Democratic agenda in Washington — the election is largely framed as a decision between Olson’s extensive résumé and Valenzuela’s biography. Olson was one of America’s first female fighter pilots. If elected, Valenzuela would be the first Afro-Latina member of Congress.

Olson was the first prominent candidate in this race and has been the bigger fundraiser, but Valenzuela has also done well in that department and has run a strong campaign. This is a top target for the DCCC, and in my view is the second-most flippable seat in Texas, following only CD23. If we can’t win this one, especially against a xenophobe like Van Duyne, it’s a big miss. I’m fine with either candidate, I just hope everyone involved is able to move on and keep their eye on the prize after July 14.

CD10: Mike Siegel versus Pritesh Gandhi

Democrats in one of Texas’ most expansive battleground congressional districts are choosing between a civil rights attorney embracing the party’s most liberal proposals and a doctor who argues those policies are too radical.

Mike Siegel, the 2018 nominee in Texas’ 10th Congressional District, finished first in this year’s March Democratic primary — about 11 percentage points ahead of Pritesh Gandhi, a primary care physician making his first run for office. Siegel came about 6 points short of winning the primary outright, pitting him against Gandhi in a runoff.

The winner will face U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, who has represented the district since 2005. His political territory stretches from Austin to the Houston suburbs, covering all of five counties and parts of four others.

Beyond the ideological skirmish, the primary is also serving as a case study in whether the coronavirus pandemic will boost political candidates who work in the medical field. The virus has supercharged the public’s interest in health care and led to national TV appearances for Gandhi, but also stripped him of valuable campaign time as he works a grueling schedule that includes swabbing patients for COVID-19 and caring for those who exhibit symptoms.

It also has reinforced Gandhi’s pitch for sending more people to Congress who work in the health care field.

“People, I think, understand the importance of having a diversity of professional experience in Washington. And if that wasn’t clear before, it’s increasingly clear now,” Gandhi said. “I think that people, when they get to the voting booth, are going to want a leader who has experience and a track record in science and in health.”

Siegel was the 2018 candidate and he ran a good campaign, though he fell a bit short in a district that Beto carried by a whisker. Gandhi has been the stronger fundraiser – indeed, both Gandhi and third-place finisher Candace Hutchison outraised Siegel through April – but as with CD24, I expect whoever the nominee is to do just fine in this department. I know more people who are supporting Siegel in this one, and I do tend to lean towards giving a competent candidate who did a good job the first time around another shot at it, but as with the other races here I’m fine with either choice. I’m ready to get to the November part of this campaign.

2020 Primary Runoff Early Voting, Day One: People seem to like this vote by mail thing

Big surprise, am I right?

Harris County voters cast more than 51,000 ballots Monday in the primary runoffs, an eye-popping total that exceeded turnout for entire runoff elections in some recent years.

Combined with a robust in-person turnout, voters had returned more than 43,000 mail ballots by Monday, the first day of early voting. The turnout nearly doubled the number of votes recorded on the first day of early voting in 2016, the most recent presidential election year. It also eclipsed turnout from the 2018 runoffs, when more than 34,000 voters cast ballots on the first day of early voting.

The surge in voting was largely driven by voters in the Democratic primary, who accounted for 63 percent of the early runoff ballots Monday. And it came weeks after interim County Clerk Chris Hollins sent mail ballot applications to every voter who is 65 and older, which he said was aimed at keeping older voters “safe amid the current health crisis by giving them the opportunity to vote from home.”

Even with concerns about a recent local spike in COVID-19 cases, however, in-person turnout outpaced that of recent election cycles as well. A total of 5,334 Democrats and 1,762 Republicans cast ballots at the county’s 57 polling sites Monday. That is up from the 2,963 recorded the first day of early voting in the 2016 primary runoffs and 4,564 during the midterms.

[…]

The uptick in turnout likley stems from a combination of people paying an unusual amount of attention to politics given their extra free time at home during the pandemic, and a heated political moment fueled by the virus and recent upheaval from the death of George Floyd in Minnesota, said Houston political analyst Nancy Sims.

“People are at home and they’re paying more attention. They’re not as active and distracted as they normally would be, so you’re seeing a little more interest,” she said. “And it’s just a much more intense year to pay attention to elections. The combination of the protests and covid have made people tune in and become more aware.”

Hollins’ move to send ballots to the roughly 377,000 Harris County voters who are 65 and older — about 16 percent of the voter roll — also helps explain the surge, Sims said. Demand for absentee ballots has increased as well, with about 122,000 ballot requests for the runoffs, compared to 51,065 such requests for the 2016 primary runoffs and 67,735 for this year’s March primary. About 95 percent of the 122,000 mail ballot requests have come from voters who are 65 and older, according to a spokeswoman for the clerk’s office.

The comparison between the 2020 runoffs and prior elections is skewed by a number of factors. This year, Gov. Greg Abbott delayed the runoff from its original May 26 date until July 14, and doubled the number of early voting days from five to 10.

You can find the Day One early voting report here. As noted, I will generally be a day behind on these, so please bear with me. I’m not sure yet what kind of comparisons I’m going to provide for this, because primary runoff turnout can be so variable and doesn’t really tell you all that much, but I will do this to start off. Here’s a look at the share of the total vote that mail ballots were, in the March primary and now in the runoffs:


Election     Mail    Early   Total   Mail %
===========================================
D primary  11,571    6,819  18,390    62.9%
R primary  12,890    5,411  18,301    70.4%

D runoff   27,015    5,314  32,349    83.5%
R runoff   16,308    1,762  18,070    90.2%

So, in each case Dems have returned more mail ballots – and as the story notes, there are far more mail ballots left for Dems to return – but as a share of total ballots, Republicans are so far much more dependent on them. Make of that what you will. A statement from the Harris County Clerk is here, and the Texas Standard has more.

What should Joe Biden do in Texas?

“Win” would be my preferred answer, but it’s more complicated than that.

No matter how frequently it happens, it’s always a bit startling.

Ever since February 2019, polls have been coming out indicating that former Vice President Joe Biden is competitive with — sometimes even leading — President Donald Trump in Texas. A June 3 poll by Quinnipiac University gave Trump a 1-percentage-point lead in the state. A recent FiveThirtyEight roundup of “key battleground state” polls taken since May 1 shows Trump up by an average of 1.5 points here.

And every time a survey is released, the same questions arise: Is 2020 the year deep red Texas flips to the Democrats? Is Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn in trouble as well?

But for many in politics, the consideration is slightly different: The state is clearly more competitive. But even if Biden can compete here, how seriously will he choose to?

The answer to that question is more complicated. For Biden and his allied groups, making a run for Texas is no simple task and there are strategic considerations beyond looking at the polls. The most immediate objectives for national Democrats in 2020 are to recapture the White House and Senate majority. And Texas is far from necessary for either.

Recent polls have suggested Biden might hold an even stronger position in other states that Trump won in 2016 — Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, Ohio and even Georgia. And because of its vast size, numerous media markets and massive population, Texas is more expensive to compete in. The paths to victory for Biden are so great in number, it’s hard for many political operatives to imagine a scenario where Texas would flip where it would be anything other than icing on the cake in a much broader national victory.

In other words, the cost of seriously trying to win Texas would almost certainly be high, while there’s a decent chance that the reward would ultimately prove inconsequential.

Below the surface, however, the presidential race in Texas still matters — an underperformance by Trump compared to recent history has the potential to reset Texas politics for the next decade. The central question in the political class every time one of these polls is released five months out from Election Day is: What kind of down-ballot damage could Republicans potentially suffer if Biden has coattails?

You know the polling situation; as of the most recent poll, where Biden led Trump by one point, Trump led in Texas by an average of 2.0 points. That’s a smidge less than the Ted Cruz margin of victory over Beto in 2018, and as disappointed as we all were with that result, we saw the effect downballot. I for one would not mind an encore of that kind of performance. What it all comes down to is two competing factors from Biden’s perspective. One is that he doesn’t need to win Texas to take the Presidency. If Texas is truly winnable for him, then he’s pretty much assured to have enough electoral votes to have won. I mean, if Texas is flipping, then surely Arizona and Florida and North Carolina and maybe even Georgia have gone blue, and the rout is on. Texas is an insanely expensive state to compete in, with something like 27 media markets for ad buys. The bang for your buck is much bigger in the old faithfuls like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Boring, but no one wants to take anything for granted.

On the other hand, that same downballot effect is a real thing for Biden to consider. There’s a Senate race here, which is likely going to be roughly as competitive as the Presidential race is. It sure would be nice to have another Dem in the Senate, and that makes Texas a twofer for Biden, which isn’t true for Florida or Pennsylvania or Wisconsin. (North Carolina and Arizona and Georgia and Iowa, on the other hand…) Plus, there are multiple Congressional seats available for pickup, one of which offers the chance to defenestrate Ted Cruz minion Chip Roy. Even the battle for the Texas State House is important, as that would give the Dems some leverage in drawing the next Congressional map. One would hope that Joe Biden learned the lesson of 2010 well enough to consider the advantage of flipping the State House here.

So of course I want Biden to compete here, as seriously as possible. I want Dems to win as many races as possible, and I can’t think of anything that would be a bigger psychological blow to the Republicans, both nationally and here, than seeing Texas go Democratic in a Presidential election. It would sure be a hell of a momentum boost headed into 2022, which for us is an even bigger election. (Another advantage for Biden: The possibility of throwing out the single biggest cause of ridiculous anti-Democratic lawsuits, AG Ken Paxton.) If he has to raise more money to afford it, then get on that. I understand the cost/benefit analysis, but I’m not going to claim to be impartial here. You have a real shot here, Joe Biden. Don’t throw it away.

Ready or not, here we vote

Hope it goes all right.

Poll workers [began] greeting voters from behind face masks and shields as early voting begins in primary runoffs that will look and operate differently from any Texas election in the past 100 years. Although the first statewide election during the pandemic is expected to be a low-turnout affair — primary runoffs usually see single-digit turnout — the contest is widely regarded as a high-stakes dry run for the November general election, when at least half of the state’s more than 16 million registered voters are expected to participate.

More than 30 runoffs are ongoing for party nominations to congressional, legislative and local offices. The most prominent race is the statewide Democratic contest to see who will challenge incumbent John Cornyn for U.S. Senate.

But the shot at working through a new set of considerations — and challenges — for running a safe and efficient election could be complicated by its timing. The runoff was postponed from May and takes place as the state’s tenuous grip on controlling the coronavirus outbreak unravels into record-high daily infection and hospitalization rates.

“We’re saying our prayers,” Jacque Callanen, the Bexar County elections administrator, said last week. “With this spike in the numbers, I’m praying our good ol’ election officials are going to hang in there with us.”

Like other administrators, Callanen worked to complete a census of the county’s regular fleet of election judges and workers, who tend to be older and at higher risk for complications from the coronavirus. She saw little drop-off, with most willing to work the election.

That was before the effects of Gov. Greg Abbott’s reopening of businesses and dismantling of local health restrictions were fully felt, and the county was reporting 30 or 50 new daily cases of people infected with the virus. In recent weeks, that number has skyrocketed to hundreds of new cases a day. If her prayers fail, Callanen has a set of backup county workers ready to step in.

[…]

Texans voting in person will be met with many of the precautions that have become customary at businesses and grocery stores, including 6-foot distance markers and plastic shields at check-in stations. Poll workers will be offering masks and hand sanitizer. At least one county is advising voters to bring umbrellas to shield them from the hot Texas sun while they wait.

But many regular polling sites will have far fewer voting booths — and probably lines out the door — or will be shuttered altogether as officials try to minimize breaches of social distancing.

Collin County election officials typically set up 20 to 25 voting machines at their main polling place in their office building, but they will only be able to fit eight machines 6 feet apart. It likely won’t be a problem for the runoff, but the county will have to be “as creative as possible” for November, said Bruce Sherbet, the county’s election administrator.

“All the things we’re doing for this will really be problematic for November,” Sherbet said. “It’s a tall challenge.”

In a possible bellwether for electoral troubles in November, some counties have lost polling places unwilling to host voters during the pandemic. In Williamson County, officials were informed last week that one of its busiest sites — a community center that primarily caters to older voters — was scrapping plans to reopen for voting. In Bexar County, Callanen had to pull the county courthouse — a longtime voting site — and several school sites off her list of polling places. In Travis County, officials ditched regular voting sites at nursing homes, grocery stores and Austin Community College.

Abbott’s postponement of election day from May 26 to July 14 granted election administrators more time to set up public health precautions. But with the runoff election moving forward at what is arguably the state’s worst point in the pandemic so far, poll workers will be forced to navigate keeping voters safe while safeguarding their right to vote.

In Chambers County, a smaller county east of Houston, County Clerk Heather Hawthorne was waiting on guidance from the Texas secretary of state’s office after the local public health authority asked if poll workers can direct masked voters and those not wearing masks to separate voting machines.

“Everybody is just trying to help figure out, as our Texas numbers grow, what we’re going to do to provide safe voting locations,” Hawthorne said.

See here and here for the background. Postponing the May election was the right call, based on conditions and what we knew at the time. The fact that Greg Abbott screwed up after that and left us in a more dangerous position now is a separate matter. For this election, which ought to be fairly low turnout, my strategy is going to be voting either early in the morning – like, right at 7 AM if my work calendar is open – or maybe between 9 and 10, when I figure the morning commuters are done and the lunch crowd hasn’t started to shuffle in. At least we’ll learn from this experience in a lower-stakes environment. And who knows, maybe something will go sufficiently wrong in a Republican runoff that state leadership will be forced to reckon with the problem in a broader sense than just mindlessly clinging to the idea that it’s sinful for anyone under the age of 65 to cast a mail ballot. Because let’s be clear, letting more people vote by mail, and being prepared for more people voting by mail, is the best answer here.

Here’s the perspective from Travis County, where turnout is likely to be higher than other places due to the SD14 special election.

Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir reports that a huge crush of mail voting requests by those 65 and older, who are automatically eligible to receive mail-in ballots, could foretell an exceptional turnout by runoff standards, and she promises that in-person voting in this novel circumstance is being conducted with extraordinary attention to public health.

“I don’t think we should be voting in person at all, quite frankly, in the middle of a pandemic,” DeBeauvoir, who would have preferred universal vote-by-mail under the circumstance, told the American-Statesman late last week. “Which is why we’re taking all of these extra precautions to try and make voting in person as safe as humanly possible.”

While the pandemic might logically be expected to depress turnout, DeBeauvoir said that in Travis County, the reverse may be the case.

While turnout for runoffs generally runs in single-digits, DeBeauvoir said this time, “it just might get as high as 30%.”

[…]

Ordinarily, she said, her office would get 1,000 to 2,000 requests for mail-in ballots for a runoff.

But by Friday, she said, “the levels of by-mail ballot requests we are getting are rivaling presidential levels. The most by-mail requests I’ve ever had for a presidential was 31,000. We already have more than 28,000 in house.”

Of those, she said, 85% are from those 65 and older, and another 12% are those with a disability, the other category that is automatically eligible to vote by mail.

But DeBeauvoir said that an estimated quarter of Travis County voters have disabilities, and that, despite the Texas Supreme Court decision that fear of the coronavirus alone was not sufficient reason to seek a disability ballot, that ruling also made clear that “a voter, using their own health history, can make a determination about their risk of injury to their health if they show up inside a public place.”

If so, they can check the “disability” box on the vote-by-mail request, and return it to her office, no questions asked, because, she said, election administrators do not and, under law, cannot check disability claims.

There is still time for any Travis County voter seeking a mail-in ballot to download the application from the clerk’s website, fill it out, check the appropriate box, sign it and return it to her office as long as it received by Thursday.

Attorney General Ken Paxton has issued warnings that anyone who advises voters that they can vote by mail simply out of fear of COVID-19 can be subject to criminal sanctions.

“Certainly there’s been an effort to make it seem very confusing. It is not confusing at all,” DeBeauvoir said.

“That’s why I am using very carefully picked language,” she said. “That’s why we have decided a voter, using their own health history, can make a determination about their risk of injury to their health if they show up inside a public place.”

If you haven’t and still want to, you can go here to apply for a mail ballot in Harris County – the deadline to submit is the same, this Thursday. Note that if you make an electronic application you must follow it up within four business days with a snail mail application, so don’t skip that part. It will be fascinating, and quite possible horrifying, to see if Ken Paxton targets some mail users for the purpose of making an example of them. The past history of election fraud prosecutions, which this Star-Telegram story catalogs nicely, is one part about persecuting people of color, and one part about loudly trumpeting initial arrests or investigations that eventually end very quietly in dropped charges, dismissals, acquittals, or plea bargains to minor misdemeanors. I won’t be surprised if we get something like that this year.

I will of course be posting early vote totals, but I’ll probably be a day behind, since I expect the results will come in sufficiently late to make it inconvenient for me to be up to date the following morning. Turnout expectations should be kept modest, but with the Senate race and several Congressional races it won’t be a total snoozefest. If Dems can get to 500K, that would be a record for them.

Runoff reminder: Judicial races

Previously: Statewide, Congress, SBOE and State Senate, State House, county races.

Let’s begin with this, because if you only vote in one judicial primary runoff, this is the one to vote in.

An incumbent judge who is under indictment and is battling for her bench maintains that her 12 years of judicial experience better qualify her in the race. But her challenger claims that someone needs to restore integrity and ethics to Harris County’s 164th Civil District Court.

Judge Alexandra Smoots-Thomas and Cheryl Elliott Thornton are the two candidates in the Democratic Primary runoff race for the Houston-based court. Whoever wins will face Republican candidate Michael Landrum in the November election.

Thornton claimed that because her 33 years practicing law has earned her the respect of colleagues, that both public officials and sitting judges asked her to run for the 164th District Court.

“Harris County needs someone whose ethics are not questioned and who is ready and who is able to serve, both legally and through her qualifications, as the next judge,” Thornton said. “What differentiates me from my opponent is not just the respect that people have for me, it’s also my integrity and my ability to let others be heard.”

Smoots-Thomas was suspended in November 2019 from her court by the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct after federal authorities charged her with seven counts of wire fraud. Claiming this is a political prosecution, she’s pleaded not guilty in the case, which alleged she embezzled over $26,000 in campaign contributions and used them for personal expenses like her mortgage and private school tuition for her children.

Smoots-Thomas said that she’s presided over the 164th District Court for 12 years and in that time she’s handled more than 200 jury trials and countless bench trials. She wrote that after Hurricane Harvey damaged Harris County’s courthouse, she used her chambers as a courtroom space so she could keep up her court’s efficiency and allow litigants their day in court. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she’s helped groups distribute masks and personal protective equipment around the county, she wrote.

“Throughout my years on the bench, I have been given several awards from various groups honoring my service and commitment to the legal community and larger Harris County community,” she wrote. “In short, I believe in and strive to exemplify judicial experience, efficiency, and adaptability.”

It’s possible that this is a politically motivated prosecution against Smoots-Thomas. I can’t prove that it isn’t, and if it is there’s no way to restore equity to Judge Smoots-Thomas. But I can’t take the chance. I’ve known Judge Smoots-Thomas since she was first a candidate in 2008. I like her personally. We’re friends on Facebook. I sincerely hope she beats these charges. I can’t vote for her with them hanging over her. I will be voting for Cheryl Elliott Thornton. I will note that Stace disagrees with me on this one. I also note from the Erik Manning spreadsheet that third-place finisher Grant Harvey was the Chron endorsee in March, so I presume we will see them revisit this one.

There’s one other District Court runoff in Harris County, for the open 339th Criminal Court, featuring Te’iva Bell and Candance White. Bell took nearly all of the organizational endorsements and was endorsed by the Chron as well.

The other judicial race on the ballot in Harris County is for the 14th Court of Appeals, Place 7, Tamika Craft versus Cheri Thomas. That’s another one for the Chron to redo, since they went with Wally Kronzer in round one.

The judicial Q&As that I received from these candidates: Cheri Thomas, Tamika Craft, Cheryl Elliott Thornton. You can watch Thomas, Thornton, Smoots-Thomas, and Bell participate in a judicial candidate forum with Civil Court Judge and all-around mensch Mike Engelhart on the estimable 2020 Democratic Candidates Debate Facebook page. Texas Lawyer covers Bell versus White here and Craft versus Thomas here.

Finally, there is one judicial primary runoff in Fort Bend, for the 505th Family Court, between Kali Morgan (44.6%) and Surendran Pattel (30.3%). I don’t have any information about them, but the Texas Lawyer profile of their runoff is here.

And with that, we bring this series to an end. Hope it was useful to you. Get out there and vote, in as safe and socially-distant a manner as you can.

UPDATE: Today the Chron endorsed in the judicial runoffs, recommending Cheri Thomas and Cheryl Elliott Thornton, and re-endorsing Te’iva Bell.

Early voting for primary runoffs starts tomorrow

Remember the runoffs? It’s time we settle who our nominees are.

Who can vote in the runoffs?

Texas has open primaries, meaning you don’t have to be a registered member of either party to cast a ballot in a primary runoff. You can check your voter registration status here. But you can only vote in one party’s primary, and which one might depend on how you voted in the first round of the primaries in March. People who voted in the March 3 primary are only able to vote in that same party’s runoff election, as they have affiliated themselves with that given party for that calendar year. Those who did not participate in the March primary are able to vote in either primary runoff election.

What’s different this year?

The primaries were originally scheduled for May, but Abbott delayed them until July because of the coronavirus. Abbott also doubled the length of the early voting period for the July primary runoff elections in a move to aimed at easing crowds at the polls during the pandemic. Early voting runs from Monday through July 10.

“It is necessary to increase the number of days in which polling locations will be open during the early voting period, such that election officials can implement appropriate social distancing and safe hygiene practices,” Abbott wrote in a May proclamation.

For Harris County, the early voting map of locations with wait times is here. Please take advantage of a less-busy location if you can. The traditional PDF with the map and hours is here. Please note the new and changed locations. Please also note that there is no voting on Friday, July 3 and Saturday, July 4, due to the holiday. Voting hours are extended on Sunday, July 5 (10 to 7, instead of the usual 1 to 6) and on the last day, Friday, July 10 (7 AM to 10 PM). All other days are 7 AM to 7 PM. We should be able to get in and out safely, and you will need to bring a mask. See here for the Harris County Clerk’s SAFE principles.

My Runoff Reminder series will remind you who’s running: Statewide, Congress, SBOE and State Senate, State House, select county races, and select judicial races. Links to interviews and Q&As are in there as well.

The Chron re-ran a bunch of its endorsements on Friday:

Mike Siegel, CD10
Chrysta Castañeda, Railroad Commissioner
Michelle Palmer, SBOE6
Akilah Bacy, HD138
Rep. Harold Dutton, HD142
Rep. Anna Eastman, HD148

They had endorsed Royce West for Senate in March, and they reran that endorsement on Saturday. (UPDATE: They reran their endorsement of Michael Moore for Commissioners Court, Precinct 3, this morning.)

Also on the ballot for this election: the special election in SD14 to succeed Kirk Watson. I have interviews with the two candidates of interest, Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, and former Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt. Please give them a listen if you live in this district. I expect this will go to a runoff, which I hope will not need to endure a delay like the May elections did.

All the elections for July 14 are important, but just as important is that this will serve in many ways as a dry run for November, both in terms of handling a higher volume of mail ballots and also in terms of making the in person voting process as safe as it can be in this pandemic. I was on a conference call a week or so ago with a national group, the Voter Protection Corps, which presented a report for policymakers with concrete steps to protect in-person voting and meet the equal access to voting requirements enshrined in federal law and the U.S. Constitution. Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins was one of the presenters in that call. You can see a summary of the call with highlights from the report here. I will be voting in person for this election, but however you do it please take the steps you need to in order to be safe.

Fox: Biden 45, Trump 44

Man, if we keep getting polls that show Joe Biden leading in Texas, we just might have to rethink where this state is politically.

Texas is a tossup, as Democrat Joe Biden tops President Donald Trump by a percentage point, 45-44 percent, in a new Fox News survey of Texas registered voters.

Ten percent are up for grabs, and this small subgroup of voters is more likely to disapprove than approve of Trump’s job performance by 52-34 percent.

The good news for Trump: he bests Biden by 51-45 percent among those “extremely” motivated to vote in the election.

Trump corralled the Lone Star State by 9 points in 2016 (52 percent vs. Hillary Clinton’s 43 percent), and it has been in the Republican column in every presidential election since 1980.

Texas voters trust Trump over Biden on the economy (by 14 points) and immigration (+4), while they think Biden would do a better job on race relations (+10 points) and coronavirus (+3).

There’s a 24-point gender gap on the head-to-head matchup, as men pick Trump by 12 points and women go for Biden by 12.

Trump is preferred by Baby Boomers (+12 points) and Gen Xers (+7), while Millennials go big for Biden (+29).

[…]

Republican Sen. John Cornyn leads both of his potential Democratic candidates in hypothetical matchups, although he garners less than the 62 percent he received in his 2014 reelection.

MJ Hegar and Royce West were the top two finishers in the March 3 Democratic primary. Neither received a majority of the vote so there is a July 14 runoff.

The three-term incumbent leads both Hegar and West by a 10-point margin. About one in six voters is undecided/uncommitted in each matchup.

You can see the full poll data here. Yes, I know, Fox News, but their Presidential polls are well-regarded, with an A- rating on FiveThirtyEight. This is now the fourth poll out of eight since the March primary in which Biden has been tied (two results) or in the lead (two results), which is not too shabby. In the four polls where Biden has trailed, he’s trailed by one, two, five, and six. The polling average now stands at 46.5 for Trump to 44.5 for Biden. I know every time I see G. Elliott Morris or Nate Cohn or Nate Silver post something on Twitter about how well Biden is polling right now, someone always comes along with a (not accurate) claim about how Hillary Clinton was polling just as well at this point in 2016. Well, you can see the poll results I have from 2016 on my sidebar. Hillary Clinton was not polling this well in Texas in 2016, not in June, not at any point.

As for the Senate race, the main difference between how John Cornyn is doing against MJ Hegar and Royce West and how Trump is doing against Biden is that Hegar and West do not have quite the same level of Democratic support as Biden does. Cornyn gets 86% of Republican support versus each candidate (the crosstabs break it down by gender as well as party), which is right there with Trump’s 87-88%, but Hegar (80% Dem men, 74% Dem women) and West (85% Dem men, 75% Dem women) lag well behind Biden, who is at 91-92%. Most of the undecided vote in the Senate race is Democratic, which strongly suggests both Hegar and West are doing a bit better than this poll suggests. I’d expect whoever wins the runoff to get a boost, and we’ll start to see poll numbers in the Senate race more closely match the Presidential race. It won’t surprise me if Cornyn outperforms Trump by a bit. Which is to say, it won’t surprise me if there are still a few Republicans who don’t vote for Trump but do generally vote R otherwise. My takeaway from the 2018 election is that most of those Republicans went much more Democratic in the midterm, and I expect the same this year. There’s still a bit of softness on the GOP side for Trump, and who knows, if things continue to deteriorate we could see more of that. I’m sure there will be plenty more polls between now and November to support or refute that hypothesis.

PPP/PT: Trump 48, Biden 46

Time for another poll.

Today, Progress Texas released statewide Texas voter poll results, showing Democrats are within striking distance in both the Presidential and U.S. Senate races in Texas.

What does this mean? Texas voters are fed up with Texas Republicans’ lack of action on the COVID-19 health care crisis, mass unemployment, and systemic racism that communities face every day. Now is the time to organize, continue to rally for change, and vote.

Key takeaways

Joe Biden comes within 2 points of Donald Trump with 46%.

In the poll, Texas voters were asked who they would vote for in the Presidential race this fall. Joe Biden came within the margin of error against Donald Trump with 46/48, respectively. A small percentage of voters (6%) were unsure.

45% of Texas voters would vote for the Democratic candidate in the U.S. Senate election.

The generic ballot for the U.S. Senate race (if a Texas voter were to vote today) is Republican 47% and Democratic 45%, also within the poll’s margin of error, and supports previous polls showing that a majority of Texans either don’t know or don’t like Republican John Cornyn.

As an additional frame of reference, then-Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke was polling 5 points behind in June of 2018 and went on to lose by 2 points. Texas Democrats are currently ahead of their 2018 pace.

Only 48% of Texas voters approve of Donald Trump’s job performance.

Donald Trump’s approval/disapproval rating amongst polled Texas voters is 48/46. Nationally, a slim percentage of Americans approve of Trump amidst his responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. His approval nationally now stands at 41%, similar to the 39% approval rating he received the last time the question was asked in a poll two weeks ago.

Poll data is here. There was a different PPP poll done less than three weeks ago for the TDP, which had the race tied at 48. These results aren’t all that different, and the polling average now stands at Trump 46.9 to Biden 44.4, with seven polls counted. The approval number is also of interest, and I have a separate post in the works to discuss that aspect of the polls we have so far.

As for the Senate numbers, it’s just a generic R versus D result. Nice to see a generic D get polled at 45%, but I would not make any direct comparisons to 2018 polling at this time. When we have a nominee and can do “Cornyn versus MJ” or “Cornyn versus Royce” questions, then we can see how they stack up to Beto and Ted.

The county races in which the precinct chairs get to pick the nominees

There are two Harris County races on the ballot this year – one that was always going to be there, and one that was unexpected – in which Democratic precinct chairs will have the task of picking the nominees. As you know, that group includes me, and we’ll be doing it on August 15, shortly before the deadline to finalize the ballot. Let me tell you what I now know about the people who have expressed interest in these races.

Teneshia Hudspeth

First up is Harris County Clerk, the race we didn’t expect to have on our ballot this year. As you know, Diane Trautman resigned in May for health reasons, and Chris Hollins was sworn in as an interim Clerk after being appointed by Commissioners Court. Trautman’s term ends in 2022, however, so someone will have to run in November to complete her term, and Hollins will not be running for the job. Two people so far have emerged for the position. One is Gayle Mitchell, who lost in the 2014 primary to Ann Harris Bennett for the County Clerk nomination. I saw her post about this on Facebook, but can’t find that post any more. She’s a nice lady – you can listen to the interview I did with her here – but I don’t have much more to say about her. I’ve not seen or heard anything from her since the 2014 primary.

On Monday this week, Jasper Scherer wrote on Twitter that Teneshia Hudspeth, the current chief deputy clerk, has announced her intention to run for the position; Marc Campos had previously noted that she had filed a designation of Treasurer. You can see her press release, sent on Tuesday, here. Hudspeth immediately drew support from Sen. Borris Miles, Council Member Tiffany Thomas, and apparently former Clerk Trautman, if I’m reading her press release correctly. I can imagine one or two people who could jump into this race that I’d have to seriously consider, but barring that possibility I fully expect to support Teneshia’s nomination. She’ll do a great job.

(UPDATE: Trautman has since sent out an email, which I received, endorsing Teneshia Hudpseth’s candidacy.)

The other race is for HCDE Trustee At Large, Position 7, the one where Andrea Duhon, who was appointed to fill out Josh Flynn’s term in Position 4 but was already on the ballot there, won outright in March. Despite my belief that she could not withdraw from the November race, apparently she could because here we are picking a replacement nominee. (See, this is why I always remind you that I Am Not A Lawyer.) I am aware of four people competing for this slot:

David Brown and Obes Nwabara, who also ran in the March primary and finished behind Duhon.

Sonja Marrett, whose candidacy was noted to me by Andrea Duhon, who has endorsed her.

Jose Rivera, husband of former Justice of the Peace candidate Tanya Makany-Rivera, about whom Stace wrote on Monday.

I had a chance to talk to Rivera over the weekend. I’m pretty sure I had a brief conversation with David Brown during the primary campaign, but that was eight million years ago, so who can remember. I do not believe I have spoken to Nwabara yet, and I do know that I have not spoken to Marrett. I do not at this time have a preferred candidate for this position. Honestly, they all look well-qualified.

I will probably do an interview with Teneshia Hudspeth after the runoff. I don’t know that I’ll have time to talk to the four HCDE candidates, but I may write up a Q&A for them. If you have any insight as to these folks, I’ll be glad to hear it. And now you know everything I know about these two races.

Runoff reminder: County races

Previously: Statewide, Congress, SBOE and State Senate, State House.

There were a ton of contested county race primaries in Harris County, with all of the countywide offices except one HCDE position featuring at least three candidates. When the dust settled, however, there wree only a few races still ongoing, with one on Commissioners Court and one Constable race being the ones of greatest interest. Fort Bend County saw a lot of action as well, with two countywide races plus one Commissioners Court race going into overtime. Here’s a review of the races of interest.

Harris County – Commissioners Court, Precinct 3

This is the open seat left by long-tenured Steve Radack, which has always been a Republican stronghold but which has trended Democratic in recent years. Beto of course carried Precinct 3, by four points, after Hillary Clinton came close to winning it in 2016. Other statewide candidates (Mike Collier, Justin Nelson, Kim Olson) also won Precinct 3, though the Democratic countywide candidates from 2018 all fell short. It’s there for the taking, but it can’t be taken for granted. The top candidates to emerge from the large field of Democratic hopefuls were Diana Martinez Alexander and Michael Moore. Moore was the bigger fundraiser as of January – we’ll see soon how the current finance period has gone; Alexander’s January filing came in later, after I had published that post. Alexander is a grassroots favorite who has been super busy on Facebook, while Moore has the endorsements of incumbent Commissioners Adrian Garcia and Rodney Ellis, as well as the endorsement of the Chronicle. You can see other Democratic group endorsements on the invaluable Erik Manning spreadsheet. They participated in the first 2020 Democratic Candidates Facebook Debates here. My interview with Diana Alexander is here, and my interview with Michael Moore is here.

Harris County – Constable, Precinct 2

This is the race with the problematic incumbent and Not That Jerry Garcia. The thing you need to know is that in the end, the incumbent, Chris Diaz, was forced into a runoff against the good Jerry Garcia, who was listed on the primary ballot as “Jerry Garca (Harris County Lieutenant)”. Garcia led the way with 39% to Diaz’s 33%. If you live in Constable Precinct 2, please vote for Jerry Garcia in the runoff.

Harris County – Other runoffs

Justice of the Peace, Precinct 5, Place 1: Israel Garcia (48.1%) versus Roel Garcia (30.5%)

Constable, Precinct 3: Sherman Eagleton (incumbent, 47.5%) versus Ken Jones (16.1%)

Constable, Precinct 5: Randy Newman, who doesn’t appear to have a Facebook page (43.4%) versus Mark Alan Harrison (34.3%).

I confess, I know little about these race. Look at the Erik Manning spreadsheet to see who got what endorsements. Based on available information, I’d lean towards Eagleton, Israel Garcia, and Harrison, but please do your own research as well.

Those of you with keen eyes may have noticed there are two other unsettled Harris County races to discuss. Both of these will be decided by the precinct chairs in August. I’ll discuss them in a separate post.

Fort Bend County

County Attorney: Bridgette Smith-Lawson (45.2%) versus Sonia Rash (37.8%)
Sheriff: Geneane Hughes (35.2%) versus Eric Fagan (35.1%)
Commissioners Court, Precinct 1: Jennifer Cantu (41.8%) versus Lynette Reddix (25.6%)

The Sheriff candidates are seeking to replace incumbent Troy Nehls, currently in a nasty runoff for CD22. Nehls has not resigned from his position for reasons unknown to me. I presume he’ll do so if he clinches that nomination, but who knows what he’ll do if he doesn’t. Nehls is awful, either of these candidates would be a big upgrade. County Attorney (and also Tax Assessor) is an open seat whose incumbent has in fact announced his retirement. Commissioners Court Precinct 1 is a race against a first-term incumbent who had ousted Democrat Richard Morrison in 2016. I wrote about all the Fort Bend County races here, and unfortunately don’t have anything to add to that. I’d love to hear from someone who has a strong opinion in these races.

Travis County – District Attorney

Jose Garza (44.3%) versus Margaret Moore (incumbent, 41.1%)

As a bonus, this is the highest profile county race runoff. First term incumbent Margaret Moore faces former public defender Jose Garza in a race that will have national attention for its focus on police reform, with a side order of how sexual assault cases are handled thrown in. Garza has an impressive list of national endorsements, including Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and more recently Julian Castro. Austin has been one of the hotter spots for police violence, so this is a race that could have a big effect on how the reform movement moves forward.

Hope this has been useful for you. I’ll have a brief look at the judicial runoffs next to wrap this up.

Maybe we should have had this election in May

Oh, the irony.

When the coronavirus threat was newer and seemed more immediate, Texas postponed its May elections to pick winners in several party primary runoffs, fearing the health risks of exposing voters and poll workers.

With those statewide elections about to take place, the health risks voters face are now arguably greater than when the runoffs were initially called off.

The virus appears to be in much wider circulation than the original May 26 runoff date, with the state coming off a full week of record highs for COVID-19 hospitalizations and several consecutive days of record highs for daily reported infections.

But voters won’t be required to wear masks at polling places. Gov. Greg Abbott, who earlier expressed concerns about exposing Texans “to the risk of death” at crowded polling sites, has forbidden local governments from requiring people to wear them in public.

And Texas Republicans, led by state Attorney General Ken Paxton, have successfully fought off legal efforts by Democrats and some voters to let more people vote by mail if they are fearful of being exposed to the virus at polling places.

With early voting starting June 29 and election day July 14, voters are largely left on their own to balance exercising their right to vote against the health risks that come with going to the polls in a pandemic. Some fear endangering themselves, while others fear bringing the virus back into homes they share with immunocompromised loved ones. The runoffs are relatively small elections with low turnout expected — the marquee race is the Democratic showdown to see who will challenge U.S. Sen. John Cornyn in November — but they’ll prove an instructive test run for what Texas might face come November’s high octane general election.

[…]

Across the state, election administrators have been trying to rework the mechanics of in-person voting to see how safe they can make it. Plastic barriers will go up at check-in stations and poll workers will be wearing an assortment of protective equipment like masks, shields and finger covers. A bounty of hand sanitizer will be at the ready. In some counties, voters will receive styluses or craft sticks to mark up their ballots to avoid contact with voting equipment.

The Texas Secretary of State has offered voters a list of suggestions for keeping safe, like screening themselves for symptoms and bringing their own hand sanitizer to the polls.

Wearing masks is also something voters might want to consider, the state’s chief election officer suggests.

On the one hand, I think it’s very clear that we would have been in a less dangerous situation with the pandemic. Infection and hospitalization rates are higher now and growing, thanks in large part to Greg Abbott’s insistence on “reopening the economy” at all costs. On the other hand, you could argue that we know more about how to mitigate risk than we did even a month ago, and having a lower-turnout election now, with the opportunity to see what works well and what doesn’t, will serve us well for November. That’s grim comfort for anyone who feels like they’re risking their health or the health of a loved one to exercise their right to vote, and it really highlights how poorly the state has done to manage the pandemic, but I think there’s value to it. We have a plan and we’ll get to test-drive it. Still not a great trade, but one hopes we’ll get something out of it.

Runoff reminder: State House

Previously: Statewide, Congress, SBOE and State Senate.

There are seven Democratic primary runoffs for State House districts. Let’s have a look at what we’ve got.

HD26

Located in Fort Bend County, HD26 is an open seat now held by Rep. Rick Miller, who dropped out of his contested primary after some racist remarks he’d made were publicized. Sarah DeMerchant, the Dem candidate in 2016 (42.1% of the vote) and 2018 (47.6%) faces off against first-time candidate Dr. Suleman Lalani. Lalani led in March 31.7%, DeMerchant had 29.6%. I do not know if either of the other two candidates from March have endorsed in the runoff. HD26 is a prime target for Dems, one of the nine districts carried by Beto won by Republicans last time around. My primary interview with Sarah DeMerchant is here, and my primary interview with Lalani is here. A brief Q&A with all of the primary candidates from a local paper is here.

(UPDATE: Since I first drafted this, Rish Oberoi has endorsed Suleman Lalani.)

HD67

Moving up to Collin County, this is one of two near-misses for Dems from 2018, where Sarah Depew took 48.8%. (Sarah Hirsch, who got 49.7% in 2018, is back for another crack at HD66.) Four new candidates lined up for this race, with Tom Adair (32.9%) and Lorenzo Sanchez (27.0%) ending as the top two. Adair was endorsed by the DMN in March, and is quoted in this story from the Plano Against Police Brutality march in early June. Sanchez has been endorsed by Latino Victory Fund and also by former Senate candidate Cristina Tzintzun Ramirez. Both appear to have been quite active at recent protests and rallies, going by their respective Facebook pages.

HD100

This is an open Democratic seat, vacated by Eric Johnson, who is now the Mayor of Dallas. Lorraine Birabil won the special election to fill out the remainder of Johnson’s term, so she is the incumbent, though she has not participated in a legislative session yet. (There’s another race like this later, as you may know.) She led the field of six with 29.3%, followed by Jasmine Crockett at 25.9%. The Lone Star Project recently sent out an email touting Rep. Birabil’s accomplishments in her short time in office – she has called for a special session to address police violence and has vowed to file legislation on the topic. Crockett for her part has been representing protesters and co-filing lawsuits on behalf of people injured by rubber bullets. Rep. Birabil is an Annie’s List-endorsed candidate.

HD119

Also an open Democratic seat, now held by Rep. Roland Gutierrez, who as we know is running for SD19 and is in a primary runoff there. Elizabeth “Liz” Campos (whose website was offline when I drafted this) and Jennifer Ramos were the top two contenders, with 46.1% and 43.8% in March, respectively. Ramos was endorsed by the Express-News in March, and was also endorsed by Latino Victory Fund. I don’t have much else to tell you about this race.

HD138

Our last three races are all in Harris County. HD138 is the only one currently held by a Republican, and it is another Beto-carried top target, which fell short of flipping in 2018 by a handful of votes. Akilah Bacy led the way in the primary with 46.8%, followed by Jenifer Rene Pool with 29.2%. (Google still does not show a campaign webpage for Pool when I search for her.) Bacy was endorsed by the Chronicle in March, by 2018 candidate Adam Milasincic before that, and is on the Annie’s List slate. My interview with Akilah Bacy is here, and with Jenifer Pool is here.

HD142

Remember this one? Longtime Rep. Harold Dutton, forced into a runoff against still-serving-on-City-Council-in-District-B-because-we-can’t-get-a-damned-runoff-scheduled-there Jerry Davis? The race with the mystery candidate that other State Reps want investigated? That investigation is ongoing, I’ve not heard anything since then. Yeah, I don’t know what I can add to this.

HD148

Last but not least, the other district in which a special election winner is trying to be the official November candidate. Anna Eastman won the special election and runoff to fill out the remainder of Jessica Farrar’s term. She took 41.6% in the field of five in March. Penny Shaw, who was a 2018 candidate for County Commissioner in Precinct 4 and who finished sixth in the 13-candidate special election, took 22.1% in March. Eastman was endorsed by the Chron in both the special election and the primary. She has been touting vote by mail for the runoff, and along with Rep. Jarvis Johnson and Sen. John Whitmire has promised to introduce legislation making it easier for homeowners associations to change deed restrictions to easily allow old racist language to be removed. Shaw was endorsed by Farrar for the primary, and has the larger share of organizational endorsements. I interviewed both for the special election – my conversation with Rep. Eastman is here, and with Shaw is here. Both also participated in a forum held by the 2020 Democratic Candidates Debates group on Facebook, and you can see that here.

That covers most of the races of interest. I will do an update on the Commissioners Court Precinct 3 runoff, and I will remind everyone who’s running in the judicial races. Let me know what you think.

The plan for the runoffs

Early voting for the primary runoffs starts in less than two weeks. Here’s what to expect.

Chris Hollins

Interim Harris County Clerk Christopher Hollins is hoping to avoid the mistakes of his predecessor in the chaotic March primary election for July’s runoff balloting through a series of improvements he announced Monday.

Hollins said he would allocate polling machines to locations based on turnout, extend voting hours and improve a website showing wait times at polling places.

“This office will do everything it can to give every Harris County voter an equal say at the ballot box,” Hollins said.

The clerk’s office announced a 23-point plan Monday to ensure the July 14 primary runoff and November general elections are “safe, secure, accessible, fair and efficient.”

The runoff features 19 races between both parties, seeking to nominate candidates for seats in Congress and the Texas Legislature, well as such local posts as county commissioner, constables and state district judges. Early voting begins June 29.

[…]

Hollins, who said his team is “learning from the past,” said he has increased the number of voting machines. The clerk’s office also will open more polling sites for the runoff, 57 for early voting and 112 on Election Day.

Historical patterns suggest turnout is likely to drop significantly for next month’s runoff, especially among Democrats, who had a contested presidential primary on the March ballot. In 2016, the last contested presidential primary, Democratic turnout dropped 87 percent between the primary and primary runoff.

Yes, but as we’ve discussed before, context matters. There will be significant dropoff, no doubt about it, but the contested Senate primary runoff suggests that the floor for statewide turnout is higher than usual. Prepare for there to be more people than usual for a primary runoff, that’s my advice. Of course, some higher percentage of that turnout may come from mail ballots.

You can see the Clerk’s S.A.F.E initiatives here. Protecting the poll workers was given a high priority, as it should. The Clerk’s office says they’re doing well in recruiting poll workers for November, which will be the real test. Early voting starts June 29, and you can find all the locations here. Note that some are new, and some have changed, so be sure you check before you head out. Houston Public Media and KHOU have more.

Runoff reminder: SBOE and State Senate

Previously: Statewide and Congress.

SBOE

Michelle Palmer

Michelle Palmer was the leading candidate in the SBOE6 race, the only SBOE primary to go to a runoff, with 46.8% of the vote. Palmer has the backing of the Victory Fund, which supports LGBTQ candidates around the country, and she was the candidate endorsed by the Houston Chronicle for the March primary. She has the co-endorsement of the Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation, AFL-CIO. She’s a very active presence on Facebook, in all of the various Democratic organizing groups. My interview with Michelle Palmer from the primary is here.

Kimberly McLeod

Kimberley McLeod was second in the March primary, with 34.6% of the vote. She recently took a new job as a Dean at Texas A&M University-Commerce. As you might imagine, there’s not a lot of news out there about the SBOE6 primary runoff, but in doing my googling I came across this article in Houston Style Magazine written by her entitled “What If We Treated School Bias & Inequity Like a Virus?” As noted above, she was also co-endorsed by the Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation, AFL-CIO. My interview with Kimberley McLeod from the primary is here.

Both candidates participated in a debate moderated by the 2020 Democratic Candidate Debates group, and you can see video of that here. SBOE6 was one of three such districts carried by Beto in 2018, and is the second-most likely SBOE district to flip. Taking all three would give Dems an 8-7 advantage on the Board.

State Senate

Rep. Roland Gutierrez

There are two State Senate primary runoffs, and they are both very important in different ways. SD19 is the district formerly held by Carlos Uresti, which was won by Republican Pete Flores in an embarrassing special election victory in 2018, which softened the blow they suffered later that year when Dems flipped two seats. Back for another try is State Rep. Roland Gutierrez, who finished third in that 2018 special election. Unlike that year, Gutierrez had to give up his long-held State House seat in HD119 to make this run for the Senate. Rep. Gutierrez was endorsed by the Express Newsfighting to legalize cannabis while in the House. Like all candidates in this weird cycle, he’s been campaigning virtually. He recently participated in a NAACP Collaboration Town Hall on police reform.

Xochil Peña Rodriguez

Rep. Gutierrez is the more experienced candidate in the runoff, but he was not the leading votegetter in March. That honor belongs to Xochil Peña Rodriguez, who got 43.9% of the vote to Gutierrez’s 37.8%. She’s a first-time candidate, but she’s hardly new to politics, as she is the daughter of former Congressman Ciro Rodriguez. The elder Rodriguez is now a Justice of the Peace in Bexar County, which may be a blessing and a curse since JP Rodriguez has now twice been accused of violating state judicial canon by campaigning for her in his official capacity. Be that as it may, you can hear Xochil Peña Rodriguez speak for herself in a conversation with a friend who is an emergency nurse back in Texas after working in New York City during the COVID-19 crisis here.

SD19 is the one State Senate race to watch in November, as it’s by far the most likely to flip. It’s consistently around a 53-55% Dem district, with Beto getting over 56% in 2018; even Lupe Valdez cracked 50% there. Taking SD19 would make the partisan balance 19R to 13D, which would then force Dan Patrick to abandon the 3/5 rule and go full-on majority-rules in the State Senate. That’s a move that will benefit Patrick and the Republicans in the short term, but will redound to Democratic benefit the day after Dems are finally able to win a sixteenth seat in that body. Expect there to be a lot of money spent in this district.

Sara Stapleton-Barrera

While SD19 is the race most likely to affect the partisan balance in the State Senate, there’s another race that can definitely affect the composition of the Senate. Longtime anti-choice and anti-LGBT Senator Eddie Lucio faced the first real challenge he’s had in a long time in SD27, and though he was over fifty percent for much of the night he eventually slipped down to 49.8%. As such, he will face Sara Stapleton-Barrera, who finished second with 35.6%, in July. Because the opportunity to upgrade from Eddie Lucio is so enticing, Stapleton-Barrera has racked up a bunch of endorsements from progressive groups, including the Texas Equity PAC, the political arm of Equality Texas; the Human Rights Campaign; the Texas AFT, and Progress Texas. (Both Stapleton-Barrera and Xochil Peña Rodriguez have also been endorsed by Annie’s List.) Sen. Lucio, on the other hand, is being backed by the Koch Brothers PAC. Need I say more? Back when everyone was getting excited about Jessica Cisneros’ challenge to Rep. Henry Cuellar, I said multiple times that swapping out a bad member of the State Senate for a better one has way more potential for good than the same swap in Congress, just by the numbers – remember, the Senator in SD27 will be one of 12 or 13 total Dems, barring something unexpected. It’s way past time for Eddie Lucio to go. Sara Stapleton-Barrera is the vehicle to get him out of there.

Next time: A look at the State Rep runoffs.

Just a reminder, you can get a mail ballot if you need one

No one is going to stop you.

As Democrats and civil rights groups sue to expand mail-in voting during the pandemic, a recent decision by the Texas Supreme Court has left it up to voters to decide for themselves whether they qualify for vote-by-mail.

In its decision in late May, the highest civil court in the state ruled that lack of immunity to COVID-19 alone does not constitute a disability that would allow those under 65 years old to vote by mail rather than at the polls, under the Texas election codes.

But it added — which legal experts say is crucial — that a voter can take the possibility of being infected into consideration along with his or her “health” and “health history” to determine whether he or she needs to vote by mail under the ‘disability’ provisions in the law.

“I think really the story here is that it’s going to be up to individual voters to decide whether they fit this definition or not,” said Joseph Fishkin, a University of Texas professor who studies election law and has closely followed the cases.

[…]

Assistant County Attorney Douglas Ray has said Harris is relying on the Supreme Court decision to bolster its recommendation that voters request a ballot if they believe they are eligible.

“If it’s checked disabled, we’ll just send the ballot,” Ray said. “We don’t question that. We don’t have the authority or ability to investigate that.”

In Bexar County, the commissioners court last month passed a resolution supporting access to mail-in ballots for voters afraid of contracting COVID-19 at polling place, but the county has not made any recommendations to voters since.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said Monday that such a public notice is on the way.

The Bexar commissioners last week directed the county attorney to help craft language for voter guidance, citing the Texas Supreme Court decision, and requesting for the election administrator, Jacque Callanen, to consider publishing it. Callanen did not respond to a request for comment.

“We’ve asked her to make it clear to voters that it’s up to them to determine whether they have a health condition or a physical condition” that qualifies them to vote by mail, Wolff said. “It’s their decision, not the state’s decision.”

Well, we know what Harris County has done. (Note: That was mail ballot applications the Clerk sent to all over-65 voters, not actual mail ballots.) We’ll see what the demand looks like in November. I would still advise, in my extremely I Am Not A Lawyer way, that there is some risk in applying for a mail ballot under the disability provision. How much there is I can’t say, but given the times and the apparent determination of the Republican Party to salt the earth, it’s definitely greater than zero. Make the best decision for yourself. Campos has more.

That’s a lot of mail ballots

The new County Clerk isn’t messing around.

Harris County this week sent mail ballot applications for the July primary runoff to every voter 65 and older, interim County Clerk Christopher Hollins announced.

The move comes as Harris County is preparing for a significant expansion of mail voting during the novel coronavirus pandemic as some residents are wary of voting at potentially crowded polling sites.

Hollins, who started Monday after being appointed to replace former clerk Diane Trautman, said he wants to provide a safe avenue for voting amid the pandemic. Hollins sent applications to 376,840 voters, about 16 percent of the voter roll.

“Our goal is to keep our voters 65 and up safe amid the current health crisis by giving them the opportunity to vote from home,” Hollins said in a statement Thursday.

This is the first time the clerk’s office has sent mail ballot applications to voters. unsolicited. Previously, voters had to request one on their own. The mailer cost $210,000, Hollins spokeswoman Rosio Torres-Segura said.

You can see a copy of the Clerk’s statement here. There’s a prissy quote in the story from Paul Bettencourt, who Does Not Approve of spending money to make it easier for people to vote. That’s really what this is. That $200K is small potatoes compared to the $12 million the Clerk’s office was allocated for November election prep. At the very least, we’ll get some idea of who has an undeliverable address, who wound up voting that likely wouldn’t have otherwise, and just how hard it is to pull something like this off. That’s a useful thing to know for November, when the pressure will be much higher.

To me, if there’s any objection in sending a mail ballot to every over-65 person in the county, it’s that you can’t do something similar for everyone else. This highlights the age discrimination aspect of Texas’ absentee ballot law. The point of voting by mail is that it’s a convenience. It makes voting easier. Not everyone will want or need to use it – like I said, I plan to vote in person in July and (barring anything unforeseen at this point) in November as well. I like voting in person, and I believe I can do it in a fairly low-risk manner, based on time and location. There are legitimate concerns about voting by mail as an entire replacement for in person voting, and doing a mass change like this without a ton of prep work is extremely risky. But there were around 100K mail ballots returned in both the 2016 and 2018 elections, so going from that to sending out 376K ballots isn’t much of a stretch. This is about making it easier for people to vote. The objections should be seen in that light.

Runoff reminder: Congress

Previously, we looked at the two statewide runoffs in the Democratic primary. Today we’re going to look at four Congressional primary runoffs. There are more than four total runoffs in Congressional primaries, but these are in the districts that are at least somewhat competitive, including a couple that are high on the national target list. As a reminder, here’s a look at the April campaign finance reports for Congress.

CD03

CD03 is held by freshman Rep. Van Taylor, who won by a 54-44 margin in 2018; Beto O’Rourke got 47.9% in the district. It’s not a first-tier opportunity, but the primary features two candidates who are way ahead of the 2018 fundraising pace, Sean McCaffity and Lulu Seikaly, who was a later entrant into the race. Seikaly has gotten more press that I could find of the two of them. Here’s a profile/interview with her on the Shondaland website. She recently picked up the endorsement of Rep. Marc Veasey after having been endorsed by the DMN for the primary. As for McCaffity, I found this profile of him from February. I don’t have a whole lot of insight to add to this race. Both candidates look good to me, either could break through and generate some national attention if they keep up the good fundraising or someone does a poll in the district. CD03 is entirely within Collin County, so if the suburbs do wind up abandoning Trump in a big way – in other words, even more than in 2018 – this race could be a sleeper.

CD10

CD10 of course has been on the radar all cycle, since Mike Siegel lost to longtime Rep. Mike McCaul by a bit more than four points, in a district that Beto carried by a hair. Siegel faces Dr. Pritesh Gandhi, who has been a strong fundraiser so far. As a working doctor who’s treating COVID-19 patients when he’s not on the campaign trail, Gandhi has also been featured in numerous new stories, getting both local and national coverage for his dual role. Siegel has made his way into some of that coverage, and was the subject of a nice recent profile. He also picked up a couple of endorsements, from Rep. Veronica Escobar and State Rep. Erin Zwiener.

CD24

This may be the spiciest runoff of the four, for a seat that Beto won with 51.5% of the vote in 2018. Precisely because this is such an clear-cut target – it’s been on the DCCC’s radar from day one – there’s been some fighting over who the DCCC should be backing in this race, Kim Olson and Candace Valenzuela. Olson is the 2018 nominee for Ag Commissioner (she got 46.4%, losing by five points) and is one of six Dem challengers so far to have raised over a million bucks as of April. Olson has a military background that’s a big part of her biography, but the circumstances surrounding her exit from the Air Force have some people worried that could be a drag on her campaign. Meanwhile, Valenzuela has also been a strong fundraiser and has picked up some notable endorsements including EMILY’s List, which is a fascinating decision on their part given that there were multiple pro-choice female candidates in the primary, including, you know, Kim Olson. Some of Valenzuela’s allies will be running ads against Olson over the issues with Olson’s military record. There’s a nice profile of Valenzuela here if you want to know more about her. As with these other races, I don’t have a strong preference. I feel like this race is there for the Dems to win, we just have to not screw it up.

CD31

Finally, there’s CD31, which started out the cycle high on the target list but has been slipping down since. While there have been a ton of candidates cycling through this race, none have caught fire the way MJ Hegar did in 2018, and none have distinguished themselves in fundraising. The two who survived the first round, Christine Eady Mann and Donna Imam, were the top fundraisers, but neither is close to the top tier among Dem challengers, and only Imam has a decent amount of cash on hand. Eady Mann, who lost in the 2018 primary runoff to Hegar, is also a medical doctor and has also been featured in some stories for her candidacy and career in a time of COVID. I couldn’t find any recent stories about Imam. I don’t see this race as being all that competitive anymore, but the trend in Williamson County will keep it reasonably close regardless. A surprise is still possible, but I’m going to want to see the winner of this runoff start to rake in some bucks before I’ll buy into it.

I’ll be looking at SBOE and State Senate next. Let me know what you think.

PPP: Trump 48, Biden 48

You want polls, we got polls.

In a Texas survey done for the Texas Democratic Party, we found Joe Biden and Donald Trump tied in the state at 48. Only 46% of voters approve of the job Trump is doing to 50% who disapprove. A Quinnipiac University survey released this week showed the state a toss up as well.

One particularly notable finding in the Texas poll is that Biden leads 53-41 among voters under 45…and 51-46 among voters between 46 and 65 as well. The only thing keeping Trump in the game is a 59-38 lead with seniors. That huge generational split means Democrats are going to start winning important elections in Texas some day…and it could even be this year.

See here for more on that Quinnipiac poll. PPP had previously released a poll in April that had Biden up by one, 47-46, which so far has been the best single result he has had in this state since becoming the presumptive (now official) nominee. The TDP has posted the polling data here. It shows Trump doing better among women than men, which is sufficiently odd (and the accompanying numbers divergent enough) that I’m pretty sure that’s a transcription error, and those numbers should be reversed. Interestingly, it also shows Trump leading among independents 52-42, but he only wins Republicans by an 83-14 margin (Biden takes Dems 88-8), and he carries 2016 Trump voters 89-9 while Biden wins 2016 Hillary voters 94-4 and “someone else/did not vote” respondents 54-23. That suggests that Trump’s problems are one part a bit of base erosion and one part a lack of any viable “none of the above” option for the more wishy-washy among us.

As always, it’s one poll, and these are small subsamples, so read that data with extreme caution. Other polls have suggested Trump is doing just fine with his base but is losing among indies, so don’t fall in love with a single narrative but keep an eye on the numbers as a whole. As far as that goes, the six-poll average now stands at Trump 46.7, Biden 44.2, as close as any race has been at this time in my memory.

Quinnipiac: Trump 44, Biden 43

Nice.

President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden are locked in a very tight race in Texas, with Trump receiving 44 percent of the vote and Biden receiving 43 percent in a general election matchup, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released today. Democrats go for Biden 90 – 5 percent, independents do the same 45 – 36 percent, and Republicans go for Trump 87 – 6 percent.

Voters say 54 – 40 percent that Trump would do a better job handling the economy, but say 49 – 43 percent that Biden would do a better job handling health care. Voters are split on who would do a better job handling the response to the coronavirus, as 47 percent say Biden and 45 percent say Trump.

“Too tight to tell in Texas. As the country confronts chaos and COVID-19, perhaps one of the most important states of all is a toss-up,” said Quinnipiac University Polling Analyst Tim Malloy.

FAVORABILITY AND JOB APPROVAL RATINGS

In terms of how voters view the candidates, they give both Trump and Biden negative favorability ratings. 38 percent of voters view Biden favorably, while 45 percent view him unfavorably. That compares to a February 2019 survey when 48 percent viewed him favorably and 38 percent viewed him unfavorably. 42 percent of voters view Trump favorably, and 50 percent view him unfavorably. That compares to a February 2019 survey when 47 percent viewed him favorably and 49 percent viewed him unfavorably.

President Trump receives a 45 – 50 percent job approval rating, unchanged from September of 2019.

Governor Greg Abbott receives a 56 – 32 percent job approval rating, compared to 56 – 27 percent in September of 2019.

Senator Ted Cruz receives a 45 – 42 percent job approval rating, compared to 49 – 40 percent in September of 2019.

Senator John Cornyn receives a split 37 – 36 percent job approval rating, compared to 41 – 34 percent in September of 2019.

MAIL-IN VOTING

About six in ten voters (59%) in Texas say voters in the state should be allowed to vote by mail due to the coronavirus pandemic, while four in ten (40%) say they should not. There are wide partisan gaps, as Democrats 91 – 9 percent and independents 61 – 39 percent say “yes” to voting by mail, while Republicans 68 – 31 percent say “no” to voting by mail.

“‘Mail it in,’ say a majority of virus wary Texans, with Democrats far more willing to let the Post Office deliver their vote,” added Malloy.

Looking ahead to the presidential election in November, 60 percent say they would feel comfortable voting in person, while 38 percent say they would feel uncomfortable. Republicans 84 – 14 percent and independents 60 – 38 percent say they would feel comfortable. Democrats 67 – 31 percent say they would feel uncomfortable.

Here’s a Chron story on the poll result. The disparity in comfort about voting in person is something we’ve seen before, and clearly correlates to the relative partisan positions about voting by mail. I don’t think it will matter that much in the end – let’s just say that people are highly motivated to vote against Donald Trump – but it’s worth keeping in mind. Democrats will need to give some thought about informing their voters about how they should vote to alleviate any anxieties.

There are crosstabs farther down in the linked article, and they don’t have any surprises. Biden actually led Trump 48-44 in a Q-poll from a year ago, which I thought was a tad bit optimistic at the time. Note that while Biden lost a few points from that sample, Trump remains at 44 percent. Add this to the previous four results and the poll average is 46.0 to 43.6 for Trump. If this isn’t a close race, I don’t know what is.

Runoff reminder: Statewide

As I said in the interview posts for SD14, I’m going to revisit the runoff races of interest ahead of early voting. It’s been awhile since we’ve really paid attention to a lot of these folks, what limited news there has been for them has likely fallen under your radar, and it’s time to get back into thinking about who we want to vote for. So with that, I’ll kick things off with the two statewide runoffs and go from there. This will be a mostly freestyle kind of thing, with whatever I can find, on an as-I-can-do-it schedule. Enjoy!

Senate

MJ Hegar

The Senate runoff features MJ Hegar and State Sen. Royce West, who led the field of about a million candidates in March. The Texas Signal had a nice brief overview of what has been happening since then. Hegar has been the much stronger fundraiser of the two, though it will be interesting to see how everyone has been doing in Q2 given the pandemic and the economy. She has a lead in one runoff poll – polling overall has been scant in this race – though neither Hegar nor West has gained enough traction to differentiate themselves in head-to-head matchups with Big John Cornyn.

All of the top candidates that have endorsed in the runoff have endorsed West, citing policy differences and Hegar’s less reliable attendance at primary candidate forums. Hegar has a lot of national backing, from the DSCC and EMILY’s List to former Presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren. There is an online debate scheduled for this Saturday, June 6, in case you haven’t had the opportunity to hear from the candidates before now.

Sen. Royce West

The November race has been on the fringes of the national radar. Nationally, Democrats have four strong pickup opportunities, in Colorado, Nevada, Maine, and North Carolina, with a second tier that includes the two Georgia races and Iowa. (There’s also the Doug Jones-held seat in Alabama, which is widely considered a lost cause for Dems.) The Texas race is usually lumped in with longer-shot races like the ones in Kansas and South Carolina, though Presidential-level polling in Texas shows a fairly tight race. It’s not clear to me how Cornyn will run compared to Trump statewide, but the better Biden does the better either Hegar or West will do. If polling between Biden and Trump remains tight, that increases the odds that the eventual nominee will raise more money and get support from national groups. Assume this same dynamic will play out, with less money, in other statewide contests.

Railroad Commissioner

Chrysta Castañeda

There’s not much news out there about the Railroad Commissioner race. That’s just the nature of the beast here – the RRC is fairly low profile and little understood by normal people, and just doesn’t have the opportunity to make much news. I couldn’t find any recent stories featuring candidates Chrysta Castañeda or Roberto Alonzo, but I did find this Star-Telegram profile of the four primary candidates, for which Alonzo and Castañeda were the first two. Neither candidate had raised much money as of the January finance report, but perhaps that will change for the July and 30-day-runoff reports.

The one relevant news item I found in searching for these two candidates was this KVUE story about the RRC meeting to suspend some operating rules, which drew a critical response from Castañeda. Both candidates participated in an online debate hosted by 2020 Democratic Candidate Debates. I’m not aware of any other similar events at this time. I did an interview with Castañeda for the primary – I didn’t reach out to Alonzo because he didn’t have any campaign presence at the time I was doing interviews.

Roberto Alonzo

As with the Senate race, I see this one to be about as competitive as the Presidential race is. There are two points of interest to note here. One is that the Republican incumbent, Ryan Sitton, was ousted in the GOP primary by some dude who raised no money. Sitton himself had about $2 million cash on hand, which isn’t a huge amount for a statewide race but ain’t nothing, either. The other is that low-profile statewide races like the RRC tend to draw a higher third-part vote – the Libertarian and Green candidates in 2016 combined for over 8.5% of the vote, though that was a stranger than usual race, with Libertarian Mark Miller receiving some newspaper endorsements. Undervotes are also an issue – the RRC race in 2018 drew about 150K fewer votes than the Senate race, and in 2016 it drew 200K fewer votes than the Presidential race. My point here is that Dems may be leaving some votes on the table, which a strong candidate and/or a strong coordinated campaign may mitigate. Let’s not lose a winnable race because we didn’t vote all the way down.

I’ll have a look at Congressional runoffs next. Let me know what you think.

RIP, Engage Texas

We hardly knew ye.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Engage Texas, the massive Republican super PAC focused on voter registration, is shutting down, citing challenges created by the coronavirus pandemic.

The group began last year with the support of some of the biggest Texas GOP donors and raised $12.7 million while building a staff in the hundreds. Yet the group says that the months-long pandemic has made clear that “person-to-person contact voter registration is going to be challenging for an indeterminate amount of time.”

“Leadership has determined that the highest and best use of supporter and donor energies at this point is to phase out person-to-person voter registration, close Engage Texas and encourage our supporters to engage with candidate and party activities ahead of the November election,” Engage Texas said in a statement to The Texas Tribune on Friday. “Engage Texas is proud of our highly successful voter registration efforts and believes that conservative voter registration will successfully continue through the Republican Party of Texas Volunteer Engagement Project.”

Engage Texas, which had $6 million cash on hand at the end of March, is in the process of redistributing its remaining funds to other GOP groups with similar goals. The reallocations are expected to be detailed on its next quarterly report to the Federal Election Commission, which is due July 15.

The shuttering of Engage Texas leaves the Texas GOP’s Volunteer Engagement Project as Republicans’ chief registration effort this election cycle at the state level. The project is aiming to register 100,000 likely Republicans by Oct. 5, the registration deadline for the November election. Party chairman James Dickey said Thursday the project has surpassed 85,000 registrations.

“Republicans are finally paying major attention again to voter registration,” Dickey said during a tele-town hall about the party’s 2020 convention. “It’s back in our DNA, and we are ceding no turf.”

Still, the shutdown of Engage Texas is a major blow to one of the lessons that state Republicans took from their setbacks in the 2018 election — that they needed to grow their pool of voters and hone in on registration after years of neglect.

[…]

In shutting down, Engage Texas pointed to data that it said showed that for the first time in a decade, “Republican registrations have outpaced Democrat registrations in Texas, and have done so for nine consecutive months.” As of today, the group said, Republicans have registered 18,677 more new voters this year in Texas than Democrats have.

I would not take their claims very seriously. I’m sure they registered some voters, but without knowing their exact metrics it’s hard to take any such claims, especially such specific claims, as anything more than self-aggrandizement. (How would they know how many voters Democratic-aligned organizations have registered, for example?) I would also note that if this mission was that critical, this would be a funny time to abandon it. I’m sure the rest of that money will go to only the most deserving consultants and operatives. See you on the other side, Engage Texas.

Interview with Sarah Eckhardt

Sarah Eckhardt

I have one more interview to present for the July 14 special election in SD14. As noted, there are six candidates running to succeed Kirk Watson, but really just two that merit your attention. Today I have a conversation with Sarah Eckhardt, who just stepped down as Travis County Judge to file for this race. Eckhardt has an LBJ School Master of Public Affairs and law degree from UT. She served six years as Travis County Judge, following two terms on Commissioners Court and eight years before that in the Travis County Attorney’s office. She has served on many boards and commissions, including the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, the Texas Conference of Urban Counties, the Clean Air Coalition, the Texas Freedom Networ, and the LBJ School Dean’s Advisory Council. Here’s what we talked about:

My interview with Rep. Eddie Rodriguez is here. I will be reviewing the primary runoffs of interest going forward.

More people are requesting mail ballots

It’s a trickle and not a flood so far, but I suspect that will change as we get closer to Novemner.

The legal status of mail-in voting for virus-related reasons has gone back and forth — earlier this month, one court gave the green light only to be overturned by another court less than 24 hours later. Nevertheless, a considerable number of voters have turned in early requests for mail ballots, a Hearst Newspapers analysis shows.

In Harris County, the number of accepted mail-in ballot requests has risen from about 2.4 percent of registered voters in 2016, or 51,451 voters, to 3.2 percent of voters, or 76,267 voters, so far this year. Most were annual applications and were not limited to a single election.

Requests from Harris County voters age 65 or older, who are guaranteed a mail-in ballot in Texas, continue to represent the vast majority of applications — more than 90 percent. Requests for ballots on the basis of a disability totaled 1,429 — 0.06 percent of registered voters, compared to 0.04 percent in 2016.

Bexar County has similarly seen a slight increase in mail-in ballot requests compared with 2016. They’ve risen from about 1.6 percent to 2.2 percent of registered voters, or 24,477 total. Voters 65 or older accounted for most of the increase.

Texas’ primary runoff is scheduled for July 14. The deadline to apply to vote by mail is July 2, some five weeks away. (Applications must be received by that date, not simply postmarked.)

Bob Stein, a Rice University political science professor who studies elections, said the initial numbers point to a significant shift toward mail balloting.

“It’s historically high,” Stein said. “For the fall, the data tells me that if the conditions today remain unchanged or worsen … the consequence is that more people will try to vote by mail, try to avoid contracting the virus by voting in person early or they won’t vote at all.

“But there’s no doubt in my mind that the share of the vote cast by mail will go up, and it will go up dramatically.”

Depending on how the courts rule, Stein said the number of mail-in ballots cast in Texas could increase anywhere from 15 to 100 percent or more in the Nov. 3 general election.

Let’s add some clarity to the math in the second and third paragraphs. First, the numbers cited for early voting are for the primaries. There were 124K absentee ballots mailed for the November 2016 election, and 120K absentee ballots mailed for November 2018. There were something like 833 mail ballots requested due to disability for the 2016 primary – we don’t know what the comparable figure for November was – which is needless to say a tiny figure in the grand scheme of things. The 1,429 disability ballots requested so far – it would be super nice to know how many have been requested for the Dem primary runoff and how many for the Republican primary runoff by the way, since this is a thing we can know – is way less than ten percent of the total mail ballots, more like 1.8%. If we take Bob Stein’s high end estimate for November, we could be looking at 250K ballot requests, with maybe up to five thousand of them being from people claiming a disability. Sure seems like a little bitty thing for the Republicans to be freaking out so much about.

Of course, we don’t have any idea how this will go. Maybe a huge number of people will request mail ballots if the federal courts ultimately rule in favor of the plaintiffs. Maybe more people than you might think prefer to vote in person, or just don’t want to try something new in such a consequential election when it’s the first time it’s been done and the chances of human error causing havoc are higher than usual. Maybe people will feel safer voting in person in November, or maybe we’ll have had a second spike and people will be even more scared of doing anything outside the house than they are now. The point I would make at this time is yes, more people are requesting mail ballots, at least in the biggest counties. The vast overwhelming majority of those making that request are people 65 and older, who have always had that legal right. Even with this increase, the mail ballot universe represents a small fraction of all registered voters – we’re talking maybe ten percent of registered voters if we assume the Bob Stein maximal figure, which in turn may be something like 15-20% of total turnout for November. Not nothing, but not earth-shattering either. Ask me again in October and maybe my answer changes, but for now it’s significant but still small, and nothing the system shouldn’t be able to handle.

We will have more early voting time in November

That’s good.

Gov. Greg Abbott said Thursday he will extend the early voting period for an unspecified amount of time during the November election as concerns continue to persist around in-person voting during the coronavirus pandemic.

Abbott has already doubled the time period for the primary runoff election July 14, calling it necessary so that “election officials can implement appropriate social distancing and safe hygiene practices.”

In a TV interview Thursday afternoon, Abbott was asked if he believes Texas voters will be able to cast their ballots safely not only this summer but also in the fall.

“We do, and for this reason, and that is … Texas has always had early voting, and what I did for the July time period and what we will do again for the November time period is we will extend the early voting period,” Abbott said in the interview with KCBD in Lubbock. “And what that does — it allows more people to go vote early in settings that are not highly congregated. As a result, you can go vote without having to worry about a whole bunch of people being around you that you could contract COVID-19 from. That makes voting a lot safer [of a] setting than it would otherwise be with the shortened early voting time period.”

See here for the background. I had called on Abbott to do exactly this, though I did not expect that he would. He hasn’t said yet how much he’ll extend early voting – maybe we’ll get a third week, maybe a third and a fourth, who knows – but this is a Good Thing, and I’m glad to see it. Having the state pony up to help counties cover their extra expenses in this weird year, and not being fanatically opposed to letting people with a legitimate fear of COVID exposure vote by mail, would also be nice. But this is something, and credit where it’s due.

A note about voter ID and vote by mail

See if you can detect the same theme I’m detecting.

From Houston Public Media:

Rice University recently surveyed Harris County voters. And nearly 70 percent of respondents preferred voting by mail if that’s an option.

“We found that a large number of voters – particularly Democrats, women, and persons over 65 – were reluctant to vote in person at a polling location on or before Election Day,” said Rice political scientist Bob Stein.

[…]

But the Rice survey shows Republicans are far less likely to want to vote by mail, let alone to support others doing so for fear of catching COVID-19. One reason: potential voter fraud.

Clay Mills of Humble has been a Republican poll judge for the past 10 years.

“In my opinion, based on all those years of experience, by far the easiest way to commit fraud is vote by mail,” Mills said. “I think we should always be concerned about health and do the best we can, but we also can’t destroy the purity of the vote based on health reasons.”

Such fraud is extremely rare, according to studies conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

Michael Palmquist is also a Republican poll judge and army veteran from Spring. As for concerns about voting in person during the pandemic? “None whatsoever.”

“I mean, if I can go to the grocery store, and I can go to Sam’s, and I can go to Walmart, there’s no reason I can’t stand in line and vote,” Palmquist said.

And Joanne Thomas, an Alabama native and a teacher from West Houston, is battling cancer. But she’s still determined to vote in person, not by mail.

“I will wear my gloves, I will wear my mask, and I will go in and vote,” Thomas said. “I have family members who have died for the right for me to vote.”

Like Mills, Thomas is concerned about potential vote fraud.

“I have heard the term ballot harvesting, and I totally disagree with it because you can’t prove who you are,” Thomas said, “I am a firm believer that you should carry some form of ID to have the privilege to vote in the United States of America. You should be an American citizen and pay taxes. If you don’t, you don’t have the right to have the say on who will govern us.”

See here for more on the poll in question, but that’s not what I want to focus on.

From the DMN:

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Lewis Sessions, a Dallas lawyer who is not involved in the case, agrees with Paxton. Sessions, who has represented the county Republican Party in voter fraud cases, said he opposes expanded mail voting because the system can be exploited by fraudsters.

If mail voting is opened up to a larger portion of the population, he said, election officials will be unprepared to handle such an increase and unable to verify each ballot.

David Thomas, 72, of Oak Cliff said he was similarly concerned that officials would not be able to use the state’s voter identification law to verify ballots cast by mail.

“Somebody else can vote for you,” he said.

Sessions, 67, said the courts should stay out of the legal battle and let local officials determine the best way to hold elections during the pandemic.

“This can be done, it’s just a question of working through the logistics,” he said.

But not all Republicans are opposed to expanding mail voting. Kathaleen Wall, a GOP candidate in a runoff to replace Sugar Land Rep. Pete Olson, has urged her voters to vote by mail, saying in mailers that they have the “green light” if they are worried about contracting or spreading the virus.

John Pudner, executive director of Take Back Our Republic, a national conservative nonprofit that works on campaign finance reform, said he supports expanding mail voting during the pandemic — with some caveats.

Pudner, a longtime Republican consultant who worked for President George W. Bush’s campaign in 2000, said mail ballot applications should be sent to all voters as long as the process includes a form of verification, like a signature, a witness match or a thumbprint.

His group does not support sending ballots to all registered voters or conducting the elections entirely by mail, as Nevada has announced. Pudner said he also thinks the changes should be temporary and not extend beyond the pandemic.

Did you notice the reference to voter ID in each of the two stories? I’ve previously discussed this, but it seems this is the sort of thing that will need to be repeated over and over again. The reason that the odious voter ID law does not apply to mail ballots is because the Republicans that passed the voter ID law chose to exempt mail ballots from any voter ID requirement. The reason they chose to exempt mail ballots is because mail ballots, at least at the time that the voter ID law was passed, strongly favored Republicans, and Republican legislators did not want to make it harder for their voters to vote. (Also, too, voters over the age of 65 are disproportionately white, as noted by LULAC when they intervened in the first federal lawsuit over expanding vote by mail.)

Now, I am not calling for voter ID to be extended to include mail ballots. The voter ID law is trash and needs to be thrown out. My point is simply that if you are going to trot out the creaky old talking points about “vote fraud”, you should at least be made to reckon with the fact that the Republican legislators who passed the voter ID law in 2011 specifically and deliberately chose to exempt mail ballots from its requirement. It was convenient for them to claim that “vote fraud” was not an issue for mail ballots then, just as it is convenient for them to claim that it is an issue now. You might want to ask yourself why that is.

Have you missed having Stan Stanart to kick around?

Well then, I have good news for you.

Former Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart will run again for his old job, he confirmed Wednesday, joining two other Republicans seeking their party’s nomination for the November special election.

Incumbent clerk Diane Trautman, who defeated Stanart in 2018, announced she would resign May 31 because of undisclosed health concerns.

The Democratic and Republican parties must nominate candidates to fill the remaining two years of her term.

“I’ve got eight years’ experience, and the name ID necessary to win in November,” Stanart said in a phone call. “I’m calling precinct chairs and doing very well asking for their endorsement.”

Stanart’s announcement Wednesday was the result of a mix-up; he said he thought he was talking to a Harris County Republican Party precinct chair when a Houston Chronicle reporter called him. He said he had planned to go public with his candidacy next week.

The other Republican candidates to date are former Houston city councilman Bert Keller and former Harris County judicial candidate Michelle Fraga.

Emphasis mine. We’ve all missed that Stan Stanart touch around here, haven’t we? Not to mention the glorious headshot. I feel like he missed his calling as a spokesman for BrylCreem, but we must look forward from here.

Anyway. As the story notes, no Dems have publicly announced their interest in the nomination as yet. I expect Teneshia Hudspeth to throw her hat in the ring, but as yet I’ve heard nothing. I presume we’ll know more by the time of the next CEC meeting.

Voter, sanitize thyself

WTF?

With voting in the primary runoff election starting next month in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, the Texas secretary of state on Tuesday issued “minimum recommended health protocols” for elections, including a suggestion that voters bring their own hand sanitizer to the polls and that they “may want to consider” voting curbside if they have symptoms of COVID-19.

In an eight-page document, Secretary of State Ruth Hughs laid out checklists for voters and election workers that range from self-screening for symptoms to increased sanitation of voting equipment — none of which are binding and many of which were already being considered by local election officials planning for the first statewide election during the coronavirus pandemic.

In its recommendations, the state said voters should consider wearing cloth face masks, bringing their own marking devices — like pencils with erasers or styluses — and using curbside voting if they have a cough, fever, shortness of breath or other symptoms associated with COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. Voters in Texas have long had the option of having a ballot brought to them outside their polling place if “a voter is physically unable to enter the polling place without personal assistance or likelihood of injuring the voter’s health.”

The state instructed local election officials to place markings on the floor to facilitate social distancing and to keep at least 6 feet between voting stations. Election officials should also consider having all employees wear masks, the secretary of state said.

The recommendations are meant to serve as a baseline, and county officials can adopt additional protocols. Early voting for the July primary runoff starts June 29.

Man, this is weak. The main takeaway here is that the state of Texas really, really doesn’t want to do anything to make it safer or easier for anyone to vote. Let’s put aside the hotly-contested question about allowing more voting by mail and consider two fairly simple alternatives the state could do in this regard. One, the state could pay for the extra supplies that voters or county officials if they are willing and able are being encouraged to provide for themselves. A few million bucks from Greg Abbott’s discretionary fund would go a long way towards buying hand sanitizer, pencils, masks and gloves for poll workers, and so forth, not just for the July election but for November as well. Additionally, and speaking of November, Abbott could use his emergency powers – or call a special session if this would be too legally questionable – to extend the early voting period for November to four weeks. That would do a lot to address concerns about long lines and crowds of people crammed inside polling places waiting their turn. He extended the early voting period for July to address this, which I do appreciate. But no, we get this limp mixture of “you might wanna bring some Purell with you, and oh yeah, mark some spots on the floor”. Are you kidding me?

Republican voters should be unhappy about this inability to engage with the actual issue, too. This isn’t hard. And surely I’m not the only one looking at that recommendation to voters that they spend their own money to provide their own risk mitigation and thinking that telling voters there’s a cost to voting they have to pay amounts to a poll tax. If there isn’t a lawsuit filed over this, I’ll be quite surprised. I don’t know what it’s going to take to get the state to take this seriously.

Interview with Rep. Eddie Rodriguez

Rep. Eddie Rodriguez

We’re about a month out from the start of early voting for the July 14 elections, which are the primary runoffs and at least one special election, to fill the vacancy in the State Senate left by Kirk Watson’s resignation. There’s a field of six set to compete in the heavily Democratic SD14, but really only two candidates that matter. I’ve done interviews with both and will be presenting them to you here. First up is State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, who has represented HD51 in Travis County since 2002. A native of the Rio Grande Valley and an alum of UT (both undergrad and the law school), Rep. Rodriguez serves on the House Committees on Calendars, State Affairs and Ways & Means in the 86th Legislative Session. He is co-founder and Chair of the Texas House Farm-to-Table Caucus, Policy Chair of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus and an active member of the House Women’s Caucus, the House Democratic Caucus and the Legislative Study Group. Here’s the interview:

I will have an interview with former Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt on Monday. I’m going to review the primary runoffs of interest in the coming weeks as well.

Dan Patrick gets all hysterical about voting by mail

Poor Dan. You know how emotional he gets. Could someone get him a nice cup of chamomile tea, to help him calm down a bit? Thanks.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on Friday said that efforts to expand mail-in voting during the coronavirus amount to a “scam by Democrats to steal the election” and claimed that people under 65 are at more risk of dying in a car wreck on the way to vote than they are from dying from the coronavirus because they voted in person.

“There is no reason — capital N, capital O — no reason that anyone under 65 should be able to say I am afraid to go vote,” Patrick, a Republican, said in an interview with Fox News. “Have they been to a grocery store? Have they been to Walmart? Have they been to Lowe’s? Have they been to Home Depot? Have they been anywhere? Have they been afraid to go out of their house? This is a scam by the Democrats to steal the election.”

Texas has been locked in a legal fight over whether it has to expand who is eligible to vote by mail during the coronavirus pandemic. Multiple groups have sued the state, saying it’s dangerous to require people to wait in line and cast ballots on machines shared with other voters while the virus is spreading. GOP state officials have opposed the effort, however, saying that mail-in voting is vulnerable to fraud.

Patrick repeated those worries about fraud on Friday, while also dismissing any fears people might have about going to the polls if they aren’t eligible for a mail-in ballot. Patrick noted that the vast majority of people dying from the virus are older. Currently in Texas, anyone 65 or older or with a disability is eligible for a ballot.

“This idea that we want to give you a disability claim because I am afraid to go vote — if you are under 65 — is laughable,” Patrick said. “You have more chance of being in a serious auto accident if you are under 65 on the way to vote than you do from catching the virus and dying from it on the way to voting. This is the greatest scam ever.”

Texas does not have complete data for the ages of the 1,440 people who have died in the state from the virus. But the state has completed fatality investigations for 489 of those deaths, and about 29% of those were people confirmed to be under 65.

In addition, public health experts are encouraging people of all ages to limit their social interactions. While older people are generally at more risk of dying from the virus, young people can transmit it and endanger people of all ages.

You may recall, Dan Patrick said there were more important things than living and that senior citizens should be willing to die for the economy. So maybe he’s not the best judge of what one’s risk appetite should be.

It’s easy to mock Dan “Menace II Grandma” Patrick, and we all should do it on a regular basis because he is ridiculous. But we should also look at his words and try to understand what he’s really saying. Whether he meant to or not, there are three things that he made clear from this little outburst.

First, there’s no actual justification for the 65-and-over qualification. It’s completely arbitrary, and Patrick doesn’t even try to defend it. It’s there because that’s the number lawmakers picked when they wrote the law. If someone did press Patrick on this point, I’m sure he’d have little to offer beyond some form of “that’s just the way it is”. The federal age-discrimination lawsuit hasn’t had a response from the state yet, and I’ll be very interested to see what justification they come up with. My guess is they won’t bother to try to justify it, they’ll instead simply claim that having an age limit isn’t discriminatory. My point here is that Dan Patrick can’t defend this provision in the law, he can only hide behind it.

Second, there’s the “vote fraud” shibboleth. Forget for a minute that there’s a trivially small amount of actual vote fraud in the system, since statistics and logic mean nothing in this context. I’m old enough to remember when the voter ID bill was passed and the litigation was filed against it. One of the many points of contention over this odious law was the fact that it only applied to in person voting. Voting by mail, which was a smaller component of turnout than it is now and which was much more Republican than it is now (look at the absentee ballot totals for Harris County from 2008 and 2012, for example), was exempted in part because the Republicans who passed the law did not want to burden their own voters, but also because they professed no concerns at all vote vote by mail fraud, even as Democratic legislators and people who testified at the hearings pointed out that most of the handful of vote fraud examples we had centered on mail ballots. The only reason why Republicans are trotting out their “vote fraud!” wolf cries now is because Democrats have gotten better at using vote by mail. That’s what they’re actually afraid of.

And that brings us to point three. The Republicans know they are losing the argument. There was a time when Republicans didn’t care about who was showing up to vote, because they were confident they were going to win all of the elections they wanted to win. They had the lion’s share of the vote – George W. Bush won re-election as Governor in 1998 with 68% of the vote, and he got 62% of the vote as President in 2004 – and they knew it. They have no such assurance today, and they know that, too. All of the big urban counties (save for Tarrant, which is headed that way) are hopelessly Democratic, and now the big suburban counties are slipping away from them. They see their lack of popularity with younger voters and people of color. They’re not going to change what they stand for, so Plan B is to make it harder on all the people they don’t like to vote. This isn’t a revelation, and yes I know what Paul Weyrich was saying back in the 1980s. The difference now is that they really are saying it out loud. They don’t want to make it easier for people to vote, because they fear – with justification – they will lose too many elections if they do. They know people aren’t buying what they’re selling, so they’re trying to restrict the marketplace.

So yes, please do continue mocking Dan “Triggered By Sandra Bullock” Patrick. It’s fun, and he deserves it. But listen to what he’s saying, because he’s telling us what he’s afraid of. Let’s make sure we’re paying close attention to that.

Coronavirus and the State Supreme Court

Just a reminder, nearly half of the State Supreme Court is up for election this November. You know, in case you had opinions about their recent opinions.

Typically not top of mind for voters, the nine Republican justices of the Texas Supreme Court have come under the spotlight during the coronavirus pandemic with a slate of high-profile and controversy-generating moves.

Actions on bailevictions, debt collections, vote-by-mail and a Dallas salon owner named Shelley Luther have foregrounded the court in a year when four incumbent justices face reelection — making it easier, Democratic challengers say, to make the case against them.

Last week, the high court lifted its coronavirus ban on evictions and debt collections, put in place in March as the economy shut down and hundreds of thousands were added to the unemployment rolls. And the justices temporarily put on hold a lower court ruling that expanded vote-by-mail access during the pandemic. Both decisions have infuriated some voters and energized the Democratic Party.

This month, the court ordered the release of Luther, who was jailed for contempt of court after refusing to shutter her salon under coronavirus orders; earlier this spring, it sided with state officials in limiting how many inmates could be released from county jails, which have become hotspots for disease.

Democrats, who have not won a seat on the state’s highest civil court in more than two decades, have reclassified the typically sleepy races as a “top-tier priority,” a designation party officials said comes with digital ad spending. And some candidates have already begun to speak out publicly against high court decisions they say disenfranchise voters and risk their safety.

“I think people’s eyes are opening up,” said 3rd Court of Appeals Justice Gisela Triana, one of the four women running for Supreme Court on the Democratic ticket this year. “What has been the sleepy branch of government … has woken up.”

There’s more and you should read the rest. For obvious reasons, these races are largely going to be determined by the Presidential race – if Joe Biden can run even with or ahead of Donald Trump, one or more of the Democratic candidates can break through. It surely wouldn’t hurt for their to be some money spent on these races, in part just to make sure voters are aware of them and in part to highlight some of the decisions that are not exactly in line with public preferences, but there’s only so much the individual candidates can do about that. In case you’re wondering, I have one Q&A from a Democratic candidate for Supreme Court from the primaries, from Judge Amy Clark Meachum.

On a more sobering note:

Justice Debra Lehrmann

One day after presiding over a hearing on the state’s mail-in ballot controversy via videoconference, Texas Supreme Court Justice Debra Lehrmann says she and her husband have tested positive for COVID-19.

“We began to exhibit symptoms last week, despite diligently complying with stay-at-home rules,” Lehrmann wrote on Twitter on Thursday. “Thankfully, this has not interfered with #SCOTX work, as the Court is working remotely. We are grateful for your thoughts & prayers.”

Her diagnosis marks the first known coronavirus case of a top state official. The justice did not immediately respond to requests for an interview but told the Dallas Morning News that she and her husband Greg had fevers and body aches early last week before getting tested at an Austin drive-thru testing center.

She also told The News that their Houston lawyer son, Jonathan, his wife Sarah and their six-month-old son Jack, who had been visiting them every other week, stopped and are believed to also be infected.

Her tweet is here. I wish Justice Lehrmann and her husband all the best for a swift recovery. (She is not on the 2020 ballot, in case you were wondering.)

Biden campaign says it will compete in Texas

That is what we want to hear.

Former vice president Joe Biden is planning to compete against President Trump in traditionally Republican states such as Arizona, Texas and Georgia as his campaign bulks up in size and turns to a general election made highly unpredictable by the coronavirus.

“We believe that there will be battleground states that have never been battleground states before,” said Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, Biden’s campaign manager, on a call with reporters Friday. “We feel like the map is really favoring us if you look to recent polling.”

Biden’s campaign said it will also compete in other states such as Iowa and Ohio that Hillary Clinton lost by large margins in 2016.

The campaign’s public announcement of targets — which some Democrats feel are overly ambitious — is driven by what it sees as weaknesses for Trump that have been magnified by his response to the virus. It comes after weeks of criticism from Democrats, who worry Biden isn’t being aggressive enough.

[…]

Biden’s staff, on the call with reporters Friday, frequently pointed to national polling and surveys in battleground states that give Biden an edge. Recent public polls in Arizona, Florida, Michigan and Wisconsin show Biden leading. Trump is beating Biden by small margins in Iowa and Texas.

The FiveThirtyEight average of the four polls of Texas post-primary have Trump leading Biden by two in Texas. That can change, of course, and there are a whole host of other factors to consider, from fundraising to organization to how the election will be conducted, but it’s hard to see Texas as un-competitive right now. It’s true that if Biden does actually win Texas he’s almost certainly run up the score to such an extent that he surely didn’t need to win Texas, but there are plenty of other considerations as well, from a US Senate race to multiple potential Congressional pickups to winning the State House and having a voice in the 2021 redistricting process. The Chron covers some of this ground:

In the 1990s, Bill Clinton came within 5 percentage points of winning Texas in both 1992 and 1996, but both those races had eccentric Texas tycoon H. Ross Perot taking voters from the Republican nominees. Minus those races, Hillary Clinton coming within 9 percentage points of beating Trump in 2016 is the closest a Democrat has come to winning Texas since Jimmy Carter won the state in his first election in 1976.

The chairman of the Texas Republican Party James Dickey has been warning the party faithful that Democrats are energized and are going to put a lot more money into Texas to try to flip it and Republicans need to be prepared. He’s been touring the state since last year outlining how the party is more aggressively fundraising, hiring field staff and registering voters than in past cycles. While he dismisses the state being a blue state, he has been emphatic that “Texas is on Red Alert” for 2020.

But while Republicans scoff at the idea of Texas turning blue, Trump has already spent more time and money in Texas than many past Republican presidential contenders.

Before the pandemic had even hit, Trump had made 14 trips to Texas since he was inaugurated. That is more than three times as many visits as President Barack Obama made during his first term in office. And with a big financial advantage over the Democrats, Trump has been able to do more to shore up Texas, rather than just focusing on traditional battle grounds in Pennsylvania, Florida and Wisconsin.

It is not hard to imagine a race that is decided by 5 percentage points or less in Texas, said Jillson, the SMU political science professor. But Jillson said if Trump struggles to hold Texas, it would be a sign of a bigger problem nationwide.

“If Texas is in play, it probably means Joe Biden has won 40 other states,” Jillson said.

Forty is an overstatement. If you think I’m being pedantic, go ahead and list the nine states Trump would definitely still win in the event Biden carried Texas. I feel pretty confident saying you’d be leaving off a few obviously red states in such an exercise, all of which would be a much bigger shift towards the Democrats than Texas would, and without the corresponding poll numbers to suggest it. Here’s an illustration of this:

That’s not intended to be a rigorous predictive model, just as noted a simple way of viewing the state of play right now. Point being, Texas really has shifted, and it’s time to think about in those terms. How much of an investment it merits from a Presidential campaign perspective is open to debate, but the fact that it is competitive is not.

More runoff debates

In case you had not seen this, as I myself had not before Sunday.

Watch Democratic Candidate Debates Here!

Every Tuesday and Thursday in May, join us for our debate series:

Debate Schedule:
Tuesday, May 5 – Harris County Precinct 3 Commissioner
Thursday, May 7 – Texas State House District 138
Tuesday, May 12 – Texas State House District 142
Thursday, May 14 – Texas State House District 148
Tuesday, May 19 – US Congressional District 10
Thursday, May 21 – Texas State Board of Education Position 6
Tuesday, May 26 – Texas Railroad Commission
Thursday, May 28 – United States Senate

Video of past debates are on the page, so for example if you want to hear Anna Eastman and Penny Shaw, go here. In some cases, one of the candidates in the runoff has declined or not responded, but in most cases you can hear both candidates. Early voting begins June 29, so remind yourself of who’s on your ballot and start making up your mind.