We already know that we’re going to get primary challenges to at least one Democratic countywide officeholder, as County Attorney Vince Ryan has two challengers lining up against him, and DA Kim Ogg has at least one person who has announced interest in challenging her. Most of the county offices available are judicial, though, and now that the local judiciary (other than a few JPs) is entirely Democratic, the path to gaining a bench for yourself is limited if one doesn’t want to take on a Democratic incumbent. I had a conversation about this with some folks recently, and we were debating how many such challenges we may see this year. I thought the number would be relatively small, and I based that on the belief that there weren’t that many primary challenges to Republican judges in recent years. That was my intuition, but I didn’t know the actual numbers at the time. I’ve now had a chance to look through recent primary history, and this is what I found:
Republican judicial primary challenges 2002 - 5 2004 - 0 2006 - 4 2008 - 1 2010 - 1 2014 - 3 2018 - 1
That’s less than I had thought. A couple of notes here. I only looked at the years in which all the incumbents were Republican (so no 2012 or 2016), and I limited myself to district and county courts (so no statewide, appeals courts, or JPs). There were some contested races in years where a jurist had been appointed to complete the term of someone who had stepped down or gotten a promotion – in 2008, there were two such races, in in 2012 there were four, for example – but I put those in a separate category. Basically, from what I found, there were actually very few challenges to sitting judges who had served full term. Make of that what you will.
Now, a couple of caveats here. One possible reason for the lack of challenges to four-year incumbents may be because there often were benches vacated in the middle of someone’s tenure, which allowed for a challenge of someone who had been appointed. These judges presumably felt comfortable stepping down mid-term because they knew their replacement would also be a Republican, with district court judges being appointed by the Governor and county court judges being appointed by Commissioners Court. With the exception of Al Bennett, who was named to a federal bench, no Democratic district court judge has stepped down since the first set were elected in 2008. Some have declined to run for re-election, but no others have given Rick Perry or Greg Abbott the opportunity to pick their interim replacement. County court judges won’t have that concern now, but for the foreseeable future I don’t expect any district court judges to abandon their post before it expires if they can at all help it. That points towards more primary challenges than what we had seen in the past.
In addition, while there was no upward trend in primary challenges over time, I think we’re in a different era now, and I think people will be less squeamish about taking that plunge. Honestly, if there ever was a year to try it, it would be this year, because the extreme turnout expected due to the Presidential race ought to make most of these races pure tossups, and by “tossup” I mean the most important factor will be your ballot position, which is determined by random draw. We’re all going to need to be on guard for low-grade opportunists who hope to luck into a bench. I hope I’m overstating this concern.
Anyway. Unlike for executive offices, I don’t expect judicial challengers to announce themselves this early, but it will be filing season before you know it. What do you think will happen?