For Brandon Birmingham, a state district judge in Dallas, the 2020 race for Texas Court of Criminal Appeals started on election night 2018.
As he watched Beto O’Rourke win more votes than any Texas Democrat ever had in a statewide race, Birmingham — who himself won reelection that night with 100% of the vote in his countywide district — began to mull his own chances at winning Texas. Within weeks, he’d reached out to the state Democratic Party. By December, he’d sat down with party officials over breakfast in Dallas to discuss a possible run.
Now, as the 2020 election season begins in earnest after the start of the filing period Nov. 9, Birmingham is one of 14 Democrats seeking one of seven seats on the state’s two high courts — an unusually crowded and unusually qualified field for races that have over the past two decades plus proved suicide missions for Democrats. This year, with a controversial Republican president on the ballot and sky-high stakes for Texas Democrats, candidates are hoping the races look more like heroes’ journeys.
“In 2018, 2016, 2014, 2012, the last four cycles, the month of October was spent talking and begging people to come to us, to run for these kinds of offices,” said Glen Maxey, a former Texas House member who is coordinating statewide judicial races for the Texas Democratic Party. “That’s what’s different about 2020. We did not make a single phone call. … We have not twisted a single arm about doing this.”
In past years, Maxey said, the party was often scrambling to find “any qualified attorney” to put on the ballot. This year, nearly every race involves at least one sitting judge or justice with years of experience.
Strategists sometimes consider statewide judicial races the best measure of the state’s true partisan split: Whom do voters pick when they know little or nothing about either party’s candidate?
Statewide judicial races are “important to watch in terms of partisan vote behavior,” said Mike Baselice, a GOP pollster. They show a “good reflection of base Democratic and base Republican vote in the state.”
That also means that judicial candidates typically rise and fall as a slate: Most likely, either all of them will win or none of them will, strategists acknowledge. It’s a blunt theory, but it offers clear strategic guidance: A rising tide lifts all boats.
“We won’t have them each deciding to be at the same chicken fry in Parker County on the same Friday,” Maxey said. Instead, he said, they’ll tell nominees: “We need you to travel. We need you to be making appearances as seven people in seven different media markets every day, so that people are hearing a Democratic message about equal justice, all over, everywhere.”
I agree with Mike Baselice that judicial races do indeed do a good job of measuring partisan vote behavior. As you know, I’ve been using CCA races across the years as my point of comparison. I like judicial races at the county level even more because they are almost always straight up R-versus-D contests, but a lot of these go uncontested in counties that have strong partisan leans, so the statewides are the best overall proxy.
By that measure, 2018 was easily the most Democratic year in recent memory. The Supreme Court and CCA Democratic candidates ranged from 45.48% (in a race that included a Libertarian) to 46.83%, the best showing since Sam Houston got 45.88% in 2008 and Margaret Mirabal got 45.90% in 2002. I’d quibble slightly with the assertion that all the Dems will win or none of them will – there is some spread in these races, so if the state is basically 50-50, you could have a couple Dems sneak through while others just fall short. That’s basically what happened in Harris County judicial races in 2008 and 2012, after all. The presence or absence of third party candidates could be a factor as well, as more candidates in the race means fewer votes, and only a plurality, are needed to win. Again, this is only relevant if the state is truly purple, and the range of outcomes that include a split in the judicial races is narrow, but it could happen.
My one complaint here is that the story only names one Democratic CCA candidate, while teasing that there are many more. So I asked some questions, of reporter Emma Platoff and Patrick Svitek, reporter and proprietor of the Patrick Svitek spreadsheet of announced candidates, and now that Statewide tab is full. Here. for your perusal, are your Democratic statewide judicial candidates:
Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 4 – Brandon Birmingham
Kelly is a Justice on the First Court of Appeals, elected in 2018. He doesn’t appear to have an online campaign presence yet, but a search for “peter kelly texas supreme court” yielded this.
William Demond is a “constitutional rights attorney” in Houston. Elizabeth Frizell is a former County Criminal Court judge in Dallas who ran for Dallas County DA in 2018 but lost in the primary. This story in The Appeal has some information about her candidacy from that year. Dan Wood is a criminal appellate lawyer who ran for the Fifth Court of Appeals in 2012 and for CD05 in 2018.
Brandon Birmingham, the one candidate named in the story, was elected to the 292nd Criminal District Court in Dallas in 2014, re-elected in 2018.
Tina Clinton serves as Criminal District Judge Dallas County Number 1, which is a felony court. I don’t know why the nomenclature is different from the other District Courts as I had not heard of this kind of court before, but similarly-named courts exist in Tarrant and Jefferson counties as well. She was elected to this court after serving eight years as a County Criminal Court judge, and you can scroll down the 2018 election results page to see more judges like her. Steve Miears is a criminal and criminal appellate attorney from Grapevine.
And now we’re as up to date as we can be The Secretary of State is now providing candidate filing information, which tells me that as of Friday Lawrence Praeger was the only one to have formally filed. More are to follow, and I’ll keep an eye on it.