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Margaret Mirabal

We should have a full statewide slate


Judge Gisela Triana

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 4 – Brandon Birmingham

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

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

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

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

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

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

Population and voting trends: 2002 and 2006 judicial elections, Part I

For the next entry in this series, we’re going to look at how county returns changed from 2002 to 2006 in statewide judicial races in Texas. Again, I’m using judicial races here because they tend to reflect straight partisan preference a bit more closely. It might have been nice to compare Senate races or Governor’s races, but those contests were too different in each year to really tell us much. As with the previous entry, I’m comparing one Supreme Court race – Steven Wayne Smith versus Margaret Mirabal in 2002, and Don Willett versus Bill Moody in 2006 – and one Court of Criminal Appeals race – Paul Womack versus Pat Montgomery in 2002, and Sharon Keller versus JR Molina in 2006. Here are my observations:

– Right off the bat, the main difference between this comparison and 2004-2008 comparisons is with turnout. Where 2008 saw 650,000 more voters than 2004, 2006 saw a decline from 2002. In the Governor’s race, for example, there were 4,553,987 votes cast in 2002, but only 4,399,116 in 2006. I attribute this to there being fewer high profile races – in 2006, about all that people were really paying attention to was the Governor’s race, and that was more for the wackiness factor, while 2002 had high-profile, big-dollar races for the Senate and Lite Guv as well. In addition, the lack of a Democratic “ticket” meant there was basically no statewide GOTV effort. You’ll clearly see the effect of this in some counties.

– In the races we’re actually considering, Willett/Moody drew 295,700 fewer votes than Smith/Mirabal, while Keller/Molina attracted 149,880 fewer than Womack/Montgomery. It should be noted that there was a Libertarian candidate in the Willett/Moody race; that was the only such contest with a third candidate. As always, only the R and D vote totals are considered.

– As such, in the end everyone lost votes from 2002 to 2006. The Republicans lost more votes, however, so the Democrats had a net gain in each race. Smith got 2,331,140 votes, Willett got 2,135,612, for a drop of 195,528. Mirabal received 1,978,081 votes to Moody’s 1,877,909, a decline of 100,182 but a net reduction of the Dems’ deficit of 95,356, from -353,059 to -257,703. On the CCA side, it was Womack 2,463,069 and Keller 2,346,204, a dip of 116,865, and Montgomery 1,828,431, Molina 1,795,416, a drop of 33,015 but a net pickup on the deficit of 83,850 as it reduced from -634,638 to -550,788.

– In the Supreme Court race, Democrats lost ground in 90 counties, gained in 163, and stayed even in one, Freestone, where the deficit was exactly 432 votes each time. In nine of the ten counties where the Dems took the biggest step backwards, both parties lost votes from 2002 but the Democrats lost more. A look at these ten counties will give you the reason why:

County Smith Willett Loss Mirabal Moody Loss Dem Net =================================================================== Webb 5,723 3,588 -2,135 30,712 13,295 -17,417 -15,282 Hidalgo 18,523 15,739 -2,784 44,133 28,576 -15,557 -12,773 Harris 308,107 275,807 -32,300 309,802 271,021 -38,871 -6,481 Jefferson 20,775 18,747 -2,028 31,564 24,553 -7,011 -4,983 Cameron 14,953 13,633 -1,320 26,804 22,977 -3,827 -2,507 Bexar 121,614 117,031 -4,583 141,088 134,383 -6,705 -2,122 Maverick 1,048 800 -248 4,742 2,736 -2,006 -1,758 Smith 30,053 28,469 -1,584 15,124 11,931 -3,193 -1,609 Angelina 9,485 11,161 1,676 8,704 8,866 162 -1,514 Nueces 29,099 27,979 -1,120 35,969 33,417 -2,552 -1,432

Say what you want about Tony Sanchez and his Titanic campaign, but he helped bring a huge number of Democratic voters out to the polls. Just look at the huge dropoffs in 2006 in Webb (Sanchez’s home base), Hidalgo, and Maverick. If we were to continue down this list, we’d see similar declines. Willacy, Jim Wells, Brooks, Zapata, Frio, Zavala, Jim Hogg, and Dimmitt – all of them saw their Democratic turnout drop by as much as 50% or more. To a lesser degree, it was the same effect in Cameron, Nueces, and Bexar. When you hear people talk about the Democrats’ strategy or lack of same for the Valley and South Texas, this is their Exhibit A. We know about Jefferson and Angelina, which were moving away from the Democrats from 2004 to 2008; this is just a part of that trend, with Jefferson also being at the bottom of a population dip in 2006. Smith is also a county that is moving away from the Democrats, though that effect was masked in 2008 due in part to its higher than average African-American population. As for Harris, I’d attribute the downer to there being basically no Democratic ground game in 2006. I can say with confidence that will not be the case this year.

You may also note that Mirabal won a majority in Harris County, making her the only Democrat to do so that year. If we swap out Willett/Moody for the one race in which a Democrat won a majority in Harris in 2006, that of Elsie Alcala versus Jim Sharp, we get the following:

County Smith Alcala Loss Mirabal Sharp Loss Dem Net =================================================================== Harris 308,107 276,529 -31,578 309,802 277,820 -31,982 -404

Hold that thought, because we’ll eventually come back to it. The story is more than a little different when we look at the CCA races:

County Womack Keller Change Mntgmry Molina Change Dem net =================================================================== Webb 6,121 3,575 -2,546 30,116 14,135 -15,981 -13,435 Hidalgo 19,306 16,124 -3,182 43,563 29,133 -14,430 -11,248 El Paso 34,007 32,492 -1,515 62,196 54,028 -8,168 -6,653 Jefferson 22,190 19,747 -2,443 29,993 24,046 -5,947 -3,504 Nueces 31,311 32,235 924 33,076 31,479 -1,597 -2,521 Cameron 15,562 14,924 -638 26,442 23,444 -2,998 -2,360 Angelina 10,070 12,216 2,146 8,072 8,280 208 -1,938 Maverick 1,074 862 -212 4,754 2,805 -1,949 -1,737 Medina 5,590 6,073 483 3,597 2,978 -619 -1,102 Wilson 4,999 6,312 1,313 3,483 3,744 261 -1,052

Webb, Hidalgo, Maverick, Cameron, and Nueces are all still there, with their issues of depressed Democratic turnout from 2002. Note, however, that JR Molina failed to win Nueces while Moody, who ran an actual campaign, carried it. Angelina and Jefferson, with their increasingly red (and in Jefferson’s case, shrinking overall) populations are there as well. El Paso had the same turnout issues as the first five counties, with about 10,000 fewer voters showing up in 2006, but it’s also Bill Moody’s home turf, and he killed there, getting over 70% of the vote and more than 6,000 more tallies than Molina, giving him a net gain over Mirabal.

The other two new counties here are small ones. Moody lost ground in Medina and Wilson counties, he just lost less than Molina did, with -1850 in Medina and -750 in Wilson. What’s more interesting is the counties they replaced: Harris and Bexar. Margaret Mirabal ran very strongly in Harris in 2002, just a wee bit better than Bill Moody, but enough to represent a big drop in net margin. Montgomery and Molina were more representative of average performance in each year, so Molina wound up with a net gain. Same story with Bexar, though Moody won it as Mirabal had, just by a smaller margin. Again, we’ll revisit all this later.

Here’s where Moody and Molina saw their biggest gains:

County Smith Willett Change Mirabal Moody Change Dem net =================================================================== Travis 87,540 73,382 -14,158 122,214 130,546 8,332 22,490 Dallas 204,686 168,162 -36,524 219,999 204,310 -15,689 20,835 Tarrant 186,595 166,293 -20,302 136,564 133,600 -2,964 17,338 Collin 88,762 82,834 -5,928 33,893 42,514 8,621 14,549 Denton 69,899 63,475 -6,424 30,361 35,905 5,544 11,968 Williamson 46,480 43,193 -3,287 25,501 31,466 5,965 9,252 Montgomery 53,977 54,018 41 17,451 20,632 3,181 3,140 Hays 14,238 13,644 -594 11,891 14,131 2,240 2,834 Fort Bend 47,008 49,953 2,945 37,145 42,890 5,745 2,800 McLennan 27,860 26,554 -1,306 22,211 23,005 794 2,100 County Womack Keller Change Mntgmry Molina Change Dem net ================================================================= Travis 95,152 83,346 -11,806 112,709 131,035 18,326 30,132 Harris 337,368 295,795 -41,573 277,639 262,496 -15,143 26,430 Dallas 215,763 186,960 -28,803 205,495 195,356 -10,139 18,664 Tarrant 196,164 180,813 -15,351 126,457 128,575 2,118 17,469 Collin 91,795 88,847 -2,948 30,228 41,003 10,775 13,723 Denton 72,230 68,435 -3,795 27,549 34,432 6,883 10,678 Williamson 48,838 48,599 -239 22,728 30,545 7,817 8,056 Fort Bend 49,783 52,085 2,302 33,904 42,670 8,766 6,464 Lubbock 38,458 35,657 -2,801 14,976 15,913 937 3,738 Hays 14,887 15,330 443 10,955 14,046 3,091 2,648

Most of this you’re already familiar with, so I won’t belabor it. Note that Harris went from one of Moody’s biggest net losses to one of Molina’s biggest net gains; that says more about Margaret Mirabal than anything else. Note also that the Dallas Democratic sweep of 2006 was happening even as Democratic turnout from 2002 was down. That says more about the demographics of that area than anything else, and it’s one reason why I believe suggestions of a Republican comeback there, outside of perhaps the District Attorney’s race and its unique dynamics, are farfetched.

So that’s our first look at the 2002 and 2006 judicial elections. There’s one more way to look at them, and that’s what we’ll do in the last entry of this series.