Harris County Democratic and Republican officials have looked at Tuesday's local election results and they agree: The GOP-dominated county government could be recaptured by Democrats as soon as 2008.
"Believe me, it's being discussed," said Republican Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt, a conservative leader. "It's an amazing wake-up call," said Republican County Commissioner Steve Radack.
In an election when many ethnic minority voters didn't vote, Republican judicial candidates on the bottom half of the Harris County ballot won by an average of fewer than four percentage points — 52 percent to 48 percent.
The average margin four years ago was more than nine points.
If minority voters had been energized, as they might be in the 2008 presidential year, it could have been a Democratic sweep, some analysts said. They point to Dallas County, long a GOP stronghold, where Democrats claimed every countywide seat elected Tuesday.
Here's what political analysts and party officials are seeing:
Countywide judicial races are considered a good indicator of party feelings. There are so many of them that voters tend to choose based on party affiliation rather than knowledge of individual candidates or issues. The Houston Chronicle calculated the combined GOP margin of victory for all contested races for state district courts, which are elected countywide.
It was 3.9 percentage points, the smallest since at least 1998.
Some Republicans evaluating Tuesday's results said conservatives didn't get out to vote. Others said the problem might be that fewer Republicans voted straight-party tickets because the governor's race included two independent candidates. Those lost straight-ticket votes might have benefited down-ballot judicial races that voters otherwise didn't bother with, Radack theorized.
Democrats noted that the margin in the judicial races was close even though ethnic minorities who generally vote Democratic skipped the election, which featured few Hispanic or non-Hispanic black candidates in showcase races. In the 11 state House districts within Harris County that have Anglo majorities, voter turnout Tuesday was 36 percent. In the 12 with non-Hispanic black and Hispanic majorities, the turnout was 26 percent. Local Republicans faced a national political current Tuesday that they hope is temporary -- congressional scandals and wide dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq.
But the demographic trends are long-term: The Hispanic population is booming and the Anglo population is not.
"The Republican Party is not attracting minority voters the way it should. I've been saying this for 10 years," Radack said. Former Harris County Democratic Chairwoman Sue Schechter said she regrets the party didn't put more money into the judicial races this time. It might have made a difference, she said. Rice University political science professor Bob Stein said an immediate effect of Tuesday's local and national results could be interest from talented Democrats who realize they have a legitimate chance to be elected next time around.
Radack predicted trial lawyers, stung by lawsuit limitations enacted by Republicans, will pour money into the races.
When state District Judge Katie Kennedy stepped down in 1999, she was the last countywide Democratic officeholder. In the closest Harris County judicial race Tuesday, Democrat Mary Kay Green got 49.4 percent of the votes against Republican incumbent Annette Galik for a family-court bench. The margin of victory was 6,800 votes, but the "under vote" — the number of people who voted in other races on the ballot but not that one — was 51,000. There's no way to tell which candidate would have benefited most had those 51,000 voters made a choice for the 245th District Court.
But the demographic and political trends seem clear.
"Doomsday is coming," said UH political science professor Richard Murray.
Radack said factors such as the independent gubernatorial candidates and national scandals made things worse this year. But the handwriting was on the wall for anyone who cared to read it, he said.
Many of the minority/majority precincts in Harris County (one of which I chair) had, to be kind, an under-representation at the polls on Tuesday. But from a Texas perspective, it also appears that our Democratic base in El Paso and the Valley sat this one out in large measure.
That cost the Democratic Party some judges, county-wide and statewide.
Was it the fault of the candidates? The TDP, and Boyd Richie specifically? The voter registration effort, or the GOTV one? How about the media? Or should the voters themselves take some blame for being blase' ?
Everybody catches a little bit, I suppose, but it may be something we can improve on next go-round.
I must say however that I believe this incremental strategy is bullshit. There was constant repetition from the party machinery in Austin that this was a rebuilding year, that we should only focus on a few select races, that the efforts of fund-raising and spending would be on infrastructure and rebuilding for 2008 and not on candidates and races in 2006, because there was really no hope of achieving anything any grander like capturing a statewide office.
Congratulations, Mr. Richie. Your strategy was executed flawlessly.
A closing thought from my man David:
I must add that despite the results in Texas, I'm ecstatic about the Democratic takeover of the Congress. These midterm results may have saved the country from dictatorship and civil war.
The Bushite arctic freeze is thawing nationally but in Texas we're still iced in. Fight 'em on the ice.