Democratic judges who surprised Harris County in a 2008 rout because of strong turnout for Barack Obama are bracing for a tough fight in November after seeing the GOP, which had a clean sweep in 2010, continue to bolster its position statewide.
In the county’s 23 contested state district court races, 18 Democrats will have to overcome strong Republican momentum to keep their benches.
“It doesn’t look great,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “The state is trending conservative, so it will be difficult for Democrats to retain a lot of those seats.”
Although the judges are countywide races, they are too far down the ballot for most voters to study and make choices outside of party affiliation.
“A lot of these races are consumed and swept up in the general partisan trends,” said Rottinghaus. “Harris County certainly has flecks of blue, but there are elements that will drive the state to be more red this year.”
He said anger with Obama, as evidenced by the tea party, and the popularity of critics of the president, like Senate candidate Ted Cruz, will influence the election.
“The people at the top of the ticket are driving not only the turnout, but also much of the debate we’re having nationally, statewide and locally.”
Other experts said they do not expect a sweep, while well-known candidates on both sides will rise above the fray.
“I do not see a partisan sweep either way,” said political analyst Robert Miller. “Strong Democrats such as (Sheriff) Adrian Garcia will win, as will strong Republicans such as (district attorney candidate) Mike Anderson.”
One of the county’s most recognizable Democratic judges elected in 2008 resigned in August.
Kevin Fine, who made national news in 2010 when he tried to declare the death penalty unconstitutional during a routine hearing, stepped down Aug. 21, allowing Gov. Rick Perry to appoint Ryan Patrick to the bench.
The timing of Fine’s decision disappointed Vivian King, the Democrat running to replace him, because Patrick, a lawyer who was licensed in 2006, will be running in the general election as an incumbent.
“It allows him to say he has ‘judicial experience,’ even though he’s going to preside over things he’s never even tried, like capital murders,” King said. “I’ve been a lawyer for 20 years, as a prosecutor and a defense attorney.”
Patrick said he is qualified for the bench and touted his experience as a special crimes prosecutor.
“It’s not about how much time you’ve done, it’s what you’ve done with the time,” he said.
Patrick’s defenders also said he was a well-respected prosecutor who should win in November.
“It’s not about age,” said Jared Woodfill, chairman of the Harris County Republican Party. “It’s about what you’ve done in the years you’ve been practicing and how you’ve done it, and he has excelled.”
Woodfill said he believes the GOP will triumph in judicial races.
“We started restoring Republicans to the bench in 2010, and I think in 2012 we’re going to finish the job,” he said.
Democratic officials also voiced optimism about their chances.
“It’s going to be a clean sweep from the White House on down,” said Jenard Jenkins, press secretary for the Harris County Democratic Party.
Jenkins said voters study even down-ballot races in presidential elections, because everyone pays closer attention to politics.
More Hispanic voters
“When people pay attention, as they do in presidential years, they like the candidates we are putting forth,” Jenkins said. “You can get away with being less in an off year, which is what happened in 2010, but in a presidential year, people want to make a good decision.”
Other Democrats said they expect a close race.
“It’s effectively a turnout game when you’re looking at a 50/50 county,” said Keir Murray, a Democratic campaign strategist who advises judicial candidates. “It could be anything from a narrow sweep by either side to a split result.”
He said the number of registered voters in the county has remained static at 1.9 million people, but there are 100,000 more Hispanic voters, who lean Democratic, than in 2008.
“If you get down and look at the numbers, they suggest a very closely divided election,” Murray said. “I expect it to be very close.”
One Democrat said he is encouraged that recent gains made by Obama would translate to a win for him because of straight-ticket voting.
“All he has to do is carry the county by 1 percent,” said 179th state District Court Judge Randy Roll. “He carried it last time by 50.07, and I carried it by 50.03.”
The woman challenging Roll disagreed.
“I think the Republicans are going to take Harris County,” defense attorney Kristen Guiney said. “Voters come out for the people at the top of the ticket.
“I’m going to win and the rest of the down-ballot Republicans are going to win too.”