A few weeks ago NPR focused on Texas and our demographics and asking that question of If and When Democrats will become a force again in Texas politics.
So we thought, putting demographics
aside, what signs or omens should Democrats look for to know that they
have the ability to capture statewide office?
We continue with a second sign.
Sign #2: The 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 8th, 13th, and 14th Courts of Appeals go Democratic.
Let it be stated that these signs or omens do not have to occur in any certain order.
Why these courts?
What do all these courts have in common? Aside from the 13th, they are all anchored by Democratic cities. The 13th covers enough Democratic territory for now that Corpus Christi's/Nueces' trend towards the Republicans can be offset by Hidalgo and Cameron counties.
The 1st and 14th cover the exact same counties with Houston/Harris County being the juggernaut here. The 3rd is an Austin based court that manages to wind its way west to pickup San Angelo. The 4th is a swingy San Antonio based court that stretches into the Valley and includes Laredo. The 5th is based in Dallas. The 8th is an El Paso dominated court.
So where are we in regards to these courts going Democratic?
1st & 14th
For the first time in a long time, Democrats managed to crack the Republican monopoly on these courts. FYI, I'm lumping these two courts together because they cover the same counties; so if a swing happens, it'll likely be felt by both courts.
In 2008, Democrat Jim Sharp, likely riding on what name recognition former Comptroller John Sharp has left, managed to snag a seat on the 1st Court. I put more weight on John Sharp, because if Obama's coattails had been the main factor, why didn't any other Democratic candidates for either of these courts manage to sneak across the finish line? To their credit, the other Democratic candidates won Harris County, but Sharp was the top performer with about 52.65% of the vote in Harris. The other Democrats ranged from a high of 51.73% of the vote to a low of 50.74% in Harris.
Fast forward to 2012, when Democrats were probably expecting some help with turnout and none of the Democrats won. In 2012, Harris County accounted for 70% of the vote for 1st and 14th court races. Of the 10 races for these courts, only 2 Democrats carried Harris County. For Democrats to have had a chance at winning, they would have needed to capture at least 55% of the vote in Harris.
1st Court current makeup: 1 Democrat, 8 Republicans
14th Court current makeup: 9 Republicans
This court must be disappointing for Democrats. Very recently, this court was tied at 3 Democrats and 3 Republicans. After 2012 it swung to a 5-1 Republican majority. What adds more salt to that wound is that one of the Democrats, Diane Henson, was an incumbent and lost.
Henson managed to get onto the court in almost the same way that Jim Sharp did, performing just a little better than the other Democrats. She won her seat in 2006 and carried Austin/Travis County with 62.19% of the vote. The other Democratic candidates for the 3rd that year ranged from a high of 61.58% of the vote to a low of 59.12% in Travis. That little extra bump was just enough for her to get a seat.
In 2012, Travis County was about 43% of the vote for the 3rd court. Only looking at Travis County, Henson captured about 63% of the vote in Travis. For Henson to have held her seat, she would have needed to capture 67% of the vote in Travis. If you took into account Travis and Williamson County together, what would happen? Williamson was about 18% of the vote in 2012. If Henson had captured 64% of the vote in Travis, she would have needed about 47% of the vote in Williamson. FYI, she lost Williamson 60% to 40%. For only 1 point better in Travis, she would have needed to do 7 points better in Williamson.
3rd Court current makeup: 1 Democrat, 5 Republicans
Prior to the 2012 election this court had a 6-1 Republican majority. Post 2012, Democrats gained a 4-3 majority and the court returned to an all female court.
It might seem surprising to some to see Republicans doing so well on this court considering the district includes Laredo/Webb County, Brooks County, Duval County, Jim Hogg County, Jim Wells County, Maverick County, Starr County, Val Verde County, Zapata County, and Zavala County. But those counties can be offset by turnout from Republican counties like Bandera, Gillespie, Guadalupe, Kendall, and Kerr. This is why the fight usually comes down to Bexar County.
The difference maker for the 4th, at least in 2012, was sex. Looking just at Bexar, the 3 Democrats who won their seats all received at least 52% of the vote (53.26%, 52.77%, and 52.41%) and were women. The 2 Democrats who lost both received 50% or less in Bexar County and were men, losing to Republican women. However, the 2 races were close enough that if the men had been women, we'd likely be talking about a 6-1 Democratic majority on the court.
4th Court current makeup: 4 Democrats, 3 Republicans
The 5th is an interesting case. While Democrats seem to have consolidated their hold countywide, they haven't yet taken that next step to be able to capture a seat on this court. That next step is turnout. While Democrats were able take about 57% of the vote in Dallas County for the 5th court, it wasn't enough. Once the surrounding Republican counties came in, like Collin, the Democrats lost.
For Democrats to have had a chance at winning any 5th court seats, they would have needed to capture about 62% of the vote in Dallas...5 points higher than what they received.
5th Court current makeup: 13 Republicans
Democrats are in firm control here and have a 3-0 majority. This court is also all female. The court is anchored by El Paso and expands east to take in a number of west Texas counties. This is the only appeals court which has no Republican serving on the court. Conversely there are 8 appeals courts with no Democrats.
How in control are Democrats? For the one contested race in 2012, the Republican candidate received 71,992 and the Democratic candidate received 118,873. If the Democratic candidate only won El Paso County and the rest of the Democrat's votes were given to the Republican candidate, the Democrat still would have won 107,528 to 83,337.
8th Court current makeup: 3 Democrats
Of the 3 courts with Democratic majorities, this might be the most worrisome for Democrats. Currently the court as a 5-1 Democratic majority. The one Republican on the court can probably be attributed to low voter turnout. It should be noted that is court recently had 2 Republicans on it.
In 2006 Democratic judge Rose Vela (wife of Democratic Congressman Filemon Vela) switched parties and won a seat on the court. In 2010, Republican Gregory Perkes ousted incumbent Democrat Linda Yanez and gave the Republicans their second seat. In 2012 Vela retired from court, dropping the Republicans back down to one seat. Perkes won his seat by a little over 4,000 votes.
The northern part of the 13th is Republican, while the southern part is Democratic. Stuck in the middle is Corpus Christi which has recently been trending away from Democrats. Luckily for Democrats there are a couple of large border counties (Hidalgo and Cameron) that can help save them for the time being. Unlike the other courts, there really isn't one dominant county. In 2012, Hidalgo was about 30% of the vote, Nueces about 21%, and Cameron 17%.
The danger for Democrats is the voter dropoff. In 2012, Hiladgo, Nueces, and Cameron had nearly 300,000 total votes. In 2010, those counties only had a little over 170,000 total votes. The worst dropoff was Hidalgo. In 2010, Yanez only got about 48,500 votes out of Hidalgo. In 2012 the Democratic candidates for the 13th were getting about 100,000 votes from Hidalgo.
In 2012, all the Democratic candidates for the 13th court won their races.
13th Court current makeup: 5 Democrats, 1 Republican
So why are these courts important to watch?
Turnout and vote capture
Probably the one and only reason these courts are important to watch is turnout and vote capture. You might think that's actually two reasons, but I would argue it's one. What's the point of turning out your voters if you can't get them to vote for your candidates? And what's the point of capturing 62% of the vote if your vote is down by 10,000 votes in terms of raw votes?
For the 1st and 14th Courts, Democrats needed to win at least 55% of the vote in Harris County to have had any chance at winning a seat in 2012.
Democrats on the 3rd needed to capture at least 67% of the vote in Travis County to have a chance at winning any of the seats in 2012.
The 4th we've discussed above.
For the 5th Court, Democrats were getting 57% of the vote in Dallas County, they needed to capture 62% if they wanted to have a chance at capturing a seat on the 5th Court in 2012.
For the 8th, Democrats are in control.
For 13th Democrats will do their best in presidential years and will have to work to hold their seats in non-presidential years.
If Democrats are winning seats on the 1st, 3rd, 5th, and 14th as well as dominating the 4th, 8th, and 13th it's a good bet Democrats are doing well statewide.