Democrats dominate Harris County races

November 7, 2018

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett was locked in a tight race Tuesday night, trailing a political newcomer as local Democrats rode a surge in voter turnout to a decisive victory on Tuesday, unseating several countywide Republican officials and sweeping all 59 judicial races.

Just before presstime, Emmett, who courted Democratic ticket-splitters and leaned on his reputation as a steady hand during hurricanes, had fallen behind challenger Lina Hidalgo, who was running in her first race for public office. With Libertarian Eric Gatlin in the race, however, neither Emmett nor Hidalgo had yet reached the 50 percent threshold to avoid a runoff.

After defeating the Republican sheriff and district attorney two years ago, Harris County Democrats were poised to control all of the countywide elected posts, depending on what happened in the county judge’s race.

“It is a new day in Harris County,” county Democratic Party chairwoman Lillie Schechter told a boisterous crowd that gathered at the Democrats’ downtown party.

University of Houston political science professor Brandon Rottinghaus attributed the Democrats’ success to changing demographics in the largest Texas county and a superb get-out-the-vote effort by Democratic groups.

“Democrats have harnessed the blue wave, at least locally,” Rottinghaus said. “Harris County is going to be trending more purple, which is going to spell difficulty for Republicans in countywide races in the future.”

In the two county commissioner races, incumbent Jack Cagle cruised to victory over Democrat Penny Shaw in Precinct 4 and Republican Jack Morman, who is vying for a third term in Precinct 2, was holding on to a slim lead over Democratic challenger Adrian Garcia.

Supporter Xavier Stokes chalked the close county judge race up to straight-ticket voting, rather than a referendum on Emmett himself.

“He’s done such a good job, and yet here we are,” Stokes said. “It just shows you how this type of voting distorts the outcome.”

The local GOP’s conservative wing long has grumbled Emmett is too moderate, and the grousing grew louder when the county judge admitted he would support Republican Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick’s Democratic opponent. Now that the party has seen all of its other countywide incumbents rebuked by voters, it likely will have to adopt Emmett’s centrist approach if Republicans are to have a future in this diversifying county.

Hidalgo, a 27-year-old graduate student and first-time candidate who returned to Houston last summer to campaign, mounted a surprisingly strong challenge against the man widely regarded as the most popular politician in the county. Emmett had campaigned on his record, contrasting his 10 years as the county’s chief executive with Hidalgo’s lack of formal work experience.

In the Precinct 2 race, Morman heavily outspent Garcia and tried to cast the former Harris County sheriff as a political opportunist seeking a rebound after failed bids for mayor of Houston and the House of Representatives.

Garcia, a gregarious campaigner who could detain a stranger for an hour in conversation regardless of his wishes, emphasized shoe-leather politicking. He recruited a campaign staff to canvas throughout the largely Hispanic precinct to engage constituents he said Morman too seldom sought input from. Morman’s flood-the-airwaves strategy included ads attacking Garcia.

Emmett focused his ad buys on convincing Democrats to vote for him, as much a hedge against a blue wave as a natural strategy, given his broad popularity. The other countywide Republicans targeted only their base voters, at their peril. Democrats dispatched them, one after the other: Diane Trautman defeated County Clerk Stan Stanart, Marilyn Burgess beat District Clerk Chris Daniel and Dylan Osborne edged County Treasurer Orlando Sanchez.

Even as a surge in voter registration hinted at high Democratic turnout, the Republicans doubled down on rallying conservative voters. Stanart, Sanchez and Daniel join state Sen. Paul Bettencourt at a news conference last week where they alleged the county’s voter roll, which is managed by a Democrat, was compromised. Stanart’s campaign website warned that billionaire and Democratic donor George Soros sought to control Harris County elections, and suggested in an eleventh-hour mailer that his opponent would not protect against voter fraud or intimidation at the polls.

The judicial races likewise were a Democratic rout. The party won each of 23 seats on the district judge bench, all 13 on the family court, all four for county civil judge, all 15 county misdemeanor judges and all four county probate judges.

The sweep of the misdemeanor bench, which was dominated by Republicans, could have huge ramifications for the future of the federal lawsuit, brought by poor defendants, challenging Harris County’s cash bail system. Each of the 16 jurists are defendants, including some who have pushed the county to continue fighting the case, though it already has cost taxpayers more than $6 million.

Staff writers Sarah Mikati, Ileana Najarro and Shelby Webb contributed reporting.

Zach Despart covers Harris County for the Chronicle. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at zach.despart@chron.com.

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