Hillary Clinton voters won the day in Harris County by a whopping vote of 54% to 42% on election day in November 2016.
Those numbers include rounding down for Hillary and up for Donald Trump.
That’s about a big a blowout as modern politics usually allows for.
Of course, everyone knows Mr. Trump is the one going to the White House.
But, what are the ramifications for local elections in Harris County?
A quick sidebar: The city of Houston itself is spread out like a gerrymandered octopus that covers three counties. Microscope Houston will examine voting trends for the city itself at a future time. For the purpose of this article, we’ll be analyzing the city’s main county which is Harris.
Most troubling for Team R is the fact that in the November election, Democrats scored big on straight ticket ballots. They beat the Republicans 53% to 45% among straight ticket voters. Straight ticket voters accounted for 66% of all voters on election day.
Hillary further ran up the score beating Trump in Harris County by a total of 54% to 42%, showing that the people who didn’t vote straight ticket still favored the Democratic candidate.
Now, of course, those numbers have to take into account that Mr. Trump had very high unfavorable ratings in Texas due to controversy as well as disagreements with fellow Republicans popular in Texas, including Senator Ted Cruz and the brother of a former Texas governor who Trump also defeated in the primaries.
Lingering resentments from bruising primary battles could have contributed to Mr. Trump’s poor showing.
When combined with the fact that urban areas traditionally favor Democrats, this could have proved too much to overcome. Mr. Trump’s beating in Harris is not necessarily a good indicator of the level of Democratic support versus Republican support in the county.
Let’s examine how other Republicans did in Houston on election night.
For starters, local down ballot judges with an R next to their name were all wiped out of office on the strength of Democratic straight ticket voting.
But, many of those races were much closer.
For example, Judge Clyde Leuchtag, the Republican incumbent for a county civil court position managed a much narrower loss of 48% to 52% despite the Democratic wave.
Judge Linda Garcia was defeated by only 2%, 51 to 49. Here we see that Republican incumbents not mired in scandal were able to generate close races despite tremendous downward pressure at the top of the ballot.
And then there were the local scandals plaguing Republican incumbents.
And, let’s be honest.
The local scandals were pretty horrific despite getting limited press due to the high profile presidential race.
Without the epic showdown between Trump and Clinton, these are scandals that would likely have been the entire focus of the county-wide elections.
There has been a lot written about Republican District Attorney Devon Anderson’s staff jailing a rape victim to ensure her testimony.
Despite taking a rapist off the street, the optics were terrible. Challenger Kim Ogg scored an 8 point win over Anderson as voters chose to put the whole sordid affair in their rear view mirror.
Then there was the sheriff, Ron Hickman, who defended two deputies who had engaged in a FULL cavity search of a female in a gas station beside the road because they smelled marijuana.
They were looking for drugs, but found a political nightmare instead.
Hickman cleared his deputies of wrongdoing and angrily defended them when DA Anderson’s office indicted them for wrongdoing.
The radio ads were devastating and Sheriff Hickman went down 53% to 47%, though he bizarrely performed better than DA Anderson who tried to clean up the mess with well-deserved prosecutions.
More on Sheriff Ron Hickman.
Unapologetic Ron Hickman supporters sent a mailer attacking his opponent for wanting to reduce the amount of jail sentences for marijuana offenders despite tax payers having to pick up the enormous tab for incarceration of non-violent offenders.
Hickman seemed to miscalculate the voters’ priorities.
It seemed most voters weren’t willing to go as far he was in fighting non-violent marijuana use. And, if you see the paragraph above, you know Hickman feels justified going very far indeed, going into places most voters just aren’t comfortable with public servants going.
This, of course, is a reference to the FULL (yes, full means FULL) cavity search performed on a woman at a gas station. Hickman deemed that search justified and A-OK as an effort to combat illegal marijuana possession.
Needless to say, Hickman was a major drag on the R’s chances in the November 2016 election, despite his protests that it was all the “Hillary effect” and his general denial of responsibility for his own loss.
If the Republican party runs candidates like clueless Ron Hickman in the future, it needs to do some soul searching as to whether it actually wants to be competitive.
While the Democrats displayed a very strong ground game resulting in the big advantage in straight ticket voting, this election has major outlier qualities to it.
The presidential candidate had feuded openly with a Texas senator and had some very well covered scandals driving down his own support. When combined with the Republican law enforcement scandals, it was a very bad night for the R’s.
Not much to glean from Congressional races.
Republican Representatives Poe, Culberson and McCaul all got between 58% and 68% of the Harris County vote in their re-election bids with McCaul doing the best and Poe at 60% and Culberson bringing up the rear at 58%.
However, in the Democratic safe seats held by Al Green and Sheila Jackson Lee, the Democratic incumbents scored upwards of 70 and 80 percent of the vote, respectively.
So, the congressional races don’t paint a picture saying anything other than that they are very gerrymandered to support one party control. We certainly can’t use those outcomes to suggest one party or another has dominance in county-wide voting.
Past elections provide a clue.
In the 2012 presidential election featuring President Obama versus Mitt Romney, the straight party voters in Harris County split 49.77% to 49.33 in favor of Democrats, obviously a much closer result.
The final difference was only 0.08% between the two candidates. Ted Cruz narrowly defeated Paul Sadler by 1.5% in Harris County in 2012.
In the 2014 mid-term elections, Republicans had a 9 point lead in straight ticket voting. However, there was only 670,000 votes cast in the midterms versus 1.3 million cast in the most recent presidential election. The R’s clearly do better without big issues galvanizing the D’s.
In 2008, 1.17 million votes were cast with Obama edging McCain by 1.5 points with a 53 to 46.5 percent advantage in straight ticket voters.
In a truly local race between Democrat Sylvester Turner and Republican Bill King, who – on a surface level – can generally both be described as “generic democrat” and “generic republican,” respectively, the race was much closer in Harris. Neither candidate had major scandals.
Turner campaigned using identity politics to break clear of a crowded pack and enter the run-off. He campaigned by going down the list of standard democratic client groups and making pitches to each, and remaining as bland and non-controversial as possible while racking up checks from donors with business interests in the city. The local press largely gave Turner a pass on the scandal that doomed his last mayoral bid which was a perception of being too close to a probable insurance scam.
Meanwhile, King was perceived by many as a polite, knowledgeable, quiet spoken straight-shooter with a good grasp of irony when discussing government decisions. He steered clear of scandal and campaigned with a standard message of good fiscal governance and actually doing basic government functions well.
The final tally was 50.14% for Turner and 49.86% for King in a comparably low turnout of 209,000 voters. Of course, the numbers in the parts of the city outside of Harris – Kingwood (Montgomery County) and Forth Bend county – shifted the numbers for the city-wide vote.
The city of Houston does not encompass all of Harris County and includes portions in Montgomery and Fort Bend. So a city-wide race analysis will be upcoming. However, it is meaningful to understand county-wide trends.
So, How Blue is HOU?
In the meantime, the question of “How Blue is HOU?” can best be answered that the region is currently in a tug of war between Democrats and Republicans.
When national politics trigger a wave election, it can be difficult for the party on the receiving end to mount a defense. Republicans also do better when there are no big issues galvanizing Democratic enthusiasm.
This election was indeed a wave election in Harris County, but it was compounded by local scandals.
Absent any unanticipated scandals and major national issues in future elections, Harris County looks like it will be hard fought for years to come, with both sides getting wins and suffering losses due to the specifics of each election, the nature of the candidates, and whether scandals or special issues emerge.
One thing is clear, the R’s will need to generate excitement and clean up their act if they want to be competitive in the future. The good news is they can’t bungle the sheriff’s office and DA’s office if they aren’t in power. In the next election, their opponents will have actual records to attack if they fail to perform to the public’s satisfaction.
The casual observer watching the tube on election night could clearly see the campaign night parties hosted by the Democrats at trendy locations around town, generating lots of excitement and compare them to the drab election night facilities and general lack of enthusiasm seen in the Republican election night events themselves.
In retrospect, the writing was on the wall.
This has been a Microscope Houston report.
Don’t forget The Local News, Curated.