The Cues Voters Use to Elect Unknown Candidates

Ever heard of Elsa Alcala?

She’s one of the nine judges on the state’s highest criminal court, which literally decides matters of life and death. And she’ll be on the Republican ballot in March. But most Texans won’t see her name until they walk into the booth next year and decide her future.

Voters choose dozens of important state officials in every election without knowing a thing about them. So they rely on other cues — like political affiliations, pleasing names and who knows what else — to elect judges, legislators and other down-ballot officials.

Stephen Mansfield, a Republican, was elected to the Court of Criminal Appeals in 1994, beating a Democratic incumbent in a year when the GOP began its dominance of the statewide ballot. The nearly anonymous new judge quickly became known as state officials poked around his legal credentials and animal lovers complained to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals that he was keeping his dogs locked in his car in the court’s parking garage. Later in his tenure, he was charged with criminal trespass for trying to scalp a pair of complimentary tickets to a University of Texas-Texas A&M football game on school property.

Mansfield didn’t seek re-election in 2000, saying he didn’t want to face that publicity. He tried again in 2002, but voters didn’t bite, and he finished third in a three-person primary race. He had become a known quantity for the wrong reason.

 

Since that ’94 election, the first requirement to win a statewide race in Texas has been simple: you have to have that Republican “R” behind your name. That moved the competition to the March primaries instead of November. Voters forge ahead, even without party labels to guide them.

Xavier Rodriguez is now a federal judge in San Antonio. In 2002, Republican primary voters ousted him from the Texas Supreme Court (he’d been appointed by Gov. Rick Perry) in favor of Steven Wayne Smith. Smith lost in the 2004 Republican primary to Paul Green, who had Perry’s support and who remains on the court. Rodriguez was appointed to the federal bench in 2003 by President George W. Bush, who apparently knew him better than the voters did. Smith ran again in 2006 and lost.

Steven Wayne Smith isn’t a bad ballot name, and Smith’s 2002 victory over Rodriguez fueled a controversy that still haunts Texas Republicans: When little else is known about two candidates in a G.O.P. primary, is a Hispanic surname a liability? Smith, a relative unknown, beat Rodriguez, a relative unknown, on the basis of something.

Jeering from Democrats who wanted to lock down the Hispanic vote hasn’t helped Republicans knock down that argument. Neither have some more recent results. In 2010, the railroad commissioner Victor Carrillo lost his Republican primary to David Porter, a political novice who wasn’t on the electoral radar until the primary was over and he had won. Many Republicans said Carrillo ran a lackluster and nearly invisible campaign and got the result he should have expected. The loser blamed Republican primary voters for choosing a Porter over a Carrillo on name alone.

Why did they have to go on name alone? Carrillo never generated any news media coverage — maybe that’s his fault, and maybe it’s the news media’s fault. He didn’t spend enough on advertising to raise his profile. Worse, he was serving on a regulatory board that is both important and boring — a bitter cocktail for someone seeking renown.

Now, here we go again. Alcala has a reasonably stout résumé. She’s a Kingsville native and went to Texas A&I (now a Texas A&M campus) and then the University of Texas for law school. Before Perry appointed her to the Court of Criminal Appeals this year, she was an appellate justice on the state’s First Court of Appeals in Houston, winning election to that job twice. She was a state district judge before that, appointed by Gov. George W. Bush, and an assistant Harris County district attorney before that.

Not that voters know the slightest thing about her. But Republican primary voters will see her name next March in one of the judicial races listed on the ballot between local Congressional and State Senate contests.

If she’s the only candidate, that will be enough.

 

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