When Lawrence Meyers won a seat on the statewide Court of Criminal Appeals in 1992, he was the first Republican elected to the state’s highest criminal court.
This month he made history again. After switching parties, Meyers, who had been a judge in Fort Worth, became the first Democrat to hold statewide office in Texas in the 21st century. Now he is running for a spot on the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court.
Though Meyers was not elected to his current post as a Democrat, his high-level defection has given the party a shot of momentum and some bragging rights ahead of the 2014 elections, said Gilberto Hinojosa, the chairman of the Texas Democratic Party. But Republican officials suggest that the switch was more about their party’s cramped races and not an indicator of any sea change.
Democrats have not had one of their own in statewide elected office since the late 1990s, and nearly every person switching parties in the last two decades has gone in the opposite direction.
“With this and the candidates that we are fielding in this election, I think people are saying, 'Wow, this is a totally different Texas Democratic Party,'” Hinojosa said.
Meyers, who has flirted with party-switching in the past, did not respond to requests for comment.
Hinojosa said Meyers had told party officials he was a big fan of state Sen. Wendy Davis, the Democratic candidate for governor, and indicated that he had grown uncomfortable with the rightward shift of the Texas Republican Party. Hinojosa said the party had been in talks with Meyers about the switch for about three months.
“He just said, 'I can’t do this anymore,'” Hinojosa said. “He’s been thinking about this for quite some time.”
Meyers is the longest-serving member of the Court of Criminal Appeals. In Texas, appellate responsibilities are split: Criminal matters go to the appeals court, while the Supreme Court hears civil disputes.
Meyers was elected to the appeals court in 1992, a time when Republicans began displacing Southern Democrats as the dominant force in Texas politics. In six years, the court went from all Democratic to all Republican. And the Republican Party has swept every statewide election since 1998, when George W. Bush was elected to a second term as governor.
Now Texas stands out as the only reliably Republican state where non-whites make up a majority of the population, and Meyers is betting that the tide is turning back toward the party of Lyndon Baines Johnson. Democrats point to two San Antonio politicians who recently left the Republican Party as more evidence of a resurgence.
Steve Munisteri, the chairman of the Texas Republican Party, finds the claim dubious. In fact, he says, the more Democrats talk about party switching, the better. Since 2008, Munisteri said, 248 Democrats, many of them county officials in rural areas, have defected to the Republican Party.
“We don’t put out a release when we have party switchers because it happens so often. I had two this morning,” Munisteri said this week. “By our count, it’s 248-3.”
Munisteri theorized that Meyers had merely found the Republican Party too crowded. As a Democrat, Meyers faces no primary opponent, and because he is not up for re-election until 2016, he can run again as a sitting judge in two years.
His most likely opponent in November is Justice Jeff Brown, who was appointed to the Supreme Court in September by Gov. Rick Perry and is facing his first statewide election.
Brown said he was focusing on his primary for now but would not take victory for granted if he was the nominee.
“I’m going to act like Democrats and Republicans are evenly matched in Texas,” he said.