DALLAS — On the first day of early voting, politics was not at the top of this city's concerns.
Instead, residents were obsessed with Ebola, a disease less threatening to their lives, statistically, than the furniture in their homes.
Ebola panic has calmed a bit since Oct. 20, but continues to color the political conversation. The electoral fate of Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, a Democrat facing a serious Republican challenger named Ron Natinsky, depends more on his handling of the public health scare than other issues that might have been out front — like his summer offer of housing for unaccompanied minors from Central America crowding the Texas-Mexico border.
“Ebola has just sucked up all of the attention,” said Wade Emmert, chairman of the Dallas County GOP. “It’s hard for a candidate to break through.”
Texas has been in Republican hands for 20 years, at least in statewide races. But Dallas County is now mostly Democratic turf. “I feel like I’m on the front lines,” Emmert said. “I’m in a battleground county, and if we can win a countywide race, it’s going to be a big win. It would reverberate around the state.
Jenkins won a tight race in 2010, beating Emmert by about 2.5 percentage points and taking office with 49.6 percent of the vote — just short of an outright majority.
Emmert is now watching races for county judge and for district attorney, and scattered races for the Texas House that could go either way. And he’s hopeful that some of the GOP’s statewide candidates might pull off a win here.
Jenkins is not the only local Democrat on the line. Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins is in real electoral peril against Susan Hawk, a former prosecutor who won elections to countywide office — a state district judgeship — as a Democrat before switching parties. She is running this year as a Republican, hoping that ethical questions about the incumbent overcome the straight-ticket voting advantage for Democrats in Dallas County.
“He could benefit if South Dallas turns out big for Wendy Davis,” Emmert said. “But I tend to think she won’t. ... I think Greg Abbott has a pretty good chance of winning Dallas County.”
A change of that magnitude would be bad news for Leigh Bailey, the Democrat running in the central Dallas HD-108 contest against Republican Morgan Meyer. It’s an open seat — made so when state Rep. Dan Branch decided to run (unsuccessfully, it turned out) for attorney general. Jenkins lives in the district. So do a lot of the richest people in Texas, and some of the biggest political donors to both political parties; the geography includes downtown, the Park Cities, the heart of North Dallas and the close-in slice of East Dallas from the M streets to Swiss Avenue to Samuel Grand Park.
The next district to the east, HD-107, is roughly crescent-shaped, starting in Mesquite, running up I-635 into Garland, and swooping southwest to include White Rock Lake and some of the neighborhoods west of it. State Rep. Kenneth Sheets, a Republican, is defending himself against Carol Donovan, a Democrat. Both are attorneys. It’s a swing district; Sheets won two years ago by 850 votes out of 50,886 cast.
East of that is HD-113, where incumbent Republican Cindy Burkett of Sunnyvale is defending herself against Democrat Milton Whitley, a political neophyte. Like Donovan and Bailey, Whitley is getting outside help from groups like Battleground Texas that think he might be able to pull off an upset. Burkett did not draw a Democratic opponent last time, but other Democrats in other races have carried the district.
Democrats did well in all three of the districts in 2012, when the presidential election drew out voters who don’t reliably appear at the polls in off years. And two in particular were hard on the dominant party: Mitt Romney, who pulled 57.1 percent of the statewide vote that year, got only 51.8 percent in HD-107 and 52.5 percent in HD-113. Those weren’t close enough to get Democrats over the line, but they were close enough to raise their hopes.
But the county’s GOP chairman is unimpressed with the Battleground Texas effort to organize Dallas Democrats, or to win statewide races. “If Battleground Texas is in Dallas County, they’re not making much of a mark,” he said.
That group has been active in the county, and a spokeswoman said it has seen promising signs in early turnout — evidence that efforts to attract new voters to the polls might be paying off.
Sheets and Burkett are on Emmert's radar as they defend their posts in re-election races. Former Rep. Rodney Anderson of Grand Prairie, who defeated an incumbent in the Republican primary but has a serious Democratic opponent, is also on his list.
The Meyer-Bailey race in HD-108 — listed as a promising contest by some Democratic operatives here — is not on Emmert’s threat list. Statewide Republicans have beaten Democrats in contested races by almost 27 percentage points here over the last two election cycles, according to the Texas Weekly Index. And Meyer, the Republican, built up name identification in a bruising primary and runoff earlier this year, while Bailey ran without opposition. He outraised her financially, but she’s getting help from Battleground Texas and Annie’s List, among others.
Patsy Woods Martin, interim executive director of Annie’s List, a political outfit that backs Democratic women in legislative races, agreed that the district favors Republicans, at least on paper. But she is upbeat about Bailey. “Her message — public education, fair pay and women’s issues — really seems to be resonating there,” said Martin, who added that Bailey is “running close” in internal polls.
Those themes are popular among Democratic candidates. Donovan, for instance, emphasizes Sheets’ vote for a 2011 state budget that cut $5.4 billion from public education and for a budget two years later that put some, but not all, of that money back. “Education is the No. 1 issue that comes up when I’m block-walking,” she said.
Republicans, like Burkett, say their voters are asking about immigration, education, and roads and transportation.
Emmert’s concerns are primarily on Anderson and Sheets. But Democrats elsewhere on the ticket could bring out the other side’s voters. Emmert said Jenkins has benefited politically from the attention on Ebola. “He’s on TV all the time,” he said. “It’s like a running commercial. If he wins, you’ll be able to trace it back to Ebola.”
Sheets is well aware that his is a swing district and said he started campaigning before most incumbents with that in mind. The administration’s unpopularity is a help to candidates like him. He hopes the county races will fall in favor of Republicans. But he has some concerns about voter attention.
“They understand the elections are coming, but I think this one just snuck up on people,” he said.
Voting started on the same day that the family and friends of Thomas Eric Duncan began coming out of a 21-day quarantine imposed for fear they might have contracted the disease. As the scare moves out of the news, voters’ attention might be on something else — like the election, for instance — where Republicans are uncharacteristically playing defense.
Abbott is trying to do here what Wendy Davis is trying to do statewide — win on turf that has recently belonged to the other party. Bill White beat Rick Perry here, though he received less than 43 percent of the statewide vote. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, a Republican, won last time by less than 1 percentage point. Abbott, running for attorney general, lost Dallas County.
Burkett is hopeful that Republicans can win a countywide contest or two, but there is a structural problem: Straight-ticket voting, which in many parts of the state favors Republicans, is a big advantage for Democrats in Dallas County. In 2012, 68 percent of voters cast straight-party tickets here, and 59 percent of those voted for the Democrats. Two years earlier, without a presidential race on the ballot, Republicans did a little better, but still lost, getting 46 percent of the straight-ticket vote.
“We are not as blue as people think,” Burkett said. “If I could get rid of straight-ticket voting, this would be a different race.”