For Brandon Birmingham, a state district judge in Dallas, the 2020 race for Texas Court of Criminal Appeals started on election night 2018.
As he watched Beto O’Rourke win more votes than any Texas Democrat ever had in a statewide race, Birmingham — who won reelection that night with 100% of the vote in his countywide district — began to mull his own chances at winning Texas. Within weeks, he’d reached out to the state Democratic Party. By December, he’d sat down with party officials over breakfast in Dallas to discuss a possible run.
Now, as the 2020 election season begins in earnest after the start of the filing period Nov. 9, Birmingham is one of 14 Democrats seeking one of seven seats on the state’s two high courts — an unusually crowded and unusually qualified field for races that have, over the past two decades plus, proved suicide missions for Democrats. This year, with a controversial Republican president on the ballot and sky-high stakes for Texas Democrats, candidates are hoping the races look more like heroes’ journeys.
“In 2018, 2016, 2014, 2012, the last four cycles, the month of October was spent talking and begging people to come to us, to run for these kinds of offices,” said Glen Maxey, a former Texas House member who is coordinating statewide judicial races for the Texas Democratic Party. “That’s what’s different about 2020. We did not make a single phone call. … We have not twisted a single arm about doing this.”
In past years, Maxey said, the party was often scrambling to find “any qualified attorney” to put on the ballot. This year, nearly every race involves at least one sitting judge or justice with years of experience.
It’s often easier to find Democrats interested in running for the top jobs — U.S. Senate, governor. But the depth of the bench for non-marquee statewide races, like the state’s two high courts and the Railroad Commission, is a measure of how high Democratic hopes have soared ahead of the 2020 election.
The judicial candidates still have to earn their spots on the ballot by gathering dozens of signatures in each of the state’s 14 appellate judicial districts. But assuming all do — most said in interviews that they are close to meeting the threshold, and the party has been helping — all but one primary race for the state’s high courts will be contested.
Democrats have not run a contested primary for the state’s high courts since 2008. As recently as last year, Democrats failed even to field a candidate in one race for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.
But “2020 is going to be the year when the blue tide overtakes the state,” said Chrysta Castañeda, a Democratic Dallas attorney seeking a seat on the Railroad Commission. “Our numbers are increasing. They were phenomenal in 2018, even over 2016 — all the movement is in that direction.”
The party is hoping to replicate a 2018 election cycle during which modest Democratic gains had outsized impacts on the judiciary. Democrats lost races for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general, but they won majorities on seven of the state’s 14 appeals courts; before the election, Democrats held seats on just three of those courts.
Their stars, the theory goes, have aligned again: a controversial Republican president at the top of the ticket bringing national attention (and dollars) to the state, an outright offensive to seize control of the Texas House, and helpful flukes of timing on the courts themselves. This year, due to personnel shifts, four seats are up for election on the Texas Supreme Court instead of the usual three. If Democrats were to sweep the races, the nine-member court — entirely Republican for more than two decades — would see a 5-4 party split. If a Democrat wins a seat on the Railroad Commission, it would be the first time the three-member governing board has included a Democrat since 1995.
“You saw what happened in 2018 — the numbers of people that had never voted before that came out to vote was outstanding,” said Justice Gisela Triana of the Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals. Triana, a longtime judge in Travis County who was among the Democrats who overtook the state’s urban appellate courts last year, is running this year for the Texas Supreme Court. “Everything shows that’s what’s going to happen in 2020. I’d like to feel like I’m doing my part in it.”
Democrats draw their hope from the tight margin between O’Rourke and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, at the top of the 2018 ballot. But Republicans, equally bullish on next year’s statewide ticket, would prefer to focus on another figure: In 2018, Democratic candidates for the high courts lost to Republicans by about 7 percentage points on average, a relatively consistent number across all the races that included candidates from both major parties.
“Republican judges in Texas have built a long and impressive track record of resisting the urge to legislate from the bench, and they are appropriately rewarded for that history by support from Texas voters,” said James Dickey, chairman of the state GOP. He added that “a significant portion” of party fundraising and operation efforts will be devoted to “ensuring that every Texan continues to benefit from a free and fair application of the rule of law.”
Judicial candidates are unlikely to be their party’s rock stars. They run low-information races and are the first to acknowledge that their campaigns are equal parts political engagement and civic education: Yes, we do elect our judges in Texas; yes, the Court of Criminal Appeals is important, too; no, I won’t tell you how I’ll rule on abortion cases.
Strategists sometimes consider statewide judicial races the best measure of the state’s true partisan split: Whom do voters pick when they know little or nothing about either party’s candidate?
Statewide judicial races are “important to watch in terms of partisan vote behavior,” said Mike Baselice, a GOP pollster. They show a “good reflection of base Democratic and base Republican vote in the state.”
That also means that judicial candidates typically rise and fall as a slate: Most likely, either all of them will win or none of them will, strategists acknowledge. It’s a blunt theory, but it offers clear strategic guidance: A rising tide lifts all boats.
“We won’t have them each deciding to be at the same chicken fry in Parker County on the same Friday,” Maxey said. Instead, he said, they’ll tell nominees, “We need you to travel. We need you to be making appearances as seven people in seven different media markets every day, so that people are hearing a Democratic message about equal justice, all over, everywhere.”
The biggest ripple effects, of course, will come from the very top of the ticket: the Democrats who take on President Donald Trump and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn.
Jerry Zimmerer, a justice elected last year to the Houston-based 14th Court of Appeals, acknowledged that his race for Texas Supreme Court “is probably going to be determined by the top of the ticket.”
“My goal was and continues to be to make sure that the Democrats have good quality candidates representing the party,” he said.
Dickey said he’s confident that Trump will carry the state — but even if he doesn’t, it’s not unusual for down-ballot candidates to outperform the top of the ticket. Most Republican judges on the ticket will be incumbents who have the advantage of having served, and in many cases, run, before.
But that hasn’t deterred candidates like Amy Clark Meachum, a longtime district judge in Travis County who hopes to defeat Chief Justice Nathan Hecht, a 30-year veteran of the Texas Supreme Court. If she wins, Meachum would be making history in more ways than one: She’d be the first female chief justice ever elected to the court.
Last month, she told supporters at a kickoff event at a North Austin restaurant that she’s gotten used to the question, “Can you win?”
“Yes!” roared back a room of optimistic Austin Democrats, gathered with their families on a rainy Tuesday to cheer on her campaign over beers, queso and the occasional chocolate milk. “Yes, you can!”
“Yes! Yes is the answer to that question,” Meachum agreed. “Yes, we can win. Even the skeptics will tell you: This is the best chance the Democratic party has had in 25 years.”