HOUSTON—At the very top of the printouts of vote totals tallied by Harris County election officials, above even the results of the presidential race, sits a very telling piece of data.
The number of straight party ticket voters in the largest county in Texas is almost exactly divided between Democrats and Republicans.
That’s an ominous sign for the GOP in a county where Republican candidates slapping elephant logos on their direct mail pieces once coasted to easy victory.
Indeed, the narrow difference – Democrats at 49.8 percent, Republicans at 49.4 percent -- was enough to cost many down ballot Republicans their elections. It explains why Democratic judges who sweated bullets going into Election Day woke up the next morning to discover they’d kept their jobs.
Just after the polls closed on election night, delighted Republican officials poring over the early vote totals predicted they might capture almost all of the countywide offices on the ballot.
“Are you ready for a sweep?” Paul Bettencourt, the always lively GOP strategist, screamed to the Republican crowd gathered at Ted Cruz’s Senate victory party. Alas, when the final votes were tallied, not only did the courthouse remain divided between the parties, President Obama had carried Harris County by 585 votes.
“The county is about equally divided, but people pick their way down the ballot,” said Mayor Annise Parker. “And that is a good sign for our democracy.”
To be sure, Republicans had plenty to celebrate. Cruz’s election was the centerpiece event of a night when the GOP retained some seats that seemed endangered, like Randy Weber’s victory that kept Ron Paul’s congressional district in Republican hands and State Rep. Sarah Davis’ convincing defeat of Democratic challenger Ann Johnson.
Still, the narrow Democratic advantage denied Republicans an opportunity to retake, not only more than a dozen judge’s jobs, but also the county attorney’s office.
This marks the second consecutive presidential election in which President Obama has carried Harris County. Once again, political analysts are pointing to it as evidence that the county’s demographic changes are gradually shifting power to Democrats.
“The base of the Republican Party, an older and Anglo vote, is simply—how can I say this? -- dying off,” said Bob Stein, the Rice University professor and KHOU political analyst. “Every four years, there’s a normal mortality rate and those voters aren’t getting replaced with younger Anglo Republican voters.”
“The Democratic base, particularly because of its Hispanic support, is increasing in number,” he said.