Even Julián Castro, the best-known Texas Democrat after O’Rourke, told The Atlantic this week that the incumbent “had a strong reputation as being bipartisan.” Emmett supported expanding Medicaid in the state and led the charge for a $2.5 billion bond measure that slightly increased property taxes to pay for flood-control efforts. He was endorsed by a longtime Houston Democratic state representative and he endorsed the Democrat challenging Dan Patrick, the GOP lieutenant governor adored by the Tea Party who got his start as a talk-show host in the Houston area.
Voters rejected Emmett along with every other county-level Republican, electing Hidalgo as well as a judicial candidate who didn’t appear to be running a formal campaign and who previously faced charges of dating violence. The Chronicle editorialized, “Our zeal to throw out the bums cost us some of our best servants.”
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Among Hidalgo’s first words in an interview Wednesday: “It wasn’t an accident.” She was pushing back on arguments that she only won because anti-Trump sentiment led to record turnout and spurred Democratic straight-ticket voting. This was the last year with that option for Texas voters, as the GOP-controlled legislature joined other states in ending a practice that ignores individual candidates’ record or qualifications. According to the county clerk—another Republican who lost a reelection bid—Democrats saw a lead of more than 100,000 ballots among straight-ticket voters. Hidalgo won the election by fewer than 18,000 votes.
“For us, it’s going away one election too late,” lamented Vlad Davidiuk, the spokesman for the county’s Republican Party. Even the day after the election, he blasted Hidalgo as “absolutely and indisputably unqualified for this position … There was no appeal to Lina Hidalgo’s qualities or qualifications. She has none. It’s completely a fluke.”
Many people inside and outside Texas scratch their head at the title of “county judge”; it’s the county government’s executive officer. Only in sparsely populated counties do county judges still maintain any sort of a judicial role. The Harris County judge oversees a $3.7 billion budget and nearly 17,000 county employees with responsibilities ranging from law enforcement to hospitals to road construction to flood control.
“This is the most powerful office [in Texas] outside of a statewide office,” said Castro, who served as President Barack Obama’s housing-and-urban-development secretary and as San Antonio’s mayor. Texas political scientists say that’s a fair assessment, perhaps tied with the mayor of Houston. But they say Hidalgo can’t take much credit for winning the post.
“It’s effectively straight-ticket voting, pure and simple,” said Mark Jones, a Rice University political scientist and a leading expert on Texas politics. “It wasn’t about her. She was elected because of straight-ticket Democratic votes, which were fueled largely by a strong Democratic-turnout machine, opposition to Donald Trump, and Beto O’Rourke’s appeal. And she didn’t do anything to disqualify herself … At the margins, being a Latina tends to be slightly positive. But by and large, the Democratic Party won that election, not Lina Hidalgo.”