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In Democrats’ low-information judicial primaries, gender and ballot names may drive voters’ decisions

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2020 is the first time in 12 years that Democrats are running a contested primary for the state’s high courts. Marjorie Kamys Cotera for The Texas Tribune

A little internet research reveals that Gisela Triana has been on the bench for more than two decades; that Jerry Zimmerer, now running for office as a Democrat, has in the past run as a Republican; and that as a judge and attorney, Tina Clinton has tried more than 400 criminal cases. But as Texas primary voters walk into the polls March 3, most are unlikely to have that or any information about the 14 Democratic candidates competing this year for seats on the state’s two high courts.

What they will be able to discern is that many of the primary races for Texas Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals pit men against women, a happenstance that could prove more influential than any individual candidate’s qualifications.

When voters don’t know much about who they’re choosing among — as is typically the case in judicial races — “what you do is grasp at whatever information shortcuts you can get,” said Victoria DeFrancesco Soto, who studies identity and politics at the University of Texas LBJ School of Public Affairs. “Demographic cues that come through in our names are important.”

Thanks to fundraising limits, subdued campaigns and voter ignorance, statewide judicial races in Texas tend to be high-stakes, low-excitement affairs. This year’s experimental design — a high-turnout presidential primary, a slate of low-information judicial races, many gender-split contests — makes the 2020 Democratic primary seem like a better test of ballot names and gender preferences than it is a referendum on candidate qualifications.

That leaves the 14 Democratic candidates vying for seven seats on the courts working hard to drum up name recognition and support in a primary election that in 2008 drew nearly 2.9 million voters — but knowing that their hard work and experience can only take them so far.

“I never want to stand on the sidelines and let things happen,” said Triana, an appellate justice in Austin who is running this year for Supreme Court. “But at the same time, 90% of the people who vote are not going to know who I am, and you shouldn’t take that personally.”

When voters know little about candidates, they seek out “free information” on the ballot, said Bob Stein, a Rice University political scientist who studies voting behavior. That may mean choosing an incumbent over a newcomer or voting based on party affiliation during a general election. But Texas’ two high courts are populated entirely by Republicans, meaning no Democrat has an incumbency advantage, though some who have served for years in a particular part of the state may see a boost from voters there. Newspaper endorsements can also help candidates at the margins, experts said.

But “your default advantage is going to be to the woman,” said Keir Murray, a Democratic consultant in Houston who is working for Peter Kelly, an appellate judge running for Texas Supreme Court. “In my experience, if voters don’t know much of anything about these candidates, we’re likely to see a lot of women voters voting for women candidates. … The women in races where they’ve got a matchup with a man have a big advantage going in.”

Women make up a larger share of the electorate than men.

Democratic candidate for Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Tina Clinton at the Texas Justice Tour event in Cedar Park on Feb. 16, 2020.
Democratic candidate for Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Tina Clinton at the Texas Justice Tour event in Cedar Park on Feb. 16, 2020. Marjorie Kamys Cotera for The Texas Tribune

Democratic candidate for Texas Supreme Court Justice Gisela Triana at the Texas Justice Tour event in Cedar Park on Feb. 16, 2020.
Democratic candidate for Texas Supreme Court Justice Gisela Triana at the Texas Justice Tour event in Cedar Park on Feb. 16, 2020. Marjorie Kamys Cotera for The Texas Tribune

Democratic candidate for Texas Supreme Court Brandy Voss at the Texas Justice Tour event in Cedar Park on Feb. 16, 2020.
Democratic candidate for Texas Supreme Court Brandy Voss at the Texas Justice Tour event in Cedar Park on Feb. 16, 2020. Marjorie Kamys Cotera for The Texas Tribune

From left: Democratic judicial candidates Tina Clinton, Gisela Triana and Brandy Voss. Clinton is seeking a seat on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals; Triana and Voss are vying for seats on the Texas Supreme Court.

Marjorie Kamys Cotera for The Texas Tribune

Of the six contested primaries, four pit one man against one woman: Houston attorney Kathy Cheng versus Dallas attorney Larry Praeger for Texas Supreme Court Place 6, appellate judge Gisela Triana versus appellate judge Peter Kelly for Texas Supreme Court Place 7, trial judge Amy Clark Meachum versus appellate judge Jerry Zimmerer for chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, and trial judge Tina Clinton versus Southlake attorney Steve Miears for Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Place 4.

Two women, McAllen attorney Brandy Voss and Dallas district court judge Staci Williams, are competing for one other Supreme Court seat, and three candidates are running for another Court of Criminal Appeals slot: Houston attorney William Pieratt Demond, former Dallas Judge Elizabeth Davis Frizell and attorney Dan Wood. Just one Democratic candidate, Dallas judge Brandon Birmingham, is running unopposed, for a seat on the Court of Criminal Appeals.

[Read voter guides on judicial races from The Dallas Morning News and Houston Chronicle.]

“Who knows what voters think? You might want to ask the political consultants,” said Praeger, who said he has made his campaign about his experience. “I’ve just tried to run on my message, and that was kind of it.”

In a poll of several thousand members of the state bar, Democratic women outpaced their male opponents in every race. But in every matchup, Republican incumbent justices won the largest vote share.

It’s the first time in 12 years that Democrats are running a contested primary for the state’s high courts. As recently as 2018, the party failed to even field a candidate in one race for the Court of Criminal Appeals.

“It’s exciting, as a Democrat, that we have so many qualified candidates for so many statewide positions,” Kelly said. “It’s a sign of the health and vitality of the party.”

Still, even as Democrats hope for blue wave in a high-turnout presidential election, their races are run with little fanfare and minimal funding. Most candidates have been crisscrossing the state, appearing at local Democratic events, seeking endorsements from legal groups and relying on inexpensive social media advertising.

Much of a high court campaign is voter education: Many voters are unaware that judges are elected in Texas, and even fewer can name any sitting judges. Judicial candidates have to keep their campaigns relatively dry; many Democrats are promising to restore balance to the all-Republican high courts, for example. Judicial canons of ethics typically prevent candidates from stating explicit political views or indicating how they might rule in specific cases.

In the most recent reporting period, no Democratic candidate had more than Voss’ $161,726.12, a haul that includes a $100,000 loan she took out. In Texas’ pricey media markets, it’s all but impossible to reach voters across the state on that sum. On the Republican side, the cash-on-hand leader was Justice Jeff Boyd, with $562,533.97

There is only one high court primary race on the Republican side, between incumbent Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Bert Richardson and challenger Gina Parker.

“Voters know so little about these candidates for these very important offices — in some cases deciding life and death — that they’re just picking names in many cases. It’s a bit mind-boggling,” Murray said. “I don’t know that there’s any ideal way to do it, but this seems less than ideal.”

The Texas Supreme Court, which has heard cases in recent years on same-sex marriage benefits and state versus local power, is Texas’ last stop for civil matters. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals plays a similar role, deciding death penalty appeals among other criminal matters ranging from drug charges to murder.

Many voters will likely drop off before they get to the high court contests; in the 2018 Democratic primary, more than 1 million people voted in the ticket-leading U.S. Senate race, but just 875,000 voted for Texas Supreme Court candidates.

Some voters may skip a race between unknown candidates. But “if one’s Jerry and one’s Amy, that’s a difference that might be substantial,” Stein said.

Meachum, who will compete in that race, said she’s confident that voters “want a bench that looks like the people it serves.”

“I think there is an opportunity for women in this primary,” she said. “But we’re going to keep fighting for every vote right up until the end.”

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin and Rice University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.