Beto and Joe Biden won Tarrant County. Can Democrats ride that to county judge seat?

Going into 2022, Tarrant Democrats see an opportunity to gain a majority on the Commissioners Court and continue to make inroads in a Republican county. While wins from Joe Biden and Beto O’Rourke give them hope, the question remains whether the county is turning purple.

After all, Democrats failed to flip five state House seats they targeted in 2020, and political experts say Biden’s and O’Rourke’s victories were likely the result of votes against unpopular candidates.

Three seats are in contention on the Tarrant County Commissioners Court: county judge, Precinct 2 and Precinct 4. The county judge and Precinct 4 seats have been Republican strongholds as County Judge Glen Whitley held his position for the last 15 years and J.D. Johnson of Precinct 4 is the longest-serving commissioner in history with 35 years under his belt.

In Precinct 2, Devan Allen, a Democrat, will seek reelection, her spokesperson Jay Jackson said. She beat Republican incumbent Andy Nguyen in 2018. Nguyen said he is considering running again. The commissioners serve four-year terms.

The county hasn’t had a Democratic judge since 1986 and political analysts say Democrats will have a hard time finding a candidate who can win Precinct 4.

Rick Barnes, chair of the Tarrant Republican Party, said he believes money will pour into a strong Democratic candidate because Tarrant is a targeted county.

“We will never discount the fact that they want to win elections as bad as we do, but this remains an extremely conservative county,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll allow it to go the liberal way of thinking.”

Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University, said the race for county judge will be especially important for Tarrant County Republicans because they don’t want to lose the one big county in the state that still leans Republican.

“This race will have statewide Republican interests because they will want to do everything they can to ensure that the party retains the county judgeship in Tarrant County,” Jones said.

Allison Campolo, founder of Tarrant Together and a candidate for the Tarrant County Democratic Party chair, said she likes her party’s chances if they can capitalize on the gains seen in the big races. But she also knows that the county-wide seats are hardest to win for Democrats and it will take a lot of groundwork for that to change.

“We have the opportunity to elect a strong Democrat who truly represents the people of this county,” Campolo said.

Barnes believes people recognize the importance of county commissioners after their actions were in the spotlight during the coronavirus pandemic.

Republicans have wasted no time in the race. Tim O’Hare, former Tarrant GOP chair, announced his candidacy for county judge in May, and Betsy Price followed in June.

Price’s name recognition and centrist views, which is a plus for undecided voters, makes her a favorite going into the March 2022 Republican Primary, TCU political science professor James Riddlesperger said. O’Hare, on the other hand, represents the current Republican Party and has garnered support from those similar in views, he said.

Two Republicans have announced their candidacy for Precinct 4, which covers West Fort Worth and Northwest Tarrant County: Joe D. “Jody” Johnson, J.D. Johnson’s son and Precinct 4 constable, and Manny Ramirez, president of the Fort Worth Police Officers Association.

Democrats on the other hand have stayed quiet.

For Democrats to have a chance, a couple of things need to happen, Jones said. A strong candidate needs to win the nomination and state and national trends need to go against Republicans.

Deborah Peoples’ name has floated around among Democrats. Both Riddlesperger and Jones agree she has the name recognition and fundraising power to mount a challenge. Asked if she would run, Peoples issued a statement saying the county judge seat is “one of many avenues for progress in Tarrant County and North Texas, and we can’t afford to miss any opportunity out there.”

On her personal Facebook page, Peoples posted “County Judge?” on her timeline on June 16. She received an outpouring of support. Peoples most recently ran for Fort Worth mayor, ultimately losing to Mattie Parker in the June 5 runoff.

With Peoples, the county has a chance to elect someone who represents everyone in the county and will have their best interests at heart, Campolo said.

Peoples can fix policies such as 287(g), which allows sheriff’s deputies to act as ICE agents in jails, and address the weak messaging to minority communities about the coronavirus pandemic, Campolo said.

To be successful though, Campolo said Democrats need to hit the ground running and increase voter turnout. She believes that when they go door-to-door they find most county residents tend to lean left, but they just don’t go out and vote.

Even if Peoples runs, Jones said it will be difficult because she wasn’t able to win Fort Worth, which is more favorable to Democrats than the county at large.

Whitley said if he could, he would want to get rid of partisanship on the Commissioners Court because he believes most decisions are not made on party views, but instead on what is best for the residents of the county.

“We deal with people that have problems,” Whitley said. “And we’re not asking them whether they’re Republican or Democrat.”