All politics are local — or at least they used to be.
Donald Trump isn’t on the Tarrant County primary ballot, but as national politics invade local elections, his opinion could influence key county positions. Out of 33 endorsements President Trump made in Texas races, two are local candidates – Tim O’Hare for county judge and Phil Sorrells for district attorney of Tarrant County.
Trump’s endorsement may have less to do with policy and more to do with the race itself, said Mark Jones, a fellow in political science at Rice University’s Baker Institute. Regardless, the success of Trump’s endorsement of Tarrant County candidates could be a bellwether for increasingly partisan local government campaigns in the future.
“The commissioners court begins to mirror the Texas Legislature, which has begun to mirror the US House – it’s increasingly polarized,” Jones said.
The trend has extended to other large counties, Jones said. In Harris County, where a more liberal county government dominates, discussions about the commissioners court are focused on partisanship rather than bread-and-butter local policy.
Trump’s endorsement is a part of that trend, said Carlos Rovelo, a professor of government at Tarrant County College.
“It’s a new phenomenon,” he said. “When we are involved at the local level, that’s where our investment is, what happens on the ground in our neighborhood. But now we are asked to align ourselves with views that have nothing to do with the local level.”
Politics is more present in people’s everyday lives than it has ever been before, O’Hare said, so local politics naturally become more political.
“I would also say there’s no such thing as a nonpartisan race anymore,” O’Hare said. “Would it be nice in many respects if everyone’s ideas were similar and everyone loved America? Or course it would … But that’s not where we are.”
But Deborah Peoples, the Democratic candidate for county judge, said Tarrant County voters don’t want hyper-partisanship in local election. When she ran for Fort Worth mayor, Peoples received high-profile endorsements from national political figures like Bernie Sanders and Beto O’Rourke.
“One of the things that make us unique is that Tarrant County has worked very hard not to get caught up in all the divisiveness,” Peoples said. “And that’s a lesson that I’ve had to learn.”
Trump’s endorsement is synonymous with divisiveness, Peoples argues, which will turn more moderate voters off in the general election. More importantly, though, partisanship has no place setting the agenda for the Tarrant County Commissioners Court, Peoples said.
“Partisanship can’t play a role in governance because we’re about a 50/50 county… You have to create opportunities for 100% of the residents, and that means you can’t do partisanship,” Peoples said.
How to secure a Trump endorsement
Bovo is the first local candidate to be endorsed by Trump, Vito Fossella, a candidate for Staten Island borough president, was second, O’Hare and Sorrells are the third and fourth. The language of Trump’s endorsements is similar, but Trump’s singling out of these four candidates likely had less to do with issues, Jones said, and more to do with who has the president’s ear.
O’Hare isn’t sure why Trump chose to endorse candidates in Tarrant County. Republican leaders reached out to Trump on O’Hare’s behalf, he said, urging the former president to endorse in a race that is key to Texas’ political future, O’Hare said.
That is how endorsements typically happen, Jones explained. The profile of the race also matters, Tarrant County and Hialeah are just large enough to warrant the president’s attention.
“It would be strange for him to intervene in say, Rockwall County or any of the smaller counties,” Jones said. “At the same time, I think he wants to go into a place where the person he endorses has a good, if not great, chance of winning in November.”
Tarrant, Texas’ third-largest county, is not the slam dunk Republican seat it used to be, Rovelo said. As demographics change, the county is the bluest it has been in decades.
“That makes it more important that Tarrant stays conservative because if Tarrant keeps going in that (Democratic) direction, that will have tremendous implications for the Republican agenda in the very near future,” Rovelo said.
Donald Trump’s representatives did not respond to requests for comments about his decision to endorse Tarrant County candidates.
County judge race
After winning in the primary and avoiding a runoff with former Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, O’Hare partially attributed the success of his campaign to Trump’s endorsement.
“I told President Trump, ‘Sir, if you endorse me, I don’t think there’ll be a runoff,’” O’Hare said to the crowd and received big applause. The Trump endorsement, while positive, does not define his campaign.
“I’m my own man, I make decisions that I think are best and I have a broad base of support,” O’Hare said.
O’Hare will reach out to all voters as he continues his campaign in the general election, he said. Trump remains very popular among Republican voters in Tarrant County. Trump is viewed favorably by 89% of Republican voters in Texas. He thinks the endorsement will remain an advantage going into the General Election.
“We still need Republicans to get out and vote… I think what Democrats should focus on is… Do they want good common sense government? and I think the answer is absolutely,” O’Hare said.
Trump is viewed unfavorably by 51% of Texas voters. Peoples argues that puts her at an advantage.
“I’m focused on reaching out to all the citizens of Tarrant County, not just some citizens in Tarrant County,” Peoples said. “That’s the kind of leader they want, not somebody who’s listening to a resident of Mar-a-Lago.”
O’Hare won by a fairly large margin in the primary, which Jones attributes to Trump’s endorsement. Price had higher name identification than O’Hare going into the race, but O’Hare also reaped the benefits of circumstances outside of Trump’s endorsement.
“The Trump endorsement reinforced O’Hare’s message that he was the true conservative in the race and that Betsy Price was not,” Jones said.
The race for district attorney has a different dynamic entirely, Jones said. Based on Matt Krause’s record in the state Legislature, it would be difficult for the Trump-endorsed Sorrells to paint his opponent as anything but a true conservative. That’s why he isn’t campaigning on who is more conservative, Sorrells said.
“We agree on almost every issue… the biggest difference is that I have experience in the courthouse and he doesn’t,” Sorrells said.
Legislative and leadership experience are more important than trial experience, Krause argues.
“My experience and my skill set actually equip me better for the current needs and demands of the district attorney position than somebody who’s been a judge or a former prosecutor,” Krause said.
Trump issued his endorsement for Sorrells a week and a half before Election Day. His campaign will be able to better leverage the endorsement in the lead-up to the runoff, Sorrells said.
“I think it will have a positive impact on voters. He is very liked and respected,” Sorrells said.
Krause also boasts an endorsement from a national political figure, Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican. Cruz is viewed favorably by 81% of Republicans in Texas, which evens the score when it comes to national endorsements, Krause argues.
“We also have Sheriff Bill Waybourn as well, which I think is kind of a wild card in this race, because nobody works more closely with the district attorney than the sheriff’s office,” Krause said.
An endorsement from Trump may not have the same positive impact on voters in the General Election, Jones said.
“But without Trump’s endorsement, getting to November would have been much more difficult, if not impossible,” he added.
Sorrells is focused squarely on the runoff election with Krause, he said. Their Democratic opponent, Tiffany Burks, faced Albert Roberts and Larry Meyers in her primary race. Roberts was well-funded by a nationally backed political action committee. She avoided a runoff by winning the Democratic primary with over 60% of the vote.
Partisanship shouldn’t have a place in the county’s criminal justice system, Burks said.
“When it comes to everyday people being prosecuted for criminal acts… we have to be as fair, just, objective and unbiased as possible,” Burks said.
It’s a mistake to determine party favor based on how closely a candidate aligns with a national party platform, she added.
“The Tarrant County voter is smart enough to understand what qualifications are really important, and they’re going to be looking for candidates that they know are going to get the work done,” Burks said.
The Tarrant County District Attorney race is one of five races – two for statewide office and two in the Texas Legislature – across the state that includes a Trump-backed candidate heading to a runoff election.
The results of those runoffs could be illustrative of Trump’s impact on candidates’ success, Jones said. Among Texas Republicans at least, he remains a bellwether for the party.
“Donald Trump remains the most popular political figure among Texas Republicans,” Jones said, “so no endorsement is worth more among Texas Republican primary votes, than that of Donald Trump.”
Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.