Three. 

That’s the magic number that determines whether the Republican or Democratic parties will clinch control of the five-member Tarrant County Commissioners Court. Who voters pick for their next county judge and two commissioner seats will determine the direction of the Tarrant County government for at least the next two years.

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Republicans likely have the edge to retain the majority of the Commissioners Court, said Thomas Marshall, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. The Commissioners Court has been led by a conservative majority for decades.

“This is turning out to be a reasonably good year again for Republicans. Maybe not a landslide year, but a reasonably good year,” Marshall said.

Both parties will each start with one seat: Republican Gary Fickes is the Precinct 3 commissioner and Democrat Roy Charles Brooks is the Precinct 1 commissioner. 

Republicans are all but certain to win the Precinct 4 commissioner contest, Marshall said. Republican Manny Ramirez and Democrat Cedric Kanyinda are vying to be the Precinct 4 commissioner in the GOP-dominant northwest corner of Tarrant County. Republican J.D. Johnson represented Precinct 4 for nearly 40 years; he is retiring.

Control of the Commissioners Court comes down to two seats: the contest between Republican Tim O’Hare and Democrat Deborah Peoples for county judge and the match between Republican Andy Nguyen and Democrat Alisa Simmons for the Arlington-area Precinct 2 commissioner seat. 

Both are considered competitive.

Republicans need to win one of those races to keep control of the Commissioners Court. Democrats need both.

County judge

Democrat Deborah Peoples (left) and Republican Tim O’Hare (right) at their respective campaign event parties following the primaries. (Rachel Behrndt | Fort Worth Report)

Republicans have held the county judge seat since 1986. Republican Glen Whitley is the current county judge, and he is leaving the Commissioners Court after almost 30 years.

O’Hare leads in fundraising. For every $1 Peoples has raised, he has brought in $5. Since announcing his campaign, O’Hare has raised nearly $1.8 million. Peoples has brought in $338,589, according to campaign finance reports.

Elections come down to votes, not money. However, money matters and donors signal the type of support candidates will receive, Marshall said.

Peoples is trying to woo some Republican voters to her side. She is running an ad featuring two Republicans who say they are voting for Peoples because the GOP is too extreme for them. In the GOP primary, O’Hare defeated former Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, a moderate Republican who had the support of the political establishment of the county’s largest city.

Republicans, including O’Hare and county GOP chair Rick Barnes, have dismissed the idea that Peoples is taking votes from them.

What is a county judge?

A county judge is effectively the mayor of the county. The officeholder is the chief executive of the county government and leads the commissioners court.

Luring potential crossover voters is a tough strategy for candidates of either party, Marshall said. Although some business leaders backed Price, O’Hare’s large war chest shows most big donors are sticking with the Republican Party, Marshall said.

“She’s perceived as not very business friendly,” the professor said.

Marshall described the Democrats’ slate of local candidates as a credible ticket. However, he said Peoples has twice lost bids to be mayor of Fort Worth, which is generally thought of as the most Democrat-friendly part of the county.

Democrats see other encouraging signs. The county narrowly went for Democrats Beto O’Rourke and Joe Biden in 2018 and 2020.

However, as two Democrats won Tarrant County, Republicans won elsewhere on the ballot. In 2018, Gov. Greg Abbott and Whitley still emerged victorious. 

For decades, Tarrant County has had a fiscally conservative government, Ramirez said. The commissioner candidate does not see that changing. The GOP has to keep the county judge seat, Ramirez added.

“It’s crucial we maintain conservative Republican leadership in the county,” Ramirez said.

Precinct 2 commissioner

Democrats believe their party has some advantages in the Precinct 2 commissioner race. The current office holder, Devan Allen, is a Democrat, but she decided not to seek a second term. 

Allison Campolo, the Tarrant County Democratic Party chair, acknowledged her party is playing  defense to keep the Precinct 2 seat. However, she said her party is focusing on the entire county and sending canvassing teams to key areas that do not have high turnout, such as parts of Fort Worth and southeast areas of Tarrant County.

Precinct 2, which covers southeast Tarrant County, is the county’s most populous and second- most diverse precinct. More than 532,000 people live in the precinct, and 36.17% of residents identify as non-Hispanic white, according to 2020 census data. The precinct includes Arlington, Mansfield and Grand Prairie.

Marshall sees the demographics of Precinct 2 as favorable for Democrats. However, fundraising paints a different picture in this commissioner race, he said. 

Since 2021, Nguyen has raised $327,277 and Simmons has brought in $38,924, according to campaign finance reports.

Nguyen’s name recognition and eight years as commissioner likely fueled the size of his war chest, Marshall said. 

Getting Nguyen back on the Commissioners Court is important for Ramirez.

“Having conservative members of the Commissioners Court is the best way to effectively lead a local government,” he said. 

Simmons’ smaller haul could be seen as a lack of support from members of her own party or a sign of the Democratic Party’s countywide push, he said. 

Campolo stressed Simmons will be able to win and keep Precinct 2 with the Democrats.

“(Simmons is) a wonderful candidate and a well known, long-term invested community leader in Tarrant County in the Arlington area where she’s running,” Campolo said. “I have no doubt whatsoever that she’ll be able to defend the seats for the Democrats.” 

Democrat Alisa Simmons and Republican Andy Nguyen are seeking to replace Democrat Devan Allen as Precinct 2 commissioner on the Tarrant County Commissioners Court. The precinct is considered competitive, with the seat turning from red to blue in 2018 after Nguyen’s loss to Allen. (Campaign photos)

Other factors

Other races are likely to impact local races.

The most recent campaign finance reports for both parties and their political action committees show each side is working to ensure they come on top on Election Day. 

The Tarrant County Democratic Party had $425 in cash on hand, according to a Sept. 19 report filed with the Texas Ethics Commission. The Democrats’ PAC brought in more than the Tarrant County GOP PAC. Through July, the Tarrant County Democratic Party PAC raised $134,316, spent $154,520 and had $16,804 in cash on hand.

However, the Tarrant County GOP PAC has a far larger savings account. The PAC raised $52,580, spent $49,696 and had $72,838 in its war chest. The Tarrant County Republican Party had $31,867 in cash on hand in July, according to the Texas Ethics Commission. The cash on hand that candidates and parties report also includes money rolled over from previous fundraising periods.

Marshall pointed to the top of the ticket, where voters are set to decide who will be the next governor of Texas, as the race with the most potential to impact county-level contests. 

Both parties have gubernatorial candidates at the top of the ballot who are strong and could help some down ballot races, Marshall said. Abbott and O’Rourke both play well to the bases of their parties, the political science professor said. Both men are well funded with high name recognition, too.

The removal of straight-ticket voting likely will impact this election. 

A 2017 state law eliminated straight-ticket voting, a process that let voters cast a ballot for all of their chosen political party’s candidates. The law went into effect in 2020. Removing that option likely helps Republicans, Marshall said.

Voters have to go pick their candidates race by race now. Voters have to be motivated enough to go through their entire ballot, Marshall said.

“What we’re also watching is how loyal each party’s top of the ticket voters will come down and vote for the remaining people, even though there are a lot of them on the ballot,” Marshall said.

Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at jacob.sanchez@fortworthreport.org 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.

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Jacob Sanchez

Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise reporter for the Fort Worth Report. His work has appeared in the Temple Daily Telegram, The Texas Tribune and the Texas Observer. He is a graduate of St. Edward’s University.