DALLAS — Defying a national trend, Democrats in Dallas County were poised Tuesday to continue their dominance by returning to office an entire slate of incumbents and seizing control of the commissioners court.
Incumbent District Attorney Craig Watkins, District Clerk Gary Fitzsimmons, County Clerk John Warren and nearly all of the party's judicial candidates were close to narrow victories.
More significantly, Democrat Clay Jenkins beat Republican Wade Emmert for county judge and former Dallas Mayor Pro Tem Elba Garcia unseated longtime Commissioner Kenneth Mayfield in the District 4 race. That combination gives Democrats a majority on the court for the first time in the post-Ronald Reagan era.
Jenkins' victory was helped by Libertarian Debra Carlson, who got more than 3 percent of the vote.
"It's going to be so sweet," Dallas County Party chairwoman Darlene Ewing said of Tuesday's results. "To have Clay Jenkins and Elba Garcia on the court will change its climate. They will do good things for Dallas County."
The night for Democrats, however, was bittersweet.
While they triumphed in their countywide contests, their statehouse incumbents and challengers were routed by Republicans.
And because of the closeness of the countywide races, Republicans say they have a beachhead for future battles.
"There is no question that the Republican Party is back," said GOP Party chairman Jonathan Neerman said.
In 2006 Democrats, led by Watkins, staged stunning upsets to sweep Republicans out of power.
Caught up in Barack Obama's presidential campaign jet stream, Democrats followed up those wins with more impressive victories in 2008.
But this year's midterm elections proved to be challenging for the party. The national political climate favored Republicans and the strong, unsettling winds against Washington and President Obama were predicted by many to blow Democratic incumbents out of Dallas County.
Races that once were thought to be in the bag, including Watkins' re-election bid against Clancy, a former criminal court judge, became rough, bitter campaigns with uncertain outcomes.
Watkins, a national media darling for his work to exonerate the wrongly convicted, was one of the Democratic Party's lowest performers, the result perhaps of several missteps during the campaign.
Democrats took advantage of their considerable resources and their ability to get residents to cast votes solely along party lines. Election results showed that numerous county residents voted the straight ticket, which helped Democrats to offset a higher Republican turnout in northern Dallas.
Party operatives also used Republican attacks against Obama to energize a base that slept most of the summer, but seemed to awaken when the battle hymn "Defend Change" rang out on black-themed radio stations and campaign signs throughout southern Dallas.
Meanwhile Watkins, under heavy fire from Republicans because of his handling of allegations against two county constables, reminded voters that his "smart on crime" approach led to the establishment of a conviction integrity unit, elder abuse unit, gang unit, rape unit and other programs.
Democrats like Fitzsimmons and Warren touted cost-saving efficiencies they installed in their offices.
Incumbent judges worked hard to reduce the backlogs that plagued the court.
Millions of dollars were pumped in from inside and outside the state.
But ultimately, Democrats pinned their hopes on a massive voter turnout effort from all sides that appeared to do the trick in countywide races at least.
Republicans were hoping the national tide would lead to a local renaissance of their beleaguered party. They made a calculated move to challenge Watkins at a time when he seemed unbeatable and made replacing the district attorney the symbol of their campaign to climb back into power.
The nasty campaign reached a climax when Republicans implied that Watkins stole the wheels and rims off Clancy's SUV.
"That was just absurd," state Rep. Royce West, D-Dallas, said. "Those attacks on Watkins and President Obama energized the base."
The scandal involving U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson , who improperly awarded Congressional Black Caucus scholarships to her grandchildren and the children of her top Dallas aide, also provided an opening for Republicans to exploit.
But Johnson won her race easily and Democrats produced just enough votes to win.
Even with the prospect of countywide losses, Neerman said the political dynamic of the county had changed.
"Compared to where we were two years ago, we are well on our way," he said.