Will a donation by Interim Bowie County Judge Bobby Howell to Obama official against Sen. John Cornyn complicate his 2020 Republican primary race?

Editor's note: This is the first in a series of analytical opinion articles on local races in the ArkLaTex for the 2020 election cycle. We operate under the "horserace political journalism" style to determine who's up and who's down. This article will assess Interim Judge Bobby Howell's chances to win the 2020 special election for Bowie County Judge.

Bobby Howell kicked off the discussion of local races for the 2020 primary season by immediately announcing his candidacy for the special election to fill the unexpired term of Judge James Carlow only moments after he was appointed interim county judge.

All candidates for Democrat and Republican nominations in local races have to make their intentions known in the next few months.

Even though Interim Judge Howell has announced his candidacy, official filing for the race begins on November 9, 2019, and it concludes at the end of business on December 9, 2019, for the Tuesday, March 3, 2020, primary election.

Introducing Bobby Howell

One week ago, we all learned that Howell, who has represented some of the Texarkana area's largest employers as a real estate attorney, was named Interim Bowie County Judge following the retirement of Judge James Carlow.

Howell will serve as an interim judge until the winner of the 2020 special election takes the oath of office. The winner of this race will serve for two years but may then run for a full four-year term in 2022.

Howell's online resume at Langdon Davis Attorneys and Counselors LLP (with offices in Texarkana and New Boston) lists clients he has worked with, including the Truman Arnold Company, Orr Auto Group, Christus St. Michael Health System, Williamson Construction Co., and DPG Partners, LLC.

By all accounts, most people who know Howell seem to really like him. He says his primary residence is in De Kalb, Texas, but he announced that he spends a few nights a week in Texarkana, Arkansas.

After the commissioners voted, Howell announced to local news outlets that he had no agenda for his new office and wanted to continue what Judge Carlow had already started. Howell also said he would have an "open-door policy" and that he had no plans to increase local taxes. Click here to see the interview.

Passing the baton

It was great political theater as Bobby Howell was announced as Interim Bowie County Judge and spoke from atop the large staircase at the Bowie County Courthouse in New Boston on Monday and then slowly walked into the arms of adoring friends, family and observers.

In early September, James Carlow had disclosed that he was leaving office on September 30 after serving only 9 months in office of a four-year term.

The selection was completed in relative secrecy, and Bobby Howell appeared to be the only candidate being considered for the job when commissioners met to vote on October 1.


The 2020 special election

After the announcement of his appointment, Interim Judge Howell immediately proclaimed that he would be a candidate for the special election in 2020 to fill Judge Carlow's unexpired term.

However, last week, it was not clear if Howell would run as a Democrat, Republican, or Independent.

Howell would almost certainly have to run as a Republican to win the special election in Bowie County on Tuesday, November 3, 2020 — unless he ran unopposed as a Democrat or an Independent.

Any candidate without an "R" by his/her name in any local office would be significantly disadvantaged in a high-turnout general election with a presidential race being decided unless a candidate had no opposition in Bowie County.

Even Judge James Carlow had to switch to the Republican Party to return to the judge's office in New Boston after being ousted by the late former Judge Sterling Lacy.

Since it was not 100% evident if Howell would run as a Democrat, Republican, or Independent, we called and asked his office to find out.

His staff member called back and told us that he said he was a Republican.

What are Howell's chances?

This race will be won or lost in the Republican primary. Interim Judge Howell will only have been in office for about one month before candidates begin to file their candidacy papers for county offices in early November.

So what are the reasons Bobby Howell will win? And what are the reasons he might lose?

The 5 reasons Bobby Howell will win the Republican primary

1. There's a chance that Bobby Howell will be unopposed in the 2020 special election — especially since he has now identified himself as a Republican.  It must be noted that Judge James Carlow was unopposed in the 2018 election.

In the event of a challenge, Howell might even be able to persuade someone not to oppose him or even pull out of the race. US Sen. Lindsey Graham is famous for turning would-be opponents into allies in his home state of South Carolina.

2. The theatrics on display last Monday (including his announcement to run in the special election) were carefully staged. This was beneficial to Howell's public image and could have discouraged potential challengers for 2020.

If this level of stagecraft is indicative of Howell's 2020 campaign, it bodes well for his chances if he has an opponent in the Republican primary.

Howell also received a mountain of positive press when he was announced as interim judge. Most new officeholders bask in a "honeymoon phase," and Howell's "honeymoon" will fall during the weeks leading up to the filing deadline for the 2020 special election.

3. Bobby Howell dramatically benefits from the careful timing of former Judge James Carlow's retirement, which neatly fell on the perfect dates for any successor.

James Carlow would have to be a fool to retire nine months into a four-year term, not knowing who his successor would be. And we all know Judge Carlow is no fool.

Since there are very few accidents in politics, Carlow's retirement date and Howell's selection were likely planned in advance with political motives in mind.

Therefore, we have to assume that most of former Judge Carlow's allies will line up behind Howell — with the former judge's blessing.

4. Incumbency usually improves electoral chances. So it is likely that the local business and real estate community that Howell comes from will rally around his candidacy along with most commercial entities who deal with Bowie County.

Furthermore, institutions that deal with county issues such as school districts, the TexAmericas Center, and other groups will likely not officially back Howell. But their endorsement of the incumbent might be implied through public displays of thanks on various issues, and this could prove helpful in a contested Republican primary battle.

5. Howell's pledge to not raise taxes will be popular, and this could swing some voters to his side in a contested primary.

The 3 reasons Interim Judge Howell might lose the Republican primary


1. Howell's statement to the media of "I don't have an agenda" is a political mistake and an unforced error.

Even if it's true, no one — absolutely no one — will believe that a lawyer for some of Bowie County's most prominent employers that has just been appointed interim county judge AND announced his candidacy for the special election in 2020 has no agenda.

It does not make logical sense, and it will cause people to make up all sorts of things that Howell might want to do secretly without telling the public.

It would have been much better for Howell to mention a few things he wanted to change even if one of them was as innocuous as a more robust recycling program — anything but saying he doesn't have an agenda at all.

Whether the charge has any merit or not, any opponent of Howell will imply that the real estate lawyer who comes from a law firm with offices in the county seat of New Boston and the county's biggest city of Texarkana is focusing his attention on enriching himself and/or people around him while letting the county basically roll along on its own.

A negative online web ad or cable tv ad could write itself and include the video from last Monday with Howell saying over and over "I don't have an agenda" and a narrator stating that Bowie County having a well-connected real estate attorney as a county judge with no agenda is akin to having a fox guarding the henhouse.

The good news for Howell is that he likely has the skills to fix this problem by using tools he already has in his "attorney's toolbox." Plus, the new interim judge has to make at least a few public announcements detailing issues he plans to address in office.

2. Bobby Howell said his primary residence is in De Kalb, but he spends "one or two nights a week" at a second residence in Texarkana, Arkansas, due to his wife's charity involvement.

This is probably just a small problem for Howell, but it's still a problem.

The announcement of the second home was obviously meant to stop local chatter such as: "I know for a fact Bobby Howell lives on the Arkansas side."

This small problem could turn into a more significant issue for Howell if it turns out he has voted in Arkansas during the last few years or that he has had an Arkansas driver's license in the recent past. But that's doubtful.

Some voters won't like that the Interim Bowie County Judge is living in Arkansas up to 30% of the year, but it's an issue that Howell is probably equipped to handle.

3. The biggest issue facing Bobby Howell in a contested Republican primary involves political donations to national Democrats.

Federal Election Commission records show several donations by Bobby Howell — all to Democrats running for national office.

The FEC file (see image at the bottom of page) appears to show that Bobby Howell, an attorney with a Texarkana, Texas address, donated several thousand dollars to Democratic candidates in Texas and Arkansas from 1995 to 2008.

We could find zero donations by Howell to Republicans running for national office.

At the same time, FEC records show former Judge James Carlow donated to both national Republicans and national Democrats as far back as 1997 with money given to former Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson.

Only the most partisan Republicans will have an issue with the majority of Bobby Howell's donations, which went to Rep. Mike Ross of Arkansas and Rep. Max Sandlin of Texas since these two congressmen represented the Texarkana area.

It is the US Senate donations that will be a problem for Bobby Howell — and one in particular.

Howell donated to Democrat Sen. Mark Pryor in Arkansas, and he also gave money to former Democrat Rep. Jim Chapman's unsuccessful US Senate campaign in Texas. Those donations will not do any favors for a new interim county judge running in a Republican primary, but they aren't devastating.

A potential problem for the Republican primary

Bobby Howell's most significant obstacle to winning a contested Republican primary is a 2002 donation to former Obama appointee and former Dallas mayor, Ron Kirk. (see image below - we redacted the mailing address).
Information submitted to the FEC by the Ron Kirk for US Senate campaign committee shows that Bobby L. Howell, an attorney at Howell & Britt, contributed to the Democrat's campaign for US Senate.

According to FEC documents, "Bobby L. Howell" of "Howell & Britt" (which is listed on the interim county judge's legal resume) donated $250.00 to the "Ron Kirk for US Senate" campaign committee. The donation was received on October 25, 2002, for an election that was being held on November 5, 2002.

The possible impact of this one donation to wreak havoc on Howell's campaign cannot be understated.

If Bobby Howell loses the Republican primary, a big part of it will be because of this donation.

Ron Kirk ran a unique statewide Texas campaign in 2002. A Wikipedia entry on the 2002 Texas Senate race describes Kirk as "running on a socially-progressive platform: supporting abortion rights and opposing Bush judicial nominee Priscilla Owen."

Social progressivism was not popular in Bowie County in 2002. Although it may have gained a little traction in the area since Bernie Sanders' 2016 campaign and the 2018 rise in prominence of Alexandria Octavio-Cortez, it is still not "popular" among local voters in 2019.

Some might question whether Bobby Howell knew Ron Kirk's policy positions. Unfortunately for Howell, it would make him look terribly foolish not to know since the donation was made only a few days before a major election.

This particular US Senate race was huge news in every Northeast Texas newspaper and on every ArkLaTex TV screen following the retirement of Phil Gramm. Citizens could not go anywhere without seeing or hearing an ad for the race, and more than 18 million dollars was spent by the two leading candidates.

So even the most brilliant lawyer who donated to Ron Kirk's campaign on October 25, 2002 (after the two statewide debates on October 18, 2002, and October 23, 2002) would have an impossible time convincing anybody he didn't know the candidate's positions.

Politically, this donation gets even worse for someone running in the 2020 Republican primary, because the candidate to whom Howell made the donation was opposing Texas' senior US Senator, John Cornyn.

Yes, that's right, the same John Cornyn with whom Bobby Howell wants to share a Republican ticket in the November 2020 general election (as Sen. Cornyn seeks his fourth term).

At the same time, the partisan battle lines will likely be drawn like never before in the March 2020 primary election.

So it's conceivable that almost no Democrat voters in Bowie County will be willing to cross over and vote in the Republican Primary on March 3, 2020, to cast a ballot for a Republican in the race for county judge. That's because these voters will likely want to support their favorite candidate in the much-hyped Democrat presidential primary.

Likewise, diehard fans of President Trump will be fast and furiously filling out ballots at a time when partisan differences are at an all-time high. As most people already know, President Trump received about 72% of the vote in Bowie County in 2016.

People will also remember that Ron Kirk was President Obama's trade representative. This means that Kirk is one of the main people President Trump points to when he talks about "bad trade deals" made by the US with other countries.

How can Howell overcome the negative impact of this donation in a Republican primary? The short answer is that he can't completely overcome it. But he might not have to.

The best scenario for Howell is that voters have a short memory and forget about the donation to Ron Kirk.

But Howell also has to hope that he does not draw a Republican challenger.

A well-funded Republican could potentially beat Bobby Howell with a disciplined campaign, and it might not even be that difficult if the challenger effectively uses this donation to try to paint Howell as a sympathizer for socially progressive Democrat candidates and liberal causes.

Everything depends on the level of vitriol in the political air once March 2020 rolls around. But with impeachment in high swing, Republican voters will likely be out for blood and may not be interested in cutting a politician any slack.

However, Howell might be able to curry some favor with Republican voters by announcing that he now realizes the Kirk donation was a mistake.

Also, social issues may matter less to voters in local races, which are more often focused on taxation and local services.

For instance, Mount Pleasant Mayor Tracy Craig, a Democrat, recently beat the son of former Texas Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff in the city's mayoral race. However, Mayor Craig was not forced to run amidst a polarizing presidential contest.

What happens next?

The race for county judge will almost certainly be decided during the Republican primary in March 2020 — even if a Democrat or Independent challenges the GOP nominee in the November 2020 general election.

So it will be a waiting game for Bobby Howell to see if a challenger steps forward. At the same time, Howell will be trying to maneuver himself into an unopposed candidacy with a 100% chance of victory.

But a well-funded challenger from the business community could cause problems for Howell. And, technically, this will be the first "open" county judge race in Bowie County in a generation.

This is because Howell was appointed as "interim county judge." So a challenger might feel that this open contest is his or her one chance in a generation to be county judge. And they would probably be right as retirements like the one with Carlow are rare.

However, Interim County Judge Bobby Howell does have a good chance of victory against a Republican challenger if he convinces voters of four things: 1) He will be a steady hand operating with fiscal discipline; 2) He has a common-sense agenda; 3) He makes voters believe the Ron Kirk donation was an aberration which he now regrets; and, most importantly, 4) He hammers home the message of no new taxes for Bowie County residents.

If Bobby Howell can do all these things, he will likely win a contested Republican primary for Bowie County Judge.

But it is probably going to be a lot harder for Bobby Howell than he ever imagined when he took the oath of office last Monday.