Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

November, 2020:

Counties of interest, part four: Around Bexar

Part 1 – Counties around Harris
Part 2 – Counties around Dallas/Tarrant
Part 3 – Counties around Travis

Pop quiz, hotshot: Close your eyes, or cover the table below, and name for me the seven counties that border Bexar. Go ahead, I’ll wait.


County       Romney    Obama    Trump  Clinton    Trump    Biden    Shift
=========================================================================
Atascosa      7,461    5,133    8,618    4,651   12,020    5,865   -3,827
Bandera       7,426    1,864    8,163    1,726   10,050    2,503   -1,985
Comal        39,318   11,450   45,136   14,238   62,260   24,369  -10,023
Guadalupe    33,117   15,744   36,632   18,391   47,423   28,706   -1,344
Kendall      14,508    3,043   15,700    3,643   20,064    6,008   -2,591
Medina       11,079    4,784   12,085    4,634   15,599    6,731   -2,573
Wilson       12,218    4,821   13,998    4,790   18,457    6,350   -4,710

Unless you’re a true geography nerd, or just a very aware (or well-traveled) resident of the area, I’m guessing you didn’t get all seven. Comal, which you pass through on your way to Austin, and Guadalupe, to the east as you travel I-10 to or from Houston, are the gimmes. They’re also the two largest, with Comal and more recently Guadalupe blending into Bexar from a development perspective. I’ve talked a lot about Comal County, which has tripled in population since 1990 and which puts up big numbers for the Republican Party; I call it Montgomery County’s little brother, but it’s doing its best to try to catch up. I think it feels a little to me like Montgomery because it’s also this booming suburb a few miles away from the big city, with enough distance to be its own separate entity but with any remaining vacant space between them rapidly vanishing.

Guadalupe, on the other hand, feels more remote to me because for most of my time in Texas, there was very little between Seguin and Loop 1604, and even then there wasn’t much between 1604 and Loop 410. That change is more recent, and to my eyes more dramatic since I don’t travel that way all that often and had just been very used to the former emptiness. It’s really interesting to me that while Comal is still getting redder, Guadalupe is more or less holding in place, with Republican growth only slightly outpacing Democratic growth as its population has blossomed. Guadalupe feels more rural to me while Comal feels more suburban, but maybe that’s because I’ve spent much more time in New Braunfels (I have family there) than in Seguin. I’d love to hear more about this from anyone in this part of the state.

I just don’t know much about the other counties, from the north through the west and around to the south and southeast of Bexar. I’ve been to Kendall (in particular, the town of Boerne) and Bandera, but not since the 80s. Kendall and Medina seem like long-term candidates for suburban sprawl, as both have a piece of I-10 and Medina has I-35 running through it. I know nothing at all about Wilson and Atascosa. I’m going to stop here because I don’t want to babble, but again if someone reading this can tell us more about the future prospects in these counties, please do so.

The vaccine distribution challenge

Having a vaccine for COVID-19 is wonderful. Being able to make it available to everyone who needs it is a big challenge.

With cases spiking to over 10 million, the virus is everywhere, and spreading deeply into every corner of the country. This is where the Biden administration will face its biggest challenge, especially as it pertains to rolling out a potential vaccine.

My home state of Texas is a great example. A 2016 report from the Texas Department of State Health Services illustrates the terrible state of rural health care. According to DSHS, 235 of Texas’ 254 counties were medically underserved. There were many isolated counties with little to no access to health care. Some even lacked a single doctor.

This has been a crisis a long time in the making. As the Texas Observer recently noted, in 2019, Texas budgeted $17.7 million for infectious disease surveillance, prevention, and epidemiology—and over $400 million for border security. So even when a vaccine is delivered, it will be going to a state that is understaffed and underfunded.

Lipscomb County, population 3,302 as of 2010, in the northeast corner of the Texas panhandle, doesn’t have a doctor. It is worth noting that Lipscomb County is a 550-mile drive from Austin. Portland, Maine, is a closer drive to Washington, D.C., than those 3,302 isolated souls.

Given this isolation and lack of resources, the vaccines themselves present a logistical challenge alone that borders on the impossible for rural America. The Pfizer vaccine, now the leading contender, will require ultra-cold storage of at least -94 degrees Fahrenheit and two rounds of shots. Another leading vaccine candidate from Moderna also requires cold storage, albeit not to the same extent, according to the company. Typically, hospitals and large clinics have this capability. Small towns lacking even the most basic health clinics do not.

To deploy the Pfizer vaccine or any other one, health planners will have to figure out a way to deliver it to rural areas while maintaining its required temperature long enough to ensure that the population receives both doses. This scene will be repeated all across small-town America. This presents a big risk: An uncoordinated federal roll out of vaccines requiring ultra-cold storage could leave state and local governments competing for resources much like they were competing for PPE earlier in the pandemic.

The Trib expands on this.

How effectively public health officials can prioritize and distribute millions of doses of the new vaccines across a state that covers 270,000 square miles and more than 170 rural counties will determine how quickly Texas turns a corner in a pandemic that is again surging across the state and pushing hospitals to the brink in West Texas and the Panhandle.

The task is made more difficult because the Texas Department of State Health Services, which is largely responsible for the distribution effort, won’t know which vaccines it’s receiving, and how many doses, until one or more is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

They will also have to combat misinformation and persuade vaccine skeptics — and those unnerved by the coronavirus vaccines’ historically swift development — of the benefits of being inoculated. World Health Organization experts have said that up to a 70% vaccine coverage rate for COVID-19 may be needed to reach population immunity through vaccination. In the 2019-20 flu season, only about 37% of adults younger than 65 received a flu vaccine. The rate was about 65% for seniors.

“We haven’t seen any efforts that are this broad since probably a polio vaccination in the 1950s,” said Dr. Mark McClellan, a former head of the FDA who has advised Abbott about the pandemic.

“The people who are most likely to benefit from vaccination are people who may have difficulty connecting to health care,” such as elderly people and residents of low-income communities who often lack health insurance, he added — compounding the logistical challenges.

The vaccine is expected to initially be in short supply, and will be first distributed to a state-selected group of people considered to be essential workers or most vulnerable to being severely sickened.

[…]

It’s still unclear, beyond a list of murky priority groups such as health care workers, who will get the vaccine during the initial months when supplies are scarce. In the coming weeks, a state panel of experts is expected to publish more specific recommendations about who will be eligible for a vaccine and when.

Early estimates from the Texas Department of State Health Services found there are more than 5 million people who are vulnerable or work in front-line jobs that increase their exposure risk. That includes more than 3.9 million people who are 65 or older, more than 638,000 health care personnel, more than 327,000 acute care hospital employees, more than 137,000 nursing home residents and more than 66,000 emergency medical workers.

The state’s adult population also includes more than 9.4 million Texans with underlying medical conditions that could increase their risk for severe illness associated with COVID-19.

So yeah, it’s a big problem, and there are many questions that need to be answered, some of which will spark heated debate. In the meantime, as both stories noted, the pandemic rages on, meaning we could be trying to vaccinate people while we’re still in conditions that still demand social distancing and will put everyone involved in the process at risk. So you know, maybe we should try a little harder to contain the spread right now. Just a thought.

UPDATE: From the Trib:

Health care workers will be the first people in Texas to receive a COVID-19 vaccine once one receives emergency approval from the U.S. government, and on Monday a state panel of vaccine experts and politicians revealed which workers in the health field will receive top priority.

The “first tier” recipients, according to the panel’s new guidelines, include:

  • Hospital-based nurses, doctors, custodians and other workers who have direct contact with patients
  • Staff of nursing homes or other long-term care facilities who work directly with residents
  • Emergency medical services providers such as paramedics and ambulance drivers
  • Home health aides who manage “vulnerable and high-risk” patients

Certainly reasonable. We’ll see how it goes after that.

We might get better Census apportionment data

Some good news.

The Census Bureau has identified issues in the data from the 2020 decennial census that will take an additional 20 days or so for it to fix, and thus delay the release of survey’s apportionment data until after President Trump leaves office, TPM has learned.

According to a person inside the Census Bureau, the additional time it will take to reprocess the data in question has pushed back the target date for release of the state population counts until Jan. 26 – Feb. 6.

That would mean President-elect Joe Biden will be in the White House when the Census Bureau delivers to him the numbers for him to transmit to Congress for the purposes of determining how many House seats each state will get for the next decade.

President Trump had been seeking to exclude undocumented immigrants from that count, with a policy that several lower courts have deemed illegal in rulings Trump is hoping the Supreme Court will overturn. Excluding undocumented immigrants from that count would decrease the House seats given to immigrant-rich states like California, and increase the representation for whiter, more Republican parts of the country.

The issues that the Census Bureau has identified in the data are standard for any census, the source told TPM, and it is routine for the Census Bureau to have to do this kind of reprocessing.

Shortly after this story was published, Census Director Steve Dillingham confirmed the “anomalies” in a statement to TPM that made no explicit mention of how fixing them will impact the timeline for releasing the data.

“During post-collection processing, certain processing anomalies have been discovered. These types of processing anomalies have occurred in past censuses. I am directing the Census Bureau to utilize all resources available to resolve this as expeditiously as possible. As it has been all along, our goal remains an accurate and statistically sound Census,” Dillingham said.

I don’t know if that puts an end to the ongoing Census shenanigans, but anything that takes the process out of the Trump administration’s hands is a good thing.

Counties of interest, part three: Around Travis

Part 1 – Counties around Harris
Part 2 – Counties around Dallas/Tarrant

Travis County has been at the forefront of the Democratic renaissance in Texas, punching well above its weight with both performance and turnout. Its blue essence has been spilling over its borders into its neighbor counties, and overall the picture here is as bright as you’ll see anywhere. Let’s have a look:


County       Romney    Obama    Trump  Clinton    Trump    Biden    Shift
=========================================================================
Bastrop      14,033    9,864   16,328   10,569   20,486   15,452     -865
Blanco        3,638    1,220    4,212    1,244    5,429    1,905   -1,106
Burnet       12,843    3,674   14,638    3,797   18,721    5,615   -3,937
Caldwell      6,021    4,791    6,691    4,795    7,975    6,536     -209
Hays         31,661   25,537   33,826   33,224   47,427   59,213   17,910
Williamson   97,006   61,875  104,175   84,468  138,649  142,457   38,939

Williamson and Hays get all the ink, and they certainly present opportunities for further growth. I believe the same dynamic is here as it is in Dallas and Collin/Denton, which is that Travis County and all of its characteristics have simply expanded into the adjacent counties, making the distinction between the two, at least in the areas near the border, basically meaningless. I’ve long felt this about the southwest part of Harris County and Fort Bend. The numbers certainly bear it out.

Of great interest to me is that Bastrop and Caldwell counties took a step in the right direction in 2020, after going the wrong way in 2016. I was especially worried about Bastrop, home of Jade Helm hysteria, starting to slip away, but perhaps they too will begin to go the way of Hays as development from Travis creeps farther out along State Highway 71. Caldwell County was a pleasant surprise, as it is more of a rural county, and one I honestly hadn’t realized bordered Travis – you pass through Caldwell on I-10 between Houston and San Antonio – until I was reviewing the map I consulted for this post. Whatever happened in Caldwell in 2020 to get it moving in this direction, I approve.

That leaves Burnet and Blanco, both to the west and northwest of Travis. I haven’t been to Burnet since the 90s and may well be talking out of my ass here, but just looking at the geography, I could imagine some of the Travis overflow that had been going into Williamson going a little farther west into Burnet, and maybe that will blue it up a little. Just a guess, and even if there’s merit to it that’s likely not a short-term prospect. Until then, if Dem activist folks in Travis are looking for new worlds to conquer, I humbly suggest Burnet – and Bastrop, and Caldwell – as opportunities to consider.

Our nanny state and vote by mail applications

Sen. Paul Bettencourt purses his lips and wags his finger and is very disappointed in your county government.

Republican state lawmakers have filed bills to codify the Texas Supreme Court decision that blocked Harris County from sending mail ballot applications to all of its 2.4 million registered voters.

Senate Bill 208, authored by Sens. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston; Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe; Brian Birdwell; Bob Hall and Kel Seliger, would stop election officials from sending absentee ballot applications, regardless of eligibility. State Rep. Valoree Swanson, a Republican from Houston, filed a companion bill, House Bill 25.

“We must recognize the obvious that we didn’t need to mail 2M+ absentee ballot applications to registered voters in Harris County to have a record 11.2 million Texas voters cast their ballots in November,” Bettencourt said in a statement. “It is important to note that the 66.2% turnout in 2020 was without wasting taxpayer money by doing shotgun mailings to everyone on the voter roll.”

Harris County Clerk Christopher Hollins’ plan to do so, an attempt to make voting easier during the pandemic, was thwarted after the county’s Republican Party sued. The Texas Supreme Court ruled in early October that Hollins would be exceeding his authority, though two lower courts had previously approved of the mass mailings.

Hollins had already sent out nearly 400,000 applications to Harris County voters who were 65 and older by the time the suit arose. The proposed legislation filed this month would extend to even such mailings to eligible voters because they would prevent counties from sending any unsolicited mail ballot applications.

Emphasis mine. So that first sentence about codifying the State Supreme Court decision is misleading, since this bill would now prohibit something the Court explicitly allowed. Let’s be clear about that.

Let’s also be clear that there’s no valid justification for this bill. If the voters of Harris County don’t like the way that Commissioners Court appropriates and spends money, the voters of Harris County have a simple and direct way to express that disapproval. This is Paul Bettencourt and others expressing their disapproval of Harris County voters, because he has that power.

I’m sure there will be more bills like this one, and while most of them probably won’t pass I’ll be surprised if this one manages to fail. the good news, for what it’s worth, is that the Harris County Democratic Party can continue its very successful campaign of sending mail applications to its voters, then following up with them to ensure they get and return their mail ballots. I won’t be surprised if there’s some dropoff in mail voting in the next couple of elections, as people were motivated to vote by mail due to the pandemic, but I’d expect most of those voters to just go back to voting in person. This is a legislative temper tantrum, and it can some day be fixed, but don’t forget that it happened. Republicans like Paul Bettencourt want it to be hard to vote, and they will do what they can to make it hard to vote. We should make a bigger deal about this in our campaigns.

An ounce of cure

It’s certainly nice to have this, it’s just that there isn’t nearly enough of it.

Texas has received 5,800 doses of the newly approved coronavirus treatment that Gov. Greg Abbott heralded on Thursday and will receive even less next week, underscoring the massive challenge that remains as the state scrambles to tamp down its latest outbreak.

While the medication, made by Eli Lilly, is welcome news to many in the state’s health care community, its supplies are so limited that some hospitals are weighing how to ethically prioritize eligible patients, and others have opted out altogether.

“We recognize that this therapy could provide some modest benefit, but it requires space, staff and additional training around infusions that are hard to come by right now, as we are currently strained just taking care of the patients we have in house,” said Dr. Ann Barnes, the executive vice president and chief medical executive at Harris Health System in Houston.

[…]

Carrie Williams, a spokeswoman for the Texas Hospital Association, said executives huddled Tuesday with state leaders and “were largely very supportive of having the opportunity to have their hands on this therapeutic.”

“It’s an outpatient infusion therapy and requires significant space and staff time, which obviously is taxed right now,” Williams said in an email. “That said, we welcome all the help we can get to decrease demand on hospitals right now.”

Texas is expected to receive another 3,200 doses next week, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. That would make it the second largest state recipient, just behind Illinois.

Still, it’s not keeping pace with Texas’ mounting infections. Health officials reported more than 50,000 new positive cases this week through Friday alone, and there are 152,000 estimated active cases statewide. More than 8,000 people were hospitalized with the virus as of Friday.

And the drug is not a cure-all; in clinical trials, it was shown to reduce hospitalizations among high-risk patients but not eliminate them. Federal officials have said they expect close to 400,000 doses to be available nationwide through the end of the year; 80,000 of those have already been distributed.

To be effective, the treatment has to be administered early in an infection, before severe symptoms emerge, and it is meant only for people over age 65 who have chronic conditions such as diabetes or high blood pressure. It’s administered intravenously over the course of an hour.

In Lubbock, where cases are surging and the governor traveled on Thursday, hospitals received 172 doses this week, according to Dr. Drew Payne, a physician and associate program director at Texas Tech University. He said they have scrambled since to determine how best to get the doses out and hoped to begin administering them over the weekend.

“It’s good to say, ‘Hey, everybody needs this medication and we need to give it out,’” Payne said. “But then the logistics of having nursing staff, a place to bring COVID-positive patients into, a way to give that medication, a plan if there’s an adverse reaction to that medication — those are all things we’ve been dealing with.”

Lubbock reported nearly 500 new positive cases on Friday, with 5,700 active cases overall.

See here for the background. The numbers are clear – this new treatment will help at the margins, but we need to bring down the number of new cases. Until we really prioritize that, it’s all just band-aids.

DPS needs to do better with data protection

Oops.

You’ve been hacked. We’ve all been hacked.

No one else has said it, but The Watchdog will. This is likely the largest and one of the more significant data breaches ever to hit Texans.

About 27.7 million Texas driver’s license holders are affected.

If you haven’t heard about this, that’s part of the problem. It’s almost like no one wants you to know.

Why 27.7 million affected licenses when Texas’ total population is around 28 million? Because the number includes former state residents and dead people who were issued licenses before February 2019. So, it includes just about everybody who held a Texas license going back an unknown amount of years. It doesn’t include children.

The Watchdog has the story.

Yes, the information involved here is already available on a paid data site such as PublicData.com, although that site is not always current. But there you have to look up each individual. With this breach, all the information is already bundled and in one place.

What do the crooks have? Your license information (name, address, DL number), the color, model, year and VIN of your vehicle and the lender to whom you make car payments.

I’ll show you how this happened, what crooks can do with the information and how you can be prepared.

The culprit here is a company you probably never heard of — Vertafore of Denver, which, like many companies, buys data from state governments. Vertafore works with the insurance industry to concoct ratings that help agents, brokers and others.

“As a result of human error,” Vertafore says in a news release, “three data files were inadvertently stored in an unsecured external storage service that appears to have been accessed without authorization.”

Someone found the information and grabbed the files before Vertafore realized it, the company says.

The FBI and state law enforcement are investigating.

It appears to The Watchdog that although this data breach began in March and continued to August, our Texas Department of Motor Vehicles, which stores vehicle information, and the Texas Department of Public Safety, which handles licenses, probably didn’t know about the hack until recently because their own databases were not compromised.

There’s more and you should read the rest, including the bit about some likely ways that the attacker could use this information. It could have been worse – no Social Security numbers were stolen, apparently – but it’s still not great, and the complete ignorance about the theft by DPS and DMV is not great at all. Putting my cybersecurity hat on for a moment, DPS and DMV need to do a thorough audit of the security policies and processes used by everyone that has access to their data, because those are clear points of vulnerability. It doesn’t matter how sound DPS and DMV’s own security practices are if their business partners are lax.

(This would a fine opportunity for a member of the Legislature to file a bill that mandates minimum standards for third parties that handle personal data, and for the state agencies that do business with them to proactively ensure they are doing it right.)

The other thing DPS and DMV – and any other state agency that handles personal data – need to do is to subscribe to a service that scans the Internet for data of theirs that may have been stolen. (Experian either does this themselves or subscribes to someone who does, which is how they knew about it before it was officially announced.) It’s an article of faith in the cybersecurity world that security incidents and data breaches are going to happen, so a top priority has to be to detect them as quickly as possible so the loss can be minimized and the damage can be remediated. The history of most large scale cyber incidents is that the attackers had been operating inside the victimized firm for months, sometimes more than a year, before their activities were discovered.

There’s not a whole lot more info about this out there – ZDNet and Insurance Journal add a little more, but that’s really about it. I do hope the state demands a full report from Vertafore, and learns lessons from it. Next time it could be more serious than this.

Weekend link dump for November 22

Three reasons why Joe Biden won back Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.

A few words from Alex Trebek’s widow, thanking people for the nice things they’ve had to say about her husband.

“Early in President Trump’s term, McSweeney’s editors began to catalog the head-spinning number of misdeeds coming from his administration. We called this list a collection of Trump’s cruelties, collusions, and crimes, and it felt urgent then to track them, to ensure these horrors — happening almost daily — would not be forgotten. This election year, amid a harrowing global health, civil rights, humanitarian, and economic crisis, we know it’s never been more critical to note these horrors, to remember them, and to do all in our power to reverse them.”

“Let’s count down the 50 worst people over this entire train wreck of an administration. We’re avoiding all the awful outside allies and toadies, from Sean Hannity to Lil Wayne, Jerry Falwell Jr. to James O’Keefe, the late Bob Murray to Vladimir Putin to Diamond and Silk. We focus on the people paid by taxpayers (and Trump campaign donors) to destroy the country and the planet. Plus, of course, Rudy Giuliani.”

What will the press do without Trump? How will we function without a towering political figure to kick and be kicked around by? And, what will the press do about Trump? Once he’s out of office, how much longer will we allow him to set the news agenda?”

“A new report from the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention highlights a bleak reality: Measles, the highly contagious but vaccine-preventable viral illness, infected at least 860,000 people and killed over 200,000 worldwide in 2019—a roughly 50% jump in deaths from 2016. Sadly, the covid-19 pandemic is likely to make this situation even worse.”

“Baltimore Museum of Art’s restrooms to be named in honor of John Waters, for donating 375 pieces of art”.

Be careful about allowing site notifications.

Kazakh-Americans are not pleased with Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm.

Some advice for handling the 2020 holiday season.

More than you wanted to know about Jerry Falwell, Junior and Giancarlo Granda – if that name doesn’t ring a bell, it will as soon as you click the links.

RIP, Lindy McDaniel, longtime relief pitcher for the Yankees and other teams.

“The suggestion that doctors — in the midst of a public health crisis — are overcounting COVID-19 patients or lying to line their pockets is a malicious, outrageous, and completely misguided charge.”

“I wasn’t going to share this, but I think doing so is a public service, so here we go: it’s likely that my 12yo daughter has Covid. The past 3 days have been crazy, but I think telling the story of how this happened is important.”

“So will there come a time—before the inauguration on January 20—when Americans who care about democracy and who yearn for an effective response to the COVID-19 crisis can breath easy? With Trump at the helm, the answer is…probably not. But there are some upcoming dates to anticipate.”

RIP, Ira B. Scott, longtime educator and oldest living member of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity.

“One of the things happening in South Dakota is an infection rate that’s among the worst in the nation, at about 8,000 cases per 100,000 people. In Vermont, another small, rural state with a Republican governor, Gov. Phil Scott has embraced safety measures, and the differences are pretty stark. Like South Dakota, Vermont has fewer than 1 million residents, most of whom don’t live in cities. It has about 500 cases per 100,000 people. That’s the lowest rate in the nation.”

“But COVID-19 works slowly. It takes several days for infected people to show symptoms, a dozen more for newly diagnosed cases to wend their way to hospitals, and even more for the sickest of patients to die. These lags mean that the pandemic’s near-term future is always set, baked in by the choices of the past. It means that Ricketts is already too late to stop whatever UNMC will face in the coming weeks (but not too late to spare the hospital further grief next month). It means that some of the people who get infected over Thanksgiving will struggle to enter packed hospitals by the middle of December, and be in the ground by Christmas.”

Beware color-coded county maps

I spotted this on Twitter the other day and it got me thinking:

A larger view of the embedded image is here. It was just barely large enough that I was able to compare it to my now-favorite map of Texas counties and figure out what most of those blue places are. (I didn’t work my way through all of them, for various reasons that included my eyesight and my sanity.) I snagged the Texas portion of that image, pasted it into Paint, doubled it in size, and then labeled some of the counties of interest. My handiwork, such as it is, is here. Take a look at that for a minute, then let’s come back and discuss the two main problems with imagery of this kind.

Ready? Problem number one is that you don’t get any sense of the absolute size of the shift, in either direction, from this image. Harris County, which I feel confident you can find even though I have unkindly drawn lines through it to point to other counties of interest, is rendered in medium blue, to show a 10-20 point shift in preference. But that shift represents over 200,000 total votes in favor of Democrats. That didn’t just help to carve into the overall vote lead that Republicans have had in the state, it has enabled Democrats to entirely flip county government, including the judiciary and numerous appellate benches, while also netting a Congressional seat and two State Rep seats. Contrast that to Starr County, which has gotten so much attention and which is among the dark red counties along the southern border, which moved about eight thousand votes towards Republicans. That shift was more significant at the Presidential level, by the way – it’s a bit less than a five thousand vote shift in the Senate and Railroad Commissioner races. Not nothing, and definitely a cause for concern for Democrats, but nowhere close to as substantial as the shift in Harris County. But you would never know that, and the color coding makes it even more misleading.

Problem two is related to problem one but manifests itself in a slightly different way. That problem is that this shift is about the percentage difference between 2012 and 2020. Before I get to the specifics, let me try to explain why this gives a distorted description of the problem with a sports example. Suppose the Texans are playing the Ravens. At the end of the first quarter, the Ravens lead 14-7, which is to say that the Ravens have scored 66.7% of the points in the game. In the second quarter, the Ravens score another touchdown and also add a field goal, while the Texans score a touchdown. That makes the score 24-14 at halftime, and it means that the Ravens scored only 58.9% of the points in the second quarter. Which, if you go by the math used in Nate Cohn’s map, a fifteen-point shift in the Texans’ favor – they went from being down 33 points in the first quarter to being down only eighteen points in the second quarter. Look at them mounting a comeback!

Except of course that on the actual scoreboard, the Ravens have extended their lead from seven points to ten points. The rate by which they are increasing their lead has slowed, but their lead is still growing. The Texans now have a larger deficit to overcome. Perhaps the trends are now in their favor, but the bottom line is that they’re still farther behind than they were before.

All that is why you should look at the light blue shift in Montgomery County, for example, with a cocked eyebrow. It is true, in 2012 Mitt Romney took 79.7% of the vote in Montgomery County to Barack Obama’s 19.0%, for a sixty point lead, while Donald Trump carried Montgomery by a mere 44 points, 71.2 to 27.4. But as we have discussed before, that translated into another 14K net votes for Republicans at the top of the ticket. The Democrats’ deficit continues to grow even as the Republicans’ rate of acceleration has declined. It’s comfort of the coldest kind. The same is very much true for Parker and Johnson counties, and for counties we have not yet discussed, like Comal and Medina and Ector and Midland.

It’s not all gloom and doom. In some places where the deficit increased, the rate of that increase dropped a lot, to the point where you could imagine it turning around in the next election. Lubbock County is an example of that – again, I’ll be going into that in more detail in a later post. In some counties, like Caldwell and Bastrop, there was actually a small gain between 2016 and 2020 after a bigger drop from 2012 to 2016, so while the overall gap is still significant, the direction is what you want. Imagine the Texans winning the second quarter of our game 7-6, so that they now trail 20-14. Denton and Collin counties, which are dark blue in the Cohn map, are the canonical examples here, though Brazos County makes a nice showing as well. We’re still trailing, but you can see how we get to the lead from here.

I don’t want you to look too skeptically at every blue spot that isn’t immediately identifiable as a Dem beacon. Dems really don’t need to win too many counties to carry Texas some fine day, because of their massive advantage in the biggest counties. We don’t need Montgomery County to turn blue to win the state. We don’t even need it to be on a path to turning blue. We just need the gap between Republicans and Democrats to quit growing, and maybe shrink a little. One way we were able to turn Harris County blue was that we could rally Democrats in heavily Republican areas because they knew their votes were important to flipping (and now maintaining) the county as a Democratic bastion. In Montgomery, that task is abstracted out one level further – there aren’t any local candidates who are likely to win, at a district or county level, so the motivation has to come from your votes mattering at the state level. It’s a heavier lift, since those statewide candidates won’t be as well known locally and will likely not spend much if any time there campaigning, and I have tons of respect for the effort made in spite of those conditions. We need that in more places around the state.

Again, we have discussed some of this before, and will discuss it again soon. I’m now thinking I need to adapt my Presidential-level vote series on “surrounding counties” to the Senate and other statewide races. That ought to keep me busy for the next few weeks.

Before we go, one more example that highlights both of the issues I have identified in this post. Take a look at King County, east of Lubbock and north of Abilene (Taylor County). Who would have expected a blue shift in a place like that? Well, here are the numbers for King County in 2012 and 2020:


Romney  Obama  Romney%  Obama%  Margin
======================================
   139      5    95.9%    3.5%    92.4

 Trump  Biden   Trump%  Biden%  Margin
======================================
   151      8    95.0%    5.0%    90.0

There was one vote in 2012 for Libertarian Gary Johnson, and no third-party or write-in votes in 2020. This is what a “blue shift” in King County looks like. I’m sure I’m as impressed as you are.

Remote learning has been hard for many students

This is a problem that I don’t think we’re prepared to deal with.

Students across Greater Houston failed classes at unprecendented rates in the first marking period, with some districts reporting nearly half of their middle and high schoolers received at least two F grades because they routinely missed classes or neglected assignments.

The percentage of students failing at least one class has doubled, tripled or even quadrupled in several of the region’s largest school districts, education administrators reported in recent days, a reflection of the massive upheaval caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic.

If those trends keep up, districts expect to see a decline in graduation rates, an increase in summer school demand and a need for intensive support to accommodate students falling behind, among numerous other consequences.

“Our internal failure rates — not (standardized) tests, just our teachers teaching, grading, assessing kids — are like nothing I’ve ever seen before,” said Alief ISD Superintendent HD Chambers, who reported nearly half of his students failed at least one class to start the school year.

“I’ve told our teachers to use the same professional judgment you’ve always used, but I don’t want our standards lowered. We’re not creating these false narratives that you’re doing OK and let someone move on without being competent in the area we’re teaching.”

The failure rates illustrate the monumental challenge faced by students, families and school districts trying to navigate the pandemic while remaining engaged in learning.

[…]

Local education leaders are hopeful the performance trend reverses before the end of the first semester, when high school students’ grades become official for transcript purposes. They noted more students are returning to in-person classes or growing comfortable with completing work online.

If failure rates remain high, however, the impact could be long-lasting for students and districts.

Educators fear the pandemic will widen graduation and college acceptance disparities between children from lower-income and higher-income families. Districts in less affluent areas of Houston generally saw more students remain in online classes, where failing grades were more prevalent.

“We’re going to have to be mapping things out for how to use every minute of remediation, thinking about a two- to three-year span for getting kids back on course,” Aldine Chief Academic Officer Todd Davis said.

Districts could add summer school courses in the coming years to help students make up for failing grades, but the cost of those programs already worries some school leaders. Texas legislators and education officials have not pledged to allocate additional funding for summer school ahead of next year’s legislative session.

“Those extra courses that students normally take — for us, it’s called ‘credit recovery’ — that we pay for now, we would have to start charging for services,” Lathan said. “I know some school districts do it now, but based on our district, it’s hard to charge.”

Chambers, the Alief ISD superintendent, said high failure rates also could upend staffing schedules in some schools, requiring more sessions of courses that students must pass to graduate.

“We’re going to have to probably double staff algebra classes and all those freshman courses, because we’re going to have twice as many kids that failed or didn’t complete the course,” Chambers said.

I’ve left a lot out, so go read the whole thing. Maybe things will get a little better as more students acclimate to remote learning, and others go back to the classroom. But unless it more or less entirely reverses, we’re going to be left with the choice of spending a lot of money to get these kids back up to grade level, so they can graduate and hope to lead lives that aren’t economically compromised, or we can just let them fail and leave it to our kids and future selves to deal with the consequences. I know what I’d want to do, but I don’t know that I expect Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick to be with me. What is clear is that this is our choice. The Trib has more.

The entire NCAA men’s tournament in one place

If we’re able to have an NCAA basketball season at all, then something like this makes some sense.

The NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Committee announced today the relocation of 13 predetermined preliminary round sites for the 2021 Division I Men’s Basketball Championship.

In recent weeks, the Division I Men’s Basketball Committee has engaged in a thorough contingency planning process to determine the most effective way to conduct a safe and healthy March Madness for all participants for the 2021 championship. Through these discussions, it became apparent to the committee that conducting the championship at 13 preliminary round sites spread throughout the country would be very difficult to execute in the current pandemic environment. The committee has decided the championship should be held in a single geographic area to enhance the safety and well-being of the event.

As a result, NCAA staff are in preliminary talks with the State of Indiana and the city of Indianapolis to potentially host the 68-team tournament around the metropolitan area during the coordinated dates in March and April. Indianapolis was already slated to host the Men’s Final Four from April 3-5, 2021.

“My committee colleagues and I did not come lightly to the difficult decision to relocate the preliminary rounds of the 2021 tournament, as we understand the disappointment 13 communities will feel to miss out on being part of March Madness next year,” said Mitch Barnhart, chair of the Division I Men’s Basketball Committee and University of Kentucky athletics director. “With the University of Kentucky slated to host first- and second-round games in March, this is something that directly impacts our school and community, so we certainly share in their regret. The committee and staff deeply appreciate the efforts of all the host institutions and conferences, and we look forward to bringing the tournament back to the impacted sites in future years.”

The committee emphasized the importance of conducting the championship in a manageable geographic area that limits travel and provides a safe and controlled environment with competition and practice venues, medical resources and lodging for teams and officials all within proximity of one another.

“We have learned so much from monitoring other successful sporting events in the last several months, and it became clear it’s not feasible to manage this complex championship in so many different states with the challenges presented by the pandemic,” said Dan Gavitt, NCAA Senior Vice President of Basketball. “However, we are developing a solid plan to present a safe, responsible and fantastic March Madness tournament unlike any other we’ve experienced.”

Basically, this is a bigger version of the NBA playoff bubble. If you scroll down at the link, you’ll see there were 13 other locations that would be involved if nothing changes – Dayton for the First Four, then eight first and second round locations, plus four regional final locations. (Dallas is an opening rounds, the only Texas city on the list.) You can eliminate a lot of travel by consolidating down to one location, but it’s a much bigger logistical challenge because there will be so many teams present, even if (sadly) it won’t be all of them.

Now again, all this assume there will be an NCAA men’s basketball season. (This story is about the men’s tournament committee – I have to assume that if they go this route, the women’s tournament committee will at least consider following suit.) As we’ve discussed before, while basketball involves fewer people per team than football, at least football can be played outside. NCAA hoops would be going on right now in a normal year, and no one can say when or if the regular season will start, though I’m sure the current plan is for January, with a shortened conference-only schedule. The issue of crowds (short answer: hell no) will have to be addressed, and of course the certainty of players and coaches and other personnel testing positive will wreak havoc. I want to believe we’ll be able to have March Madness in 2021, that we’ll be at a point where it’s reasonably safe to do so. But we sure have a long way to go to get there.

Prevention > treatment

I mean, more treatments for COVID is a good thing, but you know what’s better? Not getting COVID in the first place. Maybe we can try doing better on that?

Gov. Greg Abbott traveled to Lubbock on Thursday to tout a newly approved coronavirus treatment, without saying how many doses are available or announcing any new restrictions to slow the virus’s spread as infections continue to surge.

Speaking at his first news conference on the pandemic in over two months, the governor said the treatment, made by Eli Lilly and similar to the one that President Donald Trump received last month, has already been distributed to Lubbock and other areas with overcrowded hospital systems, including Midland, Amarillo and El Paso.

“They have enough right now where they can begin the process and treat patients at least for the next several days,” Abbott said. He said he expects additional treatments to arrive in the coming weeks, as well as the first few shipments of a coronavirus vaccine, which could arrive by late December and would go to first responders.

“The cavalry is coming,” he said.

The governor added firmly that the state will not be locking down again, a measure used this spring to slow the initial wave of infections, and insisted that local officials have all tools they need to slow local outbreaks, including a mask mandate in place since the summer and mandatory occupancy reductions for regions where the number of COVID-19 patients exceed 15 percent of total hospital capacity for seven straight days.

In a companion article, Abbott gives three pieces of “good news”, which are this new treatment, that new treatment, and the forthcoming vaccines. All of which is great, and I can’t wait till the vaccines are widely available, but none of that really deals with the current crisis. Effective treatments assumes a fully functional health care system, and right now we have overcrowded hospitals and doctors and nurses who are getting thoroughly burned out. I also assume these treatments aren’t free, and in case you’d forgotten the state of Texas is one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit that if successful would take away health insurance from millions of people – that’s on top of the millions who already don’t have it here in our state. Plus, and I can’t say this often enough, the economy is not going to get back to full steam until people feel safe from the virus. It’s not enough to say “if you get sick we’ll help you get better”, especially if you’re a person who is immunocompromised or has various co-morbidities or doesn’t have sick leave or child care or health insurance. How many more people need to get sick and die before Greg Abbott can be bothered to care?

Not everyone wants to skip the STAAR

There are no kids in this group.

Fourteen Texas school superintendents, including those leading Dallas, Fort Worth and Aldine ISDs, joined with several business and education advocacy organizations Thursday to voice support for continuing to give standardized tests to students in the spring.

The announcement came one day after 70 members of the Texas House of Representatives issued a bipartisan call for state leaders to take steps toward canceling the annual exams, illustrating the split over a hot-button education issue that has riled teachers and families.

In a letter to Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath, the superintendents, business leaders and education advocates said they “believe strongly in understanding where Texas students are in their learning journey.” The group argued the exams would provide vital data to help measure students’ academic achievement and growth amid the pandemic.

“We think it is critical for government leaders and policy makers to fully understand the extent and the disproportionate nature of COVID-19 learning loss that has likely occurred for our communities from limited income homes and our communities of color,” the letter read in part.

While education and business advocates encouraged giving the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, commonly known as STAAR, they did not support continuing to grade schools and districts based on the results. The Texas Education Agency’s academic accountability system results in A-through-F letter grades to campuses and districts largely tied to STAAR scores.

In arguing against accountability ratings, the superintendents and advocates said it would be “almost impossible to assign A-F ratings in a fair and equitable way.”

“We respectfully request that academic accountability for school and district ratings be placed on pause for the 2020-21 school year, and that superintendents and school leaders are given this information as soon as possible,” the group wrote.

See here for the background. I’m all in for skipping the STAAR, in part because I think the kids could use a little less stress in their lives and in part because I think it’s unlikely to be all that useful in such a weird and disruptive year. But if we have to go through with it, then for sure let’s skip the accountability ratings, for the same reasons. This is the reality that we’re in, and we need to accept it.

The Hall of Fame 2021 ballot

Always a favorite time of the year.

While the 2021 ballot announced Monday features former All-Stars such as Torii Hunter, Tim Hudson, Mark Buehrle and Barry Zito, none of its first-timers is an obvious Hall of Famer. The crowded crush of Cooperstown-caliber cases that voting members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America were presented with in recent years has cleared, and that creates breathing room — and potentially large percentage increases — for the ballot’s hopeful holdovers, notably Curt Schilling, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Omar Vizquel.

BBWAA voters, who have addressed the ballot congestion by voting in 13 players in the past four years, must submit their votes by year’s end. The results will be revealed on Tuesday, Jan. 26, on MLB Network.

Players must have their names checked on at least 75% of submitted ballots to enter the Hall of Fame, which will hold its 2021 induction ceremony on July 25 in Cooperstown, N.Y. The 2020 class featuring Derek Jeter, Larry Walker, Ted Simmons and the late Marvin Miller will also be inducted on this day, after the 2020 ceremony was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. The 2021 class will not feature any non-BBWAA inductees, as the Golden Days and Early Baseball Era Committees have postponed their votes until the winter of 2021-22.

Among the new additions to the BBWAA ballot, the highest career Wins Above Replacement figures, as calculated by Baseball Reference, belong to starting pitchers Buehrle (59.1) and Hudson (57.9) and outfielder Hunter (50.7). To put that in perspective, the average bWAR of Hall of Fame position players and pitchers is 69.

What this likely means, therefore, is closer scrutiny of players who have fared well on past ballots but have not yet crossed the 75% threshold. Players are eligible for up to 10 years on the BBWAA ballot. Last year, 397 ballots were submitted and 298 votes were needed for election.

Yeah, there are no newbies on the ballot this year that deserve close scrutiny. I’m rooting for Scott Rolen, Gary Sheffield, and Billy Wagner among the returning candidates, but really all I want is for Curt Schilling to not get inducted. Even in the year 2020, that’s not too much to ask, is it? More from MLB here and the Hall itself here.

A high level look at the changing suburbs

The Trib takes a broad and high-level look at what I’m digging into now.

Although they didn’t get the blue wave they expected, Democrats narrowed the gap with Republicans in five of the most competitive and populous suburban counties in Texas.

An analysis of the presidential vote in solidly suburban Collin, Denton, Fort Bend, Hays and Williamson counties, plus partly suburban Tarrant County, showed that Republicans went from an advantage of more than 180,000 total votes in those counties in 2016 to less than a thousand votes in 2020, according to the latest data.

“This was not, on a whole, a good night for Democrats, it’s not what they hoped,” said Sherri Greenberg, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs. “But Democrats did see some gains and some success flipping areas in the suburbs.”

[…]

Some of Democrats’ biggest gains happened in Central Texas. Williamson County, where Trump won by 9.7% four years ago, flipped in 2020 and went to Biden by just over 1%. Hays County, which Trump won by less than 1% in 2016, gave Biden a nearly 11% victory this year. Both counties also supported Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke in the 2018 midterm elections.

Greenberg said those two counties are a perfect example of the trend that is helping Democrats in the suburbs: a growing population, particularly in demographic groups that tend to be more left-leaning. Since 2010, Williamson County alone has added more than 160,000 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“You see a growing population, a younger population, highly educated. Those kinds of voters are moving towards the Democrats,” Greenberg said.

In the Greater Houston area, Fort Bend County, which supported Hillary Clinton in 2016, was even more favorable for Biden, who won by 37,000 votes, compared with Clinton’s roughly 17,000-vote margin in 2016.

Fort Bend’s population is 811,688, and 20% of the population is Asian, according to the U.S. census.

“That county has become pretty solidly Democratic, and that happened quickly,” Cross said. “And it’s because of these younger, more educated and more diverse voters. It’s an example of what the Asian American vote can change.”

In North Texas, in Denton and Collin counties, Republicans expanded their margins from the 2018 midterms, but compared with the 2016 presidential election, Democrats narrowed the gap: In Denton County, Trump’s 20% victory in 2016 shrunk to 8.1% this year, while his margin in Collin County fell from 16% to 4.6%.

Meanwhile in Tarrant County, where Fort Worth is surrounded by a tapestry of suburbs, counting is still ongoing, but the latest results show that Democrats might be able to flip the county.

Not all suburban counties became as competitive as Tarrant. In Montgomery County, north of Houston, where more than 270,000 people voted, Republicans still had a comfortable 44% margin in 2020, 7% less than in the 2016 presidential election.

All of this is true, and there are some nice charts in the story to look at, but it obscures a couple of points. One, with regard to Montgomery County, it’s not the percentage margin that matters, it’s the raw vote differential. Trump won Montgomery county by 104,479 votes in 2016. He won it by 118,969 votes in 2020. It’s nice that the second derivative of their growth curve is now negative, but we need to start shrinking that gap, not just slowing its acceleration. Joe Biden will end up about 650K votes behind Donald Trump. That’s about 160K votes closer than Hillary Clinton got. If we want to make it easier for Biden, or Kamala Harris, or someone else, in 2024, that’s the target. It’s preferable if Montgomery County is not making that job more difficult.

The other point is that this discussion leaves out too much. The reason I wanted to look at all the counties that surround the big urban areas is so we can be aware of the places that are growing into becoming like Montgomery – think Parker and Johnson Counties up north – as well as the small counties that punch well above their weight, like Chambers and Liberty. Maybe we don’t have a clear answer for those places yet, but we need to be thinking about them, and we need to make having a plan for them a priority. We’re just conceding too much ground otherwise.

Matthew McConaughey?

I suppose I’m required to have an opinion about this.

Academy Award-winning actor Matthew McConaughey isn’t gearing up to run for governor in Texas, but he certainly did not rule it out during a radio interview this week.

“I don’t know,” McConaughey said when asked by talk radio host Hugh Hewitt in a national interview. “I mean, that wouldn’t be up to me. It would be up to the people more than it would me.”

But the 51-year-old Uvalde native was clear: He sees big problems with how things are going with politics in general.

“Look, politics seems to be a broken business to me right now,” he said. “And when politics redefines its purpose, I could be a hell of a lot more interested.”

In the interview to promote his new book “Greenlights,” he talked about watching other actors like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Clint Eastwood get involved in politics and thinking it was interesting to see people of different backgrounds doing the work. But he said he’s still not sure it’s the best route to get things done.

“You know, I still question how much you can really get done in politics, and I don’t know if politics is my avenue to get what maybe I am best equipped to get done,” McConaughey said.

McConaughey didn’t say whether he is a Republican or a Democrat.

Yeah, my opinion is that this is a slow-news-day kind of story, with nothing actually to it. I could write a whole lot of words as to why I think this, but honestly, it’s not worth the bother. I’ll just say this much: I am not gearing up to run for Governor either, but I certainly have not ruled it out. My publicist is now standing by to book interviews.

UPDATE: Looks like not having an opinion was the smart move.

Legislators call for no STAAR test this year

Fine by me, and very fine by my kids.

A bipartisan group of 68 Texas House representatives signed a letter calling on the Texas Education Agency to cancel the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness exam or at minimum not use student scores to rate schools or districts this school year.

The letter, penned by Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, asks that the state apply for waivers from the U.S. Department of Education to cancel the standardized test, which is administered to students in third through 12th grade.

Should the test still be administered during the coronavirus pandemic, it “should only serve as a diagnostic instrument to see where our students stand academically as opposed to an assessment instrument to determine district and campus sanctions,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter.

The letter is addressed to TEA Commissioner Mike Morath, but it’s “just as much a letter to the governor,” Bernal said in an interview, adding that Gov. Greg Abbott “very easily could call the play to change the landscape right now.”

“If we take our time talking to educators — not administrators — but educators, counselors, parents and students, of course, that the last thing they all need right now is the extra and added stress of STAAR,” Bernal said.

You can see a copy of the letter and its signatories here, and a late addition here. As you may recall, the STAAR test was waived last spring at Greg Abbott’s order. The Chron adds some details.

The federal government and Texas Legislature set broad frameworks for testing and accountability, while the TEA fills in many details for the state. Texas did not administer STAAR in the spring of this year after the TEA sought and received a federal waiver because of the pandemic, which forced the abrupt shutdown of all public schools in March.

The U.S. Department of Education has not decided whether it will grant similar waivers in 2021. The decision likely will rest with President-Elect Joe Biden’s new administration, which has not yet taken a firm stance on the issue.

At a State Board of Education meeting Wednesday, Morath said the state plans to apply for waivers related to student participation rate requirements, which essentially punish districts when some children do not take exams. However, he did not commit to canceling the exam or outline potential changes to the state’s A-through-F accountability rating system.

“I think there’s still a lot of question as to how we might pursue this,” Morath said. “We’ve got 10 or so different options, as it were, to consider. No final decision has been made as we gather feedback from folks.”

If Texas education officials move forward with STAAR in the spring, the group of 68 state representatives wants the TEA to set aside its traditional campus and district accountability framework.

“At most, any administration of the STAAR exam during the 2020-2021 school year should only serve as a diagnostic instrument to see where our students stand academically, as opposed to an assessment instrument to determine district and campus sanctions under the current A-F accountability system,” the legislators wrote.

The letter echoes some of the arguments made in recent months by educator organizations and unions, which lobbied against high-stakes standardized testing before the pandemic. Texas State Teachers Association President Ovidia Molina said STAAR testing “should be the last priority” in schools.

“Our students, educators and their families can’t afford the distraction of STAAR as they struggle to stay safe and continue to adjust to new methods of teaching and learning,” Molina said in a statement Wednesday.

I mean, this entire year has been at best a struggle for many, many students. I don’t see the point in making it any harder on them. Ditch the STAAR until things are back to normal.

Texas Central once more gets to deal with the Lege

They’re both farther along, and not as far along, as they might like heading into this session.

Less than two months before the Texas Legislature begins its next session, the yearslong battle over a controversial high-speed rail project is expected to spark more legislative skirmishes.

And after years of public skepticism, Gov. Greg Abbott recently signaled his support for the project in a letter to Japan’s prime minister, although his spokesperson later said that Abbott’s office will “re-evaluate this matter.”

Last month, Abbott sent a letter to Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga saying: “This venture has my full support as Governor of Texas, and I am hopeful that final negotiations of this project with Japan can be concluded so that construction can begin. Public support and momentum are on our side, and this project can be completed swiftly.”

The Oct. 2 letter also included a significant error. Abbott told Suga that the company developing the high-speed rail line had “all the necessary permits to begin construction.”

The Texas Tribune found that Texas Central, the Dallas- and Houston-based company in charge of the project, is far from receiving all permits needed to build the 240-mile line, which would stretch from Dallas to Houston and cost around $20 billion, according to the company. When contacted by the Tribune with this information, Abbott’s office said it would review the matter.

“From the beginning of this project, the Governor made clear that he could support this project if, and only if, the private property rights of Texans are fully respected,” Abbott spokesman John Wittman told the Tribune on Oct. 7.

“The Governor’s team has learned that the information it was provided was incomplete. As a result, the Governor’s Office will re-evaluate this matter after gathering additional information from all affected parties,” Wittman added.

The governor’s office has not responded to multiple follow-up questions about the results of its review and has not explained why Abbott didn’t know the project lacked permits or who Abbott was relying upon for information about the project.

[…]

Texas Central has said that it plans to start construction by the first half of 2021 and that it has already secured sites for stations in Dallas, Houston and the Brazos Valley.

But the Tribune found that Texas Central still hasn’t applied for a key permit from the federal Surface Transportation Board, which regulates transportation projects, for the construction and operation of the proposed rail line, according to an STB spokesperson.

And two Texas agencies, the Texas General Land Office and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said they haven’t received all the necessary permit applications from the company, including the route proposal and a permit to discharge stormwater during the construction process.

A third agency, the Texas Department of Transportation, must approve permits for the rail line to cross state roads during construction, but a spokesperson said the agency would consider any proposals from the company only after the STB approves the project.

The company did receive two key approvals in September from the Federal Railway Administration, which provided the regulatory framework and the environmental review for the high-speed train. The railway administration explained that these rulings covered several of the permits needed by the project in areas like railroad safety, protection of parkland and protection of cultural resources.

See here for the previous update, about the approval provided by the Federal Railroad Administration. I have no idea where the other permits stand, or how long that part of it is supposed to take. We’re about to enter at least the third legislative session where I find myself saying “if they can just make it through this session, they’ll probably be okay”. They did fine in 2019, but their opponents are organized and dedicated, and even though I suspect they’re a minority, I have no idea offhand who their best champion in the Lege is. A small group of people who really care about something can often beat a larger group of people who don’t feel all that strongly about whatever it is they’re being asked to care about. TCR might also want to check in with Greg Abbott and make sure he has up to date information from them – assuming he bothers to respond to their requests, of course. On the plus side for TCR, the Lege has a pretty packed agenda, which may crowd out anything their opponents want to do. But I wouldn’t count on that.

Counties of interest, part two: Around the Metroplex

Part 1 – Counties around Harris

Dallas and Tarrant Counties are two big squares right next to each other, so I’m combining them into one post.


County       Romney    Obama    Trump  Clinton    Trump    Biden    Shift
=========================================================================
Collin      196,888  101,415  201,014  140,624  250,194  227,868   73,147
Denton      157,579   80,978  170,603  110,890  221,829  188,023   42,795
Ellis        39,574   13,881   44,941   16,253   56,651   27,513   -3,445
Johnson      37,661   10,496   44,382   10,988   54,523   16,418  -10,940
Kaufman      24,846    9,472   29,587   10,278   37,474   18,290   -3,810
Parker       39,243    7,853   46,473    8,344   61,584   12,789  -17,405
Rockwall     27,113    8,120   28,451    9,655   38,842   18,149   -1,700
Wise         17,207    3,221   20,670    3,412   26,986    4,953   -8,047

Most of the attention goes to Collin and Denton counties, for good reason. Even as they stayed red this year, they have shifted tremendously in a blue direction. Basically, a whole lot of Dallas has spilled over the county lines, and the result is what you’d expect. There’s not a whole lot to say here – demography, time, and continued organizing should do the trick.

But once you get past those two counties, it’s a whole lot of red. The Republicans have netted more total votes since 2012 from the other six counties than the Dems have from Denton. Parker County, west of Tarrant, home of Weatherford, ninety percent white and over eighty percent Republican, more than twice as populous now as it was in 1990, is A Problem. Johnson County, south of Tarrant and with nearly identical demographics as Parker while also growing rapidly, is right behind it.

I don’t know that there’s much to be done about those two. There does appear to be more promise in Ellis (south of Dallas, home of Waxahachie), Kaufman (southeast of Dallas), and Rockwall counties. The first two are slightly less white than Parker and Johnson, and all three saw enough growth in Democratic voters in 2020 (at least at the Presidential level; we’ll need to check back on other races) to mostly offset the growth in Republican voting. It’s almost certainly the case that proximity to Dallas County is better for Democratic prospects than proximity to Tarrant. Again, that doesn’t address a big part of the problem, but it at least provides a place to start.

I don’t have a whole lot more to offer, so I’m interested in hearing what my readers from this part of the state have to say. I’ll be honest, I had not given any thought to the geography of this before I started writing these posts. Hell, in most cases I had to do some research to know which counties to look up. I hope that by doing so I’ve helped you think about this.

Please stop with the straight ticket voting anecdotes

Either bring me some real data or leave these just so stories alone.

Rep. Sarah Davis

Judging from Donald Trump’s unpopularity in Dallas County, Morgan Meyer and Angie Chen Button should have been doomed this November.

Meyer and Button are the only two remaining Republican state House members in the state’s second-most-populous county, where former Vice President Joe Biden’s margin over Trump was nearly 32 percentage points.

The margins were slimmer in Button’s and Meyer’s districts: Biden won Button’s district by 9 percentage points and Meyer’s by 14.

Still, the two Republicans will be returning to the Texas House next year. According to unofficial vote counts as of Friday, Button eked out a win by 223 votes. (Her Democratic opponent, Brandy K. Chambers, conceded last week, saying she won’t call for a recount.) Meyer won by a larger, but still narrow, margin of 1,634 votes.

What appears to have been their lifeline was a willingness of some Texas voters to split their tickets, rejecting Trump but nonetheless pulling the levers for the Republican Party’s other candidates. And it may have been aided by lawmakers’ decision to eliminate straight-ticket voting in the state, starting with this year’s election.

“Republicans are probably breathing a sigh of relief that they didn’t invite people to take the easy way out” and do straight-ticket voting, said Sam Martin, an associate professor at Southern Methodist University. “The decision to end straight-ticket voting came at exactly the right moment for them.”

“It gives conservatives the opportunity to vote against Trump, but stick with their team,” Martin said.

Republicans weren’t the only beneficiaries of split tickets, however: State Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, and Eddie Morales Jr., who will replace state Rep. Poncho Nevárez, D-Eagle Pass, won their Democrat-held seats near the Texas-Mexico border after Trump carried each district by more than 50% of the vote share.

You know who wasn’t a beneficiary of the removal of the straight ticket option? Sarah Davis, who was ousted this year after winning in 2018, in a district that Beto O’Rourke carried with 60% of the vote, with the straight ticket option still available. This year she had a better opponent, and enough voters decided it was time for a change.

The issue is not the straight ticket option. People always had the ability to hit the straight ticket button and then change whatever votes they want to. They also had the option of not using it. People who wanted to vote a straight ticket, whether that meant pushing one button or 54 buttons (as was the case in Harris County this year), did so. It just took them longer. As the story notes later on, there are just fewer people who see value in splitting their tickets these days. If you want to lament that, I say place your blame on Newt Gingrich and Mitch McConnell. In the meantime, this horse is dead. Please stop hitting it.

Greg Abbott has no interest in fighting COVID

It is what it is at this point.

On June 26, Texas was reporting 5,102 people had been hospitalized due to the coronavirus, breaking a new record for the state. The positivity rate — the portion of tests that come back positive — had hovered above Gov. Greg Abbott’s “warning flag” level of 10% for more than a week.

Abbott swept into action. For a second time in months, the Republican governor shut down bars and rolled back restaurant capacity. Six days later, he took arguably his most drastic action yet, announcing a statewide mask mandate.

This week, more than 7,400 Texans are hospitalized for COVID-19, and the positivity rate has exceeded 10% for over three weeks.

But the governor’s strategy as the state heads into the holidays is to stay the course, relying on a 2-month-old blueprint to claw back reopenings regionally based on hospitalizations. The mask order remains in place, but last week he ruled out “any more lockdowns,” and tensions are again rising with local officials who want more authority to impose safety restrictions.

“We need the state to step in and lead or get out of the way and let us lead,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo told reporters Tuesday.

Public health experts and elected officials acknowledge they are up against a stronger sense of “COVID fatigue” than ever — a malaise that appears to be reflected in the state response.

“The numbers are quite alarming, to be honest, because it’s not showing any sign of slowing down,” said Rajesh Nandy, associate professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at the University of North Texas Health Science Center. However, Nandy added, “it seems like at this point, there’s not a lot of will, even among people, for a full-scale stay-at-home [order] like [Abbott] did in March because, of course, it has other consequences.”

That much is true, as far as it goes. There are economic consequences for shutdowns. There are also economic consequences for letting the virus rage out of control – restaurants and bars and gyms and so forth may be open now, but lots of people don’t want to go to them because it’s not safe, and no amount of puffy-chested posturing from our Republican leaders will change that. At any time in the past six months, Abbott could have asked one or both of our Republican Senators – publicly or privately – to support another COVID relief bill, so that businesses and their employees that have been affected by COVID could safely shut down and not go bust. You would have to ask him yourself why he hasn’t done that, if he ever deigns to answer questions from the public or the non-sycophantic media again.

I mean, maybe we’ll get some kind of relief package from the lame duck session. Maybe the Dems will win both Georgia Senate runoffs and will have the ability to pass a real relief bill. Maybe enough people will stop doing dangerous things like attending indoor events and going about their lives un-masked, and the infection rate will drop again. Maybe we’ll manage to not die before the vaccines get circulated. Anything can happen, I guess.

Of course, one thing that could happen is that our hospitals get so overwhelmed that the death rate for non-COVID sufferers also spikes:

Since Abbott announced the 15% threshold, it has been the subject of some scrutiny. Abbott initially defined the threshold as 15% of “all hospitalized patients” in a region, though he later changed it to 15% of “total hospital capacity” — or total beds — in a region. That redefinition is problematic, according to hospital administrators in parts of Texas that have seen the most infections.

“They’re assuming that all those licensed beds can somehow be utilized for a COVID-19 surge, and that’s simply not true,” Dr. Brian Weis, chief medical officer at Northwest Texas Healthcare System, said last month during a coronavirus briefing for the city of Amarillo. “By using that number, that overestimates our capacity to handle COVID-19 patients.”

[…]

Exhibit A in the state-local tensions is hard-hit El Paso County. Attorney General Ken Paxton has gone to court to stop the shutdown order that County Judge Ricardo Samaniego issued late last month, saying it oversteps Abbott’s statewide rules. A state appeals court blocked the order for a second time Friday.

Abbott blasted the order shortly after it was issued, saying Samaniego “failed to do his job” enforcing existing rules to slow the spread of the virus “and is now illegally shutting down entire businesses.”

In an interview, Samaniego said the criticism from Abbott felt politically motivated and failed to address the biggest issue El Paso faces — that people are getting sick, being hospitalized and dying at staggering rates. Samaniego said he did everything within his power to limit the spread of the virus. He, like other local officials, wants more authority to take precautions in his county.

“It was about saving lives, not about whether I was right or wrong or he was right or wrong,” he said.

He also noted that El Paso’s share of hospital beds occupied by COVID-19 patients is several times Abbott’s 15% trigger, but it’s still artificially low because the county added 580 spots to its hospital capacity.

“This is a governor that issued a stay at home order,” Samaniego said. “And now he’s upset that I did when my numbers are 10 times worse than when he issued it. It’s just a political approach to our community.”

It’s not just El Paso County, though, where local officials are pushing for more latitude from Abbott. In Lubbock County, where cases have ballooned to more than 400 per day on average in the last week, the county judge, Curtis Parrish, said he is grateful for the state’s help with hospital capacity — the state has provided three large medical tents and personnel to go with them — but that he wants more enforcement power.

“My hands are tied,” Parrish said. “We operate under the governor’s order. We can’t do any detaining.”

In Laredo, the City Council voted Monday to limit private gatherings to 10 people plus household members. City Council member Marte Martinez said he would have liked to do more, such as implement a curfew and beef up enforcement for businesses that violate state rules.

“I felt powerless in my plight to save people’s lives,” said Martinez, a doctor. “You’re going to be in a full shutdown within a few weeks unless the state allows municipal governments and county governments to make more firm action.”

There is especially an urgency in Laredo and its hospital region, where the number of coronavirus patients has exceeded 15% of the capacity for the past three days. That means the state’s reopening rollback will kick in in four days if the figure remains above 15%.

What’s happening in El Paso right now is grotesque and disgraceful. Maybe what happens is that we begin to see death and misery like Italy had in the spring, at such levels and in so many places that even Greg Abbott will not be able to ignore it. I really hope it doesn’t come to that, but I don’t know what short of that will make him take this seriously.

Texas blog roundup for the week of November 16

The Texas Progressive Alliance has submitted its claim for Dan Patrick’s million dollars as it brings you this week’s roundup.

(more…)

Counties of interest, part one: Around Harris

There’s been so much focus in the past couple of years about the suburbs and how their traditional voting patterns have changed. I wanted to use the election results we have to take a closer look at what that means. My approach is to look at the results in the counties that surround the large urban counties in Texas, and see what we can infer from the Presidential election data since 2012. A few things to note before we get started.

– I will be looking at the counties that border Harris, Dallas/Tarrant, Travis, and Bexar. I’m skipping El Paso because there’s only one county in the state that is adjacent to it.

– I’m using Presidential results from 2012, 2016, and 2020. As we have discussed, this is only one dimension to the data, but I want to keep this fairly simple. We can discern direction from these numbers, and that’s good enough for these purposes.

– I’m going back to 2012 to provide some extra context. I could have gone back further, and maybe I will take a look at trends since 2004 in some counties at a later date, but I think keeping this study to after the 2010 election, when rural areas gave up the pretense of supporting Democrats at any level, makes more sense.

– In the chart below and in subsequent posts, “Shift” is the change in net votes from a Democratic perspective, from 2012 to 2020. A positive number means Democrats did better in 2020 than in 2012, and a negative number means Republicans did better. So for example, Obama trailed in Brazoria County by 36,431 votes, but Biden trailed by 28,159 votes, so a shift in the Democrat direction by 8,282 votes. Obama lost Chambers County by 8,997 votes, Biden lost it by 13,346 votes, so a shift of 4,329 away from Dems. Make sense?

All right. Let’s start with the seven counties that border Harris County.


County       Romney    Obama    Trump  Clinton    Trump    Biden    Shift
=========================================================================
Brazoria     70,862   34,421   72,791   43,200   89,939   61,780    8,282
Chambers     11,787    2,790   13,339    2,948   17,343    3,997   -4,349
Fort Bend   116,126  101,144  117,291  134,686  157,595  195,191   52,578
Galveston    69,059   39,511   73,757   43,658   93,306   58,247   -5,511
Liberty      17,323    5,202   18,892    4,862   23,288    5,779   -5,388
Montgomery  137,969   32,920  150,314   45,835  193,224   74,255  -13,920
Waller        9,244    6,514   10,531    5,748   14,206    8,130   -3,346

The first thing that should be clear is that just because a county borders a big urban county, that doesn’t mean it’s suburban. For sure Montgomery and Fort Bend and Brazoria and Galveston meet that definition, though all four of those counties also have some very rural areas, but I daresay no one thinks of Chambers or Liberty or Waller that way. Yet while the first four are seen as places of booming population growth, the other three are doing their share of growing, too. Chambers County has doubled in population since 1990. Waller County has more than doubled in that timespan. Liberty County is up by almost 75%.

But they’re still small. None has a city with more than ten thousand people in it, so they don’t have much in common with the other counties. Maybe it’s different for you, but while I personally know plenty of people in Brazoria, Fort Bend, Galveston, and Montgomery Counties, I know all of one in the other three. I drive through Waller now and then on my way to Austin or to Camp Allen when my daughters were going there, but I couldn’t tell you the last time I was in Chambers or Liberty.

I say all this to note that while Montgomery is the driving force behind the Republican strength in this area, with Galveston right behind it thanks to places like Friendswood and League City, the other three counties have increased the Republican bottom line over the past few elections by a significant amount as well, with far fewer people in them. Jane Robinson would be the incoming Chief Justice of the 14th Court of Appeals if Chambers County had had the same numbers in 2020 as they had in 2016. It makes a difference.

Part of the reason I’m doing this is just to highlight the places where we’re losing ground, if only so we can be aware of it. We’ve got our arms around Fort Bend County, and Brazoria is starting to head in the right direction. Montgomery and Galveston are problems, but we have infrastructure in those places, and just by virtue of being suburban I have some reason to think we’ll get to a turning point. I have no idea what exists in the other three counties to promote Democratic policies or candidates. We need a strategy for these places, and the resources to carry it out. We don’t need to win them – we’re no more likely to win Chambers than we are to win Montgomery any time soon – but we at least need to keep up with Republican voter growth.

That’s a theme I’m going to return to more than once a I proceed through these. I don’t pretend to know what the right answers are, I’m just trying to make sure we know there are problems that need to be addressed. I hope you find this helpful.

More on the Lathan non-hiring

Some sharp criticism from local leaders about the HISD Board’s decision not to hire interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan permanently.

About 20 of Houston’s leading Black elected officials, clergy and racial justice advocates called Tuesday for Houston ISD’s school board to reverse its vote last week declining to name Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan as the district’s long-term leader.

In a statement and at a news conference, many of the city’s Black leaders argued Lathan has proven herself worthy of the top job since assuming the position on an interim basis in March 2018. Some officials also questioned whether trustees were motivated in part by race, given that the board’s three Black members supported retaining Lathan while the six non-Black members voted against it.

“For several reasons, we are united in our belief that the decision not to name Dr. Lathan as superintendent of HISD was grossly misguided, and I must add, ill-motivated,” NAACP Houston Branch Vice-President Bishop James Dixon said Tuesday, surrounded by about a dozen Lathan supporters outside the district’s headquarters.

The rebuke of trustees came five days after board members voted to resume the district’s long-dormant superintendent search and forgo removing Lathan’s interim tag. The board majority argued HISD should conduct a national search — with Lathan as a candidate, if she chooses to apply — before selecting a long-term leader.

“We owe it to our students to, at the very least, take a look at the records of other candidates and other superintendents who want to apply to the school district,” HISD Trustee Dani Hernandez said Thursday. “I cannot make this decision for my community and our students without conducting a search.”

The group that convened Tuesday included state Rep. Ron Reynolds, former HISD trustees Rhonda Skillern-Jones and Jolanda Jones and several religious leaders. In addition, U.S. Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee and Al Green, state Sen. Borris Miles, and state Reps. Alma Allen and Harold Dutton Jr. signed a statement in support of Lathan, according to the NAACP Houston Branch.

[…]

Board members were on the brink of naming a superintendent finalist in March 2019, but a state-appointed conservator ordered trustees to stand down. At the time, HISD remained under the threat of a state takeover of the district’s school board.

The Texas Education Agency ultimately moved in November 2019 to replace HISD’s elected trustees, citing a state law triggered by chronically low academic scores at Wheatley High School and multiple instances of trustee misconduct. HISD trustees sued to stop the takeover, and Travis County District Judge Catherine Mauzy issued a temporary injunction in January halting their ouster.

As part of the injunction, Mauzy ordered that the conservator is “prohibited from acting outside her lawful authority.” However, Mauzy did not state clearly whether that applied retroactively to the conservator’s order, leading to questions about whether trustees legally can conduct a superintendent search.

See here and here for the background. I don’t have a whole lot to add to what I’ve already said, but I will say this much: More discussion and engagement about this decision and the process that led to it would be a good idea. A full and honest accounting of the Saavedra situation from last year would help, too. I feel like there’s a lot we don’t know about what’s been happening, and that’s a problem.

The poll workers’ stories

Some good news.

With a record 2,431,457 registered voters on the rolls in Harris County, there were several reasons poll workers expected a huge turnout and they got it, but not on Election Day.

Two judges working two of the locations in northwest Harris County with the largest turnouts in the county both saw voters take advantage of extra days and utilize extended hours for voting.

“It was impressive the number of people who turned out,” said John Baucum who served as precinct judge at the city of Jersey Village location.

Harris County set a record for the total number of voters ever participating in an election with 1,649,573 casting ballots, but it fell just shy in the percentage of registered voters who showed up at the polls with 67.84 percent.

The last time a presidential race garnered more than 70 percent of the voters in Harris County was in 1992 when Bill Clinton defeated incumbent President George W. Bush. At least 71.68 percent or 942,636 of the 1,315,010 registered voters cast their vote in the election.

While the voter rolls have increased almost twice that number since 1992, participation seems to be on an uptick and so is early voting.

“Yes, it’s the most voters we’ve ever had,” confirmed Roxanne Werner, director of community relations for Harris County Clerk Chris Collins.

[…]

Baucum said he believed the process in his precinct was fair.

“Voting day, when they come into that center, you want them to know that their vote counts, that the process was fair, and their ballot was in secret. I think as a team we make sure that it happens,” he said.

Baucum was grateful for his staff who worked tirelessly to ensure a fair election.

One of the difficulties with staffing, especially on election day, is securing rare interpreters.

“We have to be prepared for any voter to walk in,” he said. “Before countywide voting, we would have a Spanish and English interpreter, and maybe in southwest Houston you might have had a Chinese or Vietnamese interpreter, now we’re required to have all of them. We were able to have all of those plus one of our clerks spoke Portuguese and German,” he said. “We were probably overprepared.”

“Those are the challenges you see with countywide voting. We’ve been able to find the people to fill those spots,” he said.

For Matt Harris, serving as an alternate judge for the Richard and Meg Weekley Community Center was exciting since the location led the county in early voting with 29,810.

“This was my first time. It was an interesting experience. I’m glad I did it and I’ll probably continue to do it,” he said. “I think it’s important for my age group to be involved in the process.”

The 38-year-old moved to Texas from Illinois a decade ago in search of job opportunities.

“My wife graduated from college right after the recession hit Illinois really hard. We tried things there for a while, but nothing panned out,” he said.

They pulled up roots and moved to the Houston area where they found 30-40 postings for her job versus only two or three for the same in Illinois.

He took the training for being a precinct judge twice.

“Originally I was scheduled to work the primaries in March and didn’t get to and did the training a second time which was very helpful,” he said.

He also received a reference manual which provided invaluable information for judges.

He said the Weekley Center has been a voting location for at least the 10 years he’s lived in the area.

Until he moved to Texas, he really wasn’t involved in politics so much.

“I always pushed it to the side because it’s (Illinois) always been a blue state and I’m conservative,” he said.

As we now know, final turnout was 1,656,686 after provisional ballots were cured. Both of the election workers quoted are Republicans, and as you can see they both thought the process was fair, accessible, and generally well done. It would be nice if some of our Republican leaders felt that way, too. Honestly, if the Chron wants to talk to a couple of election workers and let them tell their stories every week till we run out of them, that would be fine with me. The single best thing to come out of this election – OK, the second best thing – was the joy and enthusiasm so many people had for participating in it, for feeling like their votes mattered and their voices were heard. I’ve lived my entire life in an atmosphere of cynicism and detachment towards our democracy, and this is the first time I can recall it being more cool to be into it than to be sarcastic about it. It’s better this way.

So the FBI is indeed investigating Ken Paxton

Sources say so.

Best mugshot ever

The FBI is investigating allegations that Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton broke the law in using his office to benefit a wealthy donor, according to two people with knowledge of the probe.

Federal agents are looking into claims by former members of Paxton’s staff that the high-profile Republican committed bribery, abuse of office and other crimes to help Austin real estate developer Nate Paul, the people told The Associated Press. They insisted on anonymity to discuss the investigation because it is ongoing.

Confirmation of the criminal probe marks mounting legal peril for Paxton, who’s denied wrongdoing and refused calls for his resignation since his top deputies reported him to federal authorities at the end of September.

A criminal defense attorney for Paxton, Philip Hilder, declined to comment. Spokespersons in the attorney general’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

[…]

Paxton said in a Tuesday statement to the Austin American-Stateman that, “after reviewing the claims made by former employees of this office, their allegations are overblown, based upon assumptions, and to a large degree misrepresent the facts.”

KXAN has Paxton’s full statement, if for some reason you need to see it. Just the other day I was saying that we needed to be patient, because it usually takes a long time to find out what’s happening with this sort of thing. This is one of those times when I’m quite happy to be wrong. The Trib has more.

A closer look at county races, Part 2

Part One is here. As before, this is about taking a closer look at the counties where Democrats made gains from 2016.

Collin County: Our reach may have exceeded our grasp, but it’s important to note that progress was made. A quick recap, comparing 2016:


CD03: 61.2% - 34.6%
Statewides: GOP 59-62%, Dem 32-35%
HD33: 62.6% - 34.1%
HD66: 57.4% - 38.7%
HD67: 56.6% - 39.7%
HD70: 67.1% - 28.5%
HD89: 63.5% - 32.7%

No candidates for District Court, Commissioner’s Court, countywide offices, or Constable. One candidate for Justice of the Peace.

To 2020:


CD03: 55.1% - 42.9%
Statewides: GOP 54-57%, Dem 42-44%
HD33: 59.0% - 41.0%
HD66: 49.6% - 48.9%
HD67: 51.7% - 48.3%
HD70: 61.8% - 38.2%
HD89: 59.4% - 38.5%

Candidates for seven of nine District Court benches (all in the 42-44% range), County Tax Assessor (41%), and both Commissioners Court seats (41% and 39%).

Still no candidates for any of the four Constable races. Hard to say how competitive any of them might have been, at least until a full canvass is available, but in Constable Precinct 3, the unopposed Republican got 115K votes, with 88K undervotes. Given that unopposed candidates always get more votes than candidates with major party opponents, this was probably not far from a 50-50 race. I’d be eyeing this office in 2024 if I’m a Collin County Democrat. Overall, a shift of about six or seven points down for the GOP and up for the Dems.

Denton County: Same basic story as Collin, except that we held the one State Rep race we won in 2018. Here’s the same presentation, for 2016:


CD24: 53.7% - 42.0%
CD26: 65.2% - 30.7%
Statewides: GOP 60-62%, Dem 32-34%
HD63: No Dem
HD64: 61.6% - 38.4%
HD65: 56.3% - 43.7%
HD106: No Dem

One candidate for District Court (36.3%), no candidates for any county race.

And 2020


CD24: 45.9% - 50.4%
CD26: 59.5% - 38.4%
Statewides: GOP 55-58%, Dem 40-43%
HD63: 67.4% - 32.6%
HD64: 54.9% - 45.1%
HD65: 48.5% - 51.5%
HD106: 58.5% - 41.5%

Still just one candidate for District Court, getting 42.6%. Both County Commissioner races were challenged, but still no candidates for any of the six Constable spots. Here I can’t say which if any may have been competitive, as the election night returns don’t tell me the undervotes. No matter how you look at it, you want to get some Dem candidates in these races, to help with downballot turnout.

Hays County: Like Williamson, a flip to Dems, with some downballot success as well. The big prize here was HD45, where Rep. Erin Zwiener knocked off incumbent Jason Isaac in 2018, two years after Isaac had been unopposed for re-election. Rep. Zwiener easily held on against Carrie Isaac, winning with 53.3% of the vote. In 2016, Lamar Smith took the CD21 portion of Hays 53-39, Roger Williams won the CD25 portion of Hays 60-35, and statewide Republicans won with 47-49% over Dems with scores in the 40-44% range. Rebecca Bell-Metereau lost in SBOE5 49-46. There was one District Court race, with an unopposed Republican, the Democratic candidate for Sheriff lost by 13 points, and there was no Dem running for Tax Assessor. There were a mix of Dem and GOP winners, some unopposed, for Commissioners Court, Justice of the Peace, and Constable.

In 2020, Wendy Davis took the CD21 piece 49-46, while Julie Oliver held Roger Williams to a 57-41 edge. (There’s also a piece of CD35 in Hays County. Pound for pound, Hays is at least as sliced up at the Congressional level as Travis County is.) Statewide Dems were now universal winners in Hays, ranging from Chrysta Castaneda’s 49.8% to Elizabeth Frizell’s 53.1%. Rebecca Bell-Metereau won in SBOE5 50.5% to 44.8%. Hays County now had a second District Court seat, won by a Democrat, and a new County Court at Law seat, also won by a Dem. The same Republican judge who was unopposed in 2016 was unopposed in 2020 as well. Dems now had challengers for both Sheriff and Tax Assessor, and while they both lost it was 51-49 in each. Dems had a challenger for Commissioners Court in Precinct 3, losing 52-48 after not contesting the position in 2016. The Dem Constable who won Precinct 2 by 110 votes in 2016 was re-elected by 2,500 votes in 2020. I’d say Hays is a bit like Harris County in 2012, where Dems are the majority but they do better at the top of the ticket, and aren’t quite able to knock out Republican countywide officeholders. There are definitely opportunities here going forward.

Brazoria County: This is more a story of stasis than progress. Trump carried Brazoria County by 29K votes in 2016, and he carried it by 28K votes in 2020. I’d rather go this direction than the other one, but we’re not getting anywhere at that rate. If we pull the curtain back a little farther, here’s the margin of victory in Brazoria County for the Republican Presidential candidate in each election since 2004: 34,758 (04), 29,035 (08), 36,441 (12), 29,591 (16), 28,159 (20). The long-term arc is fine, it’s just slow.

Republican statewides won the county with leads in the 30-34K range in 2016, and roughly the same in 2020. The percentages are closer, because that’s how ratios work, but the absolute difference in votes is more or less the same. That’s why I always aim to report both figures in posts like this, because you need both dimensions to understand what is really happening. For what it’s worth, Sri Kulkarni lost the CD22 portion of Brazoria by 6K votes after Mark Gibson lost it by 14K in 2016, but in the end that didn’t amount to much. I see Brazoria as being similar to Fort Bend twenty years ago, with a lot of work needed to move it in the same direction that Fort Bend has gone.

That’s all I’ve got for this exercise. There are some opportunities out there, but nothing can be taken for granted. Broadly speaking, the key is to run candidates in these downballot races – for one, there’s winnable contests out there, and for two, this is a key component to building a bench of future candidates. And not to put too fine a point on it, but as we have seen in Harris County, having a good county government is a big win on its own.

Who’s concerned about the state’s coronavirus spike?

Not Greg Abbott, or Dan Patrick, or Ken Paxton, that’s for sure.

The Oregon governor is calling it a “freeze.” In New Mexico, it’s a “reset.”

Across the country, state elected officials are frantically rolling back their reopening plans to slow the burgeoning surge in coronavirus infections.

But in Texas, Republican leaders remain unwilling to change course in the face of soaring hospitalizations and an early uptick in deaths from the virus that has public health experts increasingly alarmed.

Gov. Greg Abbott has yet to impose new restrictions or allow county officials to take additional measures. Attorney General Ken Paxton has intervened to strike down locally adopted restrictions. Other requests to further limit gatherings, close nonessential businesses or impose stricter mask requirements have been blocked.

On Friday, a state appeals court halted a temporary shutdown of nonessential businesses in El Paso County, where cases have skyrocketed and mobile morgues have been rushed in to handle all the casualties. Paxton and a group of restaurant owners had sued to block the order, claiming the governor has final say on any new restrictions.

“I will not let rogue political subdivisions try to kill small businesses and holiday gatherings through unlawful executive orders,” Paxton said in a statement celebrating the appeals court ruling. On Twitter, he added: “We must never shut Texas down again!!”

[…]

Since September, Abbott has relied on a reopening plan that ratchets up restrictions in regions that have growing numbers of people hospitalized with COVID-19; the threshold is now seven continuous days of coronavirus patients filling at least 15 percent of all available beds in that area.

Few if any other states are using a similar threshold, and public health experts have long cautioned against relying on hospitalizations alone because they provide a delayed glimpse into the state of an outbreak — it takes someone several days to be hospitalized after they contract COVID.

Rebecca Fischer, assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Texas A&M, said it’s important to consider multiple factors, including the rate at which people are testing positive for the virus, emergency room visits and infections at nursing and other long-term care facilities. And she said local governments need decision-making power to best respond to their situations, which may differ even within a given region.

“When I see county judges that are trying so hard to work toward the public health of their constituents and then are just cut off and told no, it kills me,” Fischer said. “Everybody in the public health realm is left scratching their head as to why that would be the case.”

Let’s be clear:

1. They don’t care. Abbott doesn’t want to talk about coronavirus. Paxton will sue any local official who tries to take action to save lives. Dan Patrick has never walked back his comments about letting Grandma die so businesses can reopen.

2. They will never give any authority to local officials. If anything, there will be further bills in the upcoming Lege to restrict what local officials can do even more.

3. They will go straight to Defcon 1 the minute the Biden administration attempts to take any action to combat the virus.

How many people get sick and die as a result is not their concern. They could not be more clear about this.

Coronavirus and college sports update

What life is like for Texas’ college football teams.

In the world of COVID-19-era college football, Sunday is a day not for resting but for testing.

Each Sunday this fall brings a new set of checklists and guideposts that players and staff members must negotiate before they can think about playing, let alone winning, on any given Saturday.

It has not been a uniformly smooth road for Texas’ 12 Football Bowl Subdivision teams. Nine of the 12 have had at least one game on their revised schedules affected by their own positive COVID tests or those of an opponent.

This weekend alone, Texas A&M and Rice were idle because their games against Tennessee and Louisiana Tech, respectively, were postponed as college football enters the final month of its truncated, delayed regular season. Nationally, 15 games were postponed or canceled this weekend.

But with the exception of Rice, which delayed its season opener into October, each of the 12 Texas schools will exit this weekend having played at least a half-dozen games, which speaks to their success in maintaining the discipline required for success and health.

“We’re asking 18- to 22-year-olds in the most social time of their lives to be more mature than many adults are being,” said Baylor athletic director Mack Rhoades. “They’re doing a pretty darn good job of following the rules and being disciplined.”

A month remains, though, in which things can go awry quickly.

“We can’t let our guard down,” said Texas A&M athletic director Ross Bjork. “We can’t get too comfortable, especially with our communities surging right now. But everyone has done a great job.”

While each of the five conferences represented by the 12 Texas schools — the American Athletic, Big 12, Conference USA, Southeastern and Sun Belt — have their own weekly procedures, all are on the same approximate schedule.

You can read on for the details, but basically it’s testing on Sunday and at least one other day, contact tracing and quarantining anyone who was in contact with someone who tested positive, coordinating with the visiting teams, and so on. With the exception of Texas State, every school that is playing football has had at least one game postponed, with those that had scheduled non-conference games having them mostly or all canceled. I’ll be honest, this has gone better than I expected in terms of getting the games played – the effect of the outbreak in the towns that have these universities is another story, but that’s about more than just the games – though the wisdom of doing this at all seems to have been accepted regardless of the outcome. I think we’re going to be debating that for a long time.

Meanwhile, this is the time of year when college basketball normally gets underway. Suffice it to say, there are challenges. At least football is played outdoors, where some of the COVID risks can be minimized. If there’s going to be basketball of any kind before a vaccine is fully rolled out, I don’t see how it can be done with fans in the stands. We’ll know what they’re up to soon.

A closer look at county races, Part 1

In this series of entries, I’m going to take a trip through the local election results pages on some counties of interest, to get a closer look at how they went this year and how that compares to 2016. We know Dems didn’t make the kind of gains they hoped for in Congress or the Lege, but there are other races on the ballot. How did things look there?

Harris County: We know the basic story of Harris County, where Republicans have claimed to get their mojo back. I’m not going to re-litigate that, but I will note that while things were mostly at stasis at the countywide and legislative levels, Dems flipped JP Precinct 5, long held by Republicans, though Constable Precinct 5 remained Republican. Beto carried all eight JP/Constable precincts in 2018, and while Biden only carried six in 2020, there still remain opportunities for Dems to win offices currently held by Republicans in Harris County.

Tarrant County: At a macro level, Dems were far more competitive in judicial races in 2020 than they were in 2016. None of the statewide judicial candidates got as much as 41% of the vote in 2016, while the range for statewide judicials in 2020 was 46.13% to 47.91%. In 2016, Dems fielded only one candidate for a district court bench; he lost by 15 points. In 2020, Dems challenged in 9 of 11 district court plus one county court race, with all candidates getting between 46 and 48 percent. This is basically where Harris County Democrats were in 2004, with more candidates in these races.

A little farther down the ballot, and Democrats flipped two Constable offices, in Precincts 2 and 7. Neither Republican incumbent had been challenged in 2016.

Fort Bend County: We know the topline, that Hillary Clinton won Fort Bend County in 2016, by a 51-45 margin. But there was no downballot effect – none of the statewide Democratic candidates won a plurality (all statewide candidates were below fifty percent). None of the Courts of Appeals candidates won, and none of the countywide candidates won, though most were around 48 or 49 percent. State Rep. Phil Stephenson won the Fort Bend part of HD85 by six points. Republicans won back County Commissioner Precinct 1 by finally running an untainted candidate against two-term incumbent Richard Morrison. Fort Bend was on the precipice, but it seemed like it had been there before.

As we know, Democrats broke through in a big way in 2018, and 2020 was more of the same. It’s not just that Biden carried Fort Bend by over ten points. It’s that every statewide Dem took a majority in Fort Bend, as did every Courts of Appeals candidates and every countywide candidate. Dems did not win back CC1, though challenger Jennifer Cantu did a smidge better than Morrison had done, but they did win the Constable race in Precinct 4; this was an open seat, as previous incumbent Trever Nehls ran unsuccessfully for Sheriff. Nehls had been unopposed in 2016.

Bexar County: Bexar is reliably blue at this point, and Biden’s 58-40 win is almost exactly in line with the October countywide poll we got. The big difference I see between Bexar 2020 and Bexar 2016 is in the legislative races. Phillip Cortez won HD117 back in 2016 by two and half points after having been swept out in the 2014 debacle. He won in 2020 by over 13 points. Tomas Uresti won HD118 in 2016 by ten points; Leo Pacheco won it in 2020 by seventeen. Rebecca Bell-Metereau lost the Bexar portion of SBOE5 in 2016 by 42K votes; she lost it by 24K votes in 2020, which is to say by 18K fewer votes. She won the district by 17K total votes, mostly boosted by Travis County, but she needed it to be closer in Bexar and it was. By the same token, Sen. Carlos Uresti won the Bexar portion of SD19 over challenger Pete Flores in 2016 by 34K votes. Incumbent Pete Flores lost the Bexar portion of SD19 to Roland Gutierrez by 33K votes, and he needed that margin to be as good as it was considering how the rest of the district went for Flores by 23K; Uresti had won the rest of the district by 3K in 2016. However you feel about the 2020 election in Texas, you would feel much worse about it if Rebecca Bell-Metereau had lost and Pete Flores had hung on. So thank you, Bexar County.

Williamson County: WilCo made news in 2018 when Beto carried the county, with MJ Hegar doing the same in CD31. I’ll get to the 2020 results in a minute, but first let’s remind ourselves where things were in 2016. Trump won WilCo by nine points over Hillary Clinton, John Carter beat Mike Clark in CD31 by 19 points, other statewide Republicans led by 16 to 19 points, and Tom Maynard led in SBOE10 by 16 points. State Rep. Larry Gonzalez had only a Libertarian opponent in HD52, Rep. Tony Dale won HD136 by eleven points. Republicans running for countywide office were all unopposed. The one Democratic victory was for County Commissioner, Precinct 1, which Terry Cook took with 51%.

Fast forward to 2020. Biden won Williamson County by about a point and a half – more than ten points better than Clinton in 2016. As with Tarrant County, his win was a solo at the county level, but the Democratic tide was much higher. Hegar lost to John Cornyn by three points, Donna Imam by five in CD31, and the other statewide Dems trailed by three to seven points. Tom Maynard carried WilCo in SBOE10 again, but only by four points. Dems had flipped HDs 52 and 136 in the 2018 wave, and both freshmen Reps were easily re-elected, James Talarico by three points in HD52, and John Bucy by 10 in HD136. Dems lost the two District Court races they challenged, and they lost for County Attorney, but they did oust the scandal-tainted Sheriff, by a massive 12 points. Terry Cook was re-elected as County Commissioner in Precinct 1 with over 57%, and Dems won Constable Precinct 1, while coming close in Precincts 3 (losing by five) and 4 (losing by two). It’s not at all hard to see Williamson as the next Fort Bend.

The point of all this is twofold. One is a reminder that there are more races than just the state races, and there’s more ways to measure partisan strength than just wins and losses. The other is that these much less visible races that Dems are winning is exactly what Republicans were doing in the 80s and 90s and into the aughts. Every election it seemed like I was reading about this or that traditionally Democratic county that had gone all Republican. There is a trend here, and we’d be foolish to ignore it. To be sure, this is happening in fewer counties than with the Republican march of the previous decades, but there’s a lot more people in these counties. I’ll take population over land mass any day.

I’ll be back with a look at more counties next time. Let me know what you think.

UPDATE: While I was drafting this, I received a press release from the TDP congratulating three Democratic Sheriffs-elect, all of whom had won offices previously held by Republicans: Eric Fagan in Fort Bend, Mike Gleason in Williamson – both of which were mentioned in this post – and Joe Lopez of Falls County, which is adjacent to McLennan and Coryell counties to the east; basically, it’s east of Waco. Falls was Republican at the Presidential level, with Trump carrying it 4,177 to 1,899, so I assume there was some reason particular to that race that assisted Lopez in his victory.

A bill to ban no-knock warrants

Probably won’t go anywhere, but well worth the effort.

Rep. Gene Wu

A bill pre-filed this week by state Rep. Gene Wu would ban no-knock warrants across Texas, marking the first major legislative response to last year’s botched drug raid that led to the deaths of two Houston residents and murder charges for a police officer.

Wu’s proposal, which he filed Tuesday, would bar magistrates from issuing warrants that allow police to break into residents’ homes without warning. After the practice came under scrutiny in Houston, Police Chief Art Acevedo began requiring approval from top-ranking police officials and the signature of a district court judge — not municipal court judges or county magistrates — before officers could carry out no-knock warrants.

Acevedo implemented the policy change after narcotics officers in January burst into a home on Harding Street in search of heroin, sparking an eruption of gunfire that killed residents Dennis Tuttle and Rhogena Nicholas and injured five officers. Police discovered only small amounts of cocaine and marijuana during the bust.

Shortly after the raid, Acevedo said no-knock warrants “are going to go away like leaded gasoline in this city,” prompting headlines that claimed the Houston Police Department would end the practice altogether.

Rep. Wu’s bill is HB492. The story references the recent HPD audit of the atrocious Harding Street raid, of which Rep. Wu was a harsh critic. I will note that the Mayor Turner task force report on police reform includes the recommendation of “a blanket ban on no-knock warrants for nonviolent offenses”. This bill would go farther than that, and it’s not clear to me if the Harding Street fiasco would have been covered by the recommended task force policy.

As with marijuana reform bills, there is bipartisan support for banning (or at least restricting) no-knock warrants, but any bill to do that seems doomed to me. As the story notes, a bill from 2019 that simply called for law enforcement agencies to submit reports on their use of no-knock warrants to DPS never got a vote in committee. Things have changed since then, but that’s just not a great sign. I hope I’m wrong about that.

Who cares how much it will cost to build the Ike Dike?

Imagine how much it will cost to recover from a catastrophic hurricane whose storm surge could have been mitigated by the Ike Dike. You know, like that hurricane from earlier this year that would have done exactly that had it hit 150 miles or so west of where it did hit.

The Army Corps of Engineers has revised its plan for a coastal barrier that would fundamentally alter the southeast Texas coastline, with massive sea gates across the Houston Ship Channel and 43 miles of dunes and renourished beaches spanning Bolivar Peninsula and Galveston.

The newest version of the coastal barrier, once known as the “Ike Dike,” was released Tuesday by the Corps and Texas General Land Office. While initial estimates said the project would cost as much as $32 billion, officials now peg the cost as $26.2 billion.

The plan incorporates feedback received during a contentious round of public meetings after the original plan was released in October 2018. Many coastal residents and environmentalists balked at a structure that they said could harm ecology and wildlife and tank property values.

But with three major hurricanes narrowly skirting the Houston-Galveston region this year during a particularly active season — 27 named storms — state officials noted that a project on the scale of the coastal barrier would protect the region for decades to come as the climate gets warmer and more volatile.

“The Corps of Engineers recognizes the coast as a extremely vibrant place to live and recognizes, and our metrics in the army show, that the Texas coast is leading economic growth for the nation,” said Mark Havens, deputy land commissioner for the General Land Office. “This hurricane season has given us pause because it’s given us too many close calls not to heed this warning.”

The Corps plans to convene three days of virtual public meetings, beginning Nov. 16. The public comment period will end on Dec. 14, and feedback will be incorporated into the final feasibility report, which the Corps plans to publish in May 2021. The Corps also emphasized interactive web features for the public such as 3-D virtual tours of some of the project’s features and flood impact maps.

Once the study is complete it will be proposed for congressional authorization and funding. If approved, it is expected to take 12 to 20 years to design and construct.

See here for the previous update. We are virtually certain to get a big honking infrastructure/stimulus bill from the Biden administration in its early days, and this project would fit nicely within it. All we need is for the Texas Congressional delegation to do its part. This will take a long time to build, as noted, so the less screwing around we do, the sooner we can get it started. In conclusion:

Indeed.

Weekend link dump for November 15

As a reward for making it through these past few weeks, please enjoy this amazing aerial photo of the Astrodome, from its early days.

“After four years of a president who couldn’t abide pets, dogs will once again cavort on the White House lawn.”

“The strategy to wage a legal fight against the votes tallied for Biden in Pennsylvania and other places is more to provide Trump with an off-ramp for a loss he can’t quite grasp and less about changing the election’s outcome, the officials said.”

“Post on polling in 2020. TLDR: projections based only on past voting returns better predicted 2020 results than poll averages in battleground states. I review how we used this to decide to spend in GA, then ask what might went wrong with polling in 2020?”

The law is coming.

“It’s not a stretch, then, to think that the organization with the most influence over what Americans believe, including about Donald Trump, is Facebook. And Twitter, as the shared watercooler of the entire media industry, probably isn’t far behind.”

“Pat Nixon was the first first lady to wear pants in public. Hillary Clinton was the first first lady to be elected to a public office. And now, Jill Biden is projected to become the first first lady to keep her full-time job outside of the White House.”

“Biden has several serious challenges ahead of him to curb the coronavirus’s exponential growth. First, he won’t take office for several months, which means the virus will continue to spread largely unabated if nothing is done. But perhaps most importantly, his administration needs to regain shattered trust in public health officials and agencies. He’s not just starting from scratch in creating a federal response; he’s facing a deficit with nearly a year of disinformation and deep politicization of the virus and its risks.”

“French media having to explain to readers who @GrittyNHL is as part of their election coverage wasn’t on my 2020 bingo card, but it’s definitely my fave moment of the cycle so far.”

Election Precedent 2020.

“If we have a safe, effective vaccine come out of clinical trials in the coming weeks, but we are not fully ready for a vaccination program, that will be a self inflicted national wound. A delay that could cost many thousands of lives.”

“What is clear is that it is no longer useful to clump millennials and Gen Z together as shorthand for youth. They may not have noticed it, but the upper cohort of millennials are fast approaching middle age. The second they try looking at themselves in a Gen-Z-approved upward camera angle, they’ll find that out for themselves.”

“The end of democratic self-government is not a thing one has a legal plan for. That’s like asking what my plan is for closing a demonic hell mouth that opens in my backyard. Die. My plan would be to die. I’m not Keanu Reeves.”

“President-elect Joe Biden looks to have won more than 300 electoral votes while winning the popular vote by more than 5 million votes. It was a more lopsided win than George W. Bush’s defeat of John Kerry in 2004. As a percentage of total electorate, Biden’s electoral mandate is on par with Ronald Reagan’s victory over Jimmy Carter in 1980. Heck, Biden swept every state mentioned in Steve Miller’s “Rock’n Me” (hat-tip to Jason Isbell for that observation). It’s a big win, by any measure.”

RIP, Disco Kroger. Houston’s grocery scene will never be the same.

The near future landscape for the NBA, NHL, and MLB.

RIP, Tommy Heinsohn, basketball Hall of Famer, and Boston Celtics legend.

There were more votes cast in 24 of the 36 Congressional races in Texas than in the entire state of Wyoming.

“So with his flight, [Vic] Glover is not only making history as the US gets back into the business of human spaceflight, he will become the first Black person to live on the space station. This seems like a shocking fact. The space station has now been inhabited for more than 20 years, after all, and 126 humans have lived there during that time. But none were Black. Six African-American astronauts visited the space station during shuttle missions, but none stayed aboard as long-term crew members.”

My initial favorite for a new Jeopardy! host is Ken Jennings, but I have to say, LeVar Burton would be an outstanding choice.

RIP, Lucille Bridges, American hero.

RIP, Paul Hornung, football Hall of Famer who won a Heisman, an NFL MVP, and multiple NFL titles with the Packers.

The “blue spine” and the rural counties

Point:

For the third consecutive election cycle, Democrats saw their advantage over Republicans grow in the 21 counties along Interstate 35, allowing them to further chip into the Republican dominance that has lasted for nearly three decades. The result was Joe Biden won over 46 percent of the vote in Texas, joining Texas native Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter as the only Democrats to get over 45 percent of the vote in Texas in a presidential race in 56 years.

A key reason for Biden’s performance in Texas is what is happening along I-35 from Laredo, through San Antonio and Austin and up to the Dallas Metroplex.

It’s not a mystery. U.S. Census data shows a shift toward a more diverse, better educated and wealthier electorate since 2010, changes that favor Democrats.

Along I-35, Biden flipped traditionally red counties like Tarrant, Williamson and Hays, and did vastly better in Travis, Dallas and Bexar counties than Hillary Clinton did just four years earlier.

This is a major departure from the way Texans in those counties voted over the previous two decades. Back in 2014, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican at the top of the ticket, won the same counties by a combined 346,000 votes.

Two years later. Clinton would win that stretch by just over 116,000 votes over President Donald Trump. Then 2018 Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke won it by 440,000 votes over U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.

Biden pushed his lead in the blue spine this year to nearly 500,000 votes.

That is a swing of more than 800,000 votes from Republicans to Democrats and explains why, along with Harris County’s march to solid blue, the state has seen increasingly competitive races at the top of the ballot since George W. Bush won Texas by 22 percentage points in 2004.

I’ve covered some of this before, and there was a similar Trib story published at around the same time, because it’s fertile ground and a reminder that even in defeat, Dems have gained a lot of ground over the past decade. Disappointing as the results were this year, we shouldn’t forget that.

One more thing:

At the same time the I-35 corridor is getting more Democratic, Republicans are facing challenges with their base of support in West Texas and East Texas. Those regions simply are not growing as fast as I-35. In the Panhandle, the 27 counties with a combined 250,000 voters saw just a 4 percent increase in voter registrations over the last four years. But Hays and Williamson County, with a combined 500,000 voters, registrations have grown a combined 25 percent over the same period.

Also covered this, because the Republican strength in the rural areas is still quite formidable. Even if the longer-term trends are in the Dems’ favor – and as things stand now, they are – we could still be talking about a couple of Presidential cycles before the two lines intersect. The clearest way to speed that up is for the Dems to figure out how to narrow the gap in rural Texas rather than wait it out.

And so on that note, we have the counterpoint, about the Republican red wall in the many rural counties. This story was from the day before the election, so there wasn’t time to blog about it, but it contained this nugget that made me set the article aside and come back to it as part of my usual postmortem analysis.

Among Democrats, there’s optimism that Biden-backing allies in rural Texas could not only prevent Trump from recreating his overwhelming 2016 margins in white, working class areas, the kind of support that offset his losses in the suburbs and among voters of color four years ago, but also make Trump’s path to victory in Texas all the more difficult.

“I’m also seeing a pretty substantial uptick in folks volunteering with Democratic-adjacent organizations,” said Amy Hull, 42, who lives in Tarrant County. “It’s been interesting to see people who were pretty tuned out four years ago become unapologetic about their politics and determined to do everything possible to make our community, state and country government work better for everyone.”

Republicans could especially take heart in rural areas that have only grown more red in recent election cycles. Take for example Jones County, which includes part of Abilene and went for John McCain by 47 points in 2008, Mitt Romney by 55 points in 2012 and Trump by 65 points in 2016.

The county GOP chair, Isaac Castro, said there is “a lot more enthusiasm” for Trump in Jones County compared to four years ago, when some local Republicans had reservations about his conservative credentials.

“I really think that this year he’s probably going to do better,” Castro said, adding that he was not worried about Trump losing statewide. “You know, West Texas is going to be strong for him again.”

Here’s how the vote has gone in Jones County since 2008, updated to include this year:


Candidates    Votes     Pct
===========================
McCain        4,203  72.37%
Obama         1,528  26.31%
Margin        2,675  46.06%
Total         

Romney        4,262  76.56%
Obama         1,226  22.02%
Margin        3,036  54.54%
Total

Trump         4,819  80.86%
Clinton         936  15.70%
Margin        3,883  65.16%
Total        10,101

Trump         5,621  84.00%
Biden           989  14.78%
Margin        4,632  69.22%
Total         9,635

The SOS election returns pages did not list the total number of registered voters in Jones County in 2008 and 2012, so that figure is only there for the two most recent elections. The trend is clear, and it has netted the Republican Presidential candidate an extra two thousand votes since 2008, though as you can see Joe Biden at least added on to Hillary Clinton’s meager vote total from 2016. May not seem like much, but there are a lot of counties like Jones out there (keep that chart Michael Li posted in mind), and it all adds up.

I’m going to be taking a deeper dive into this over the next couple of weeks, so hopefully we will all become more familiar with this theme. I think there is room to improve for the Dems, which doesn’t mean winning these areas but being more competitive in them so as not to continue falling behind, but more importantly I think we have to improve in them. It’s easy to say that counties like Jones are running out of room to increase their Republican yield, but there’s no reason to think they’ve reached that point yet, and much of the low-hanging fruit in the big urban areas for Dems have been harvested, too. The first step is to make the commitment, and I’m going to do what I can to convince you that it needs to happen. Stay tuned.