Texas Republicans collected half of the votes statewide in congressional races this month. But even after Democrats flipped two districts, toppling GOP veterans in Dallas and Houston, Republicans will control 23 of the state’s 36 seats.
It’s the definition of gerrymandering.
“You wouldn’t expect perfect proportionality, but when something is really skewed, that’s probably a sign that something’s amiss,” said redistricting expert Michael Li.
Demographically and politically, the state is evolving — faster in some places than in others. Many Texas Republicans in Congress faced surprisingly close calls in the 2018 midterms.
Boundaries drawn early this decade to maximize GOP power blunted the damage. But the bulwarks built after the last census have begun to weaken. The midterms exposed unexpected shortcomings as college-educated white women — traditionally a major source of votes for the Texas GOP — abandoned the party.
Some were repelled by President Donald Trump and, at the same time, intrigued by Rep. Beto O’Rourke, the El Paso Democrat who offered a vision of less confrontational leadership, albeit with a liberal bent.
In Dallas, lawyer and former pro football player Colin Allred ousted Rep. Pete Sessions, a member of the GOP leadership. In Houston, lawyer Lizzie Pannill Fletcher unseated Rep. John Culberson, who led a subcommittee that controls billions in federal spending.
Both districts have seen some of the fastest demographic shifts in the state, with the nonwhite share of the electorate rapidly shrinking. They were stocked with high-income, highly-educated white voters long presumed to be Republican; many turned out to be swing voters under the right circumstances.
“These districts … weren’t built to elect Republicans in the age of Donald Trump,” said Li. “The Republican Party of today is almost unrecognizable to people of 2011.”
Independents in Texas have been in the habit of backing Republicans.
“But they can be re-educated to see Democrats as an option,” said Steve Bickerstaff, a retired University of Texas adjunct law professor whose books include Lines in the Sand, about the 2003 redistricting fight in Texas.
In two GOP-held districts that Trump carried, O’Rourke topped Cruz. That helped fellow Democrats come much closer than expected.
In the Dallas-area 24th District, Rep. Kenny Marchant, R-Coppell, survived with a margin of just 3 percentage points over a little-known challenger he outspent 11-1.
In suburban Houston’s 2nd District, Rep. Ted Poe notched 2-1 blowouts for years. He retired this year. Dan Crenshaw, a retired Navy SEAL who lost an eye in Afghanistan, won by 7 points. National Democrats might have paid attention to the race had they recognized the opportunity.
O’Rourke fought Cruz nearly to a draw in the 6th District, where Arlington Rep. Joe Barton’s retirement paved the way for his former chief of staff Ron Wright, the Tarrant County tax assessor-collector.
There, the map enacted by the Legislature after the 2010 census operated as intended: Democratic nominee Jana Lynne Sanchez ran up the score in Tarrant County precincts, but conservative voters in Ellis County put Wright over the top.
Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, outspent his challenger 4-1 in a district that runs from the west side of Houston to the east side of Austin. The rural midsection kept the outgoing House Homeland Security chairman in his seat with a narrow, 4-point win.
Just north of Austin, Rep. John Carter, another senior Republican, beat M.J. Hegar by 3 points in a district that Trump carried by 13 points.
“Those districts were gerrymandered to absorb Democrats,” said Matt Angle, a veteran Democratic strategist who has been involved in Texas redistricting fights for two decades. “There are some of these congressional districts that Beto defined as more in play than any of us thought. … Those exurban areas are getting away from them.”
Turns out it’s a lot easier to draw yourself a bunch of “safe” districts when you’ve got a 15-20 point cushion in statewide voting. Also turns out an uncomfortable number of those districts aren’t so safe when the state as a whole becomes competitive. As Dave Wasserman notes, the GOP will probably have to draw another safe Dem Congressional district in Central Texas just to soak up Democratic votes that are now imperiling multiple incumbents. The 2020 election may complicate things further, especially if the Dems can demonstrate that this year was not a fluke but a step towards even higher ground. Regardless, the strategic question is going to be the main driver of the action. Do the Republicans aim for the maximum again, and risk a future wipeout should the tide rise again, or do they hunker down and shore up what they have at the expense of adding to it? I have a hard time seeing them be pragmatic, but you never know. In the meantime, let’s make that decision as hard as we can for them.
(Yes, I’m assuming the Republicans will have full control over the redistricting process. It’s possible the Dems could take over the State House in 2020, but the Senate is out of reach, as there aren’t enough competitive seats on the ballot then, and of course the statewides are in place through 2022. Whether via the Lege or the Legislative Redistricting Board, one way or another they’ll be drawing the maps.)
(Also, too: What are the two GOP-held districts that Trump carried but Beto won? Seems likely from context that one is CD24, but what’s the other? CD23 was carried by Hillary, so it’s not that. We’ll know once the statewide numbers are published, but I’m more than a little annoyed the story didn’t provide that tidbit.)