RG Ratcliffe analyzes the geographic and political realities the Republicans face as they try to maximize their haul from the 2021 reapportionment.
Rick Perry famously called West Texas—a sparse land with few trees or humans—the Big Empty. The 92,016 square miles of the High Plains, the Panhandle, and western Hill Country have an estimated population of 2.2 million, less than that of Houston. But the region is also some of the most fertile Republican territory in Texas. The Big Empty delivered 78 percent of its vote to Donald Trump last year and elected three Republicans to Congress—all of whom supported overturning the president’s reelection loss in Pennsylvania and then opposed impeaching him on charges of inciting the Capitol riot in January.
These three congressmen are the kind of reliable soldiers and dependable votes the national Republican party wants voters to elect. Later this year, GOP Texas lawmakers will have the chance to redraw the state’s congressional map to try to make the most favorable conditions for similar representatives to win—and to exert great influence on the last two years of Joe Biden’s first term. Dictating the redistricting process because of the party’s House and Senate majorities and control of the governorship, Republican lawmakers will try to find a way to expand the GOP’s 23–13 partisan advantage in the Texas U.S. House delegation and to imperil the current 221–210 Democratic majority in the lower chamber.
But when those lawmakers begin redrawing the maps, they may look at the three West Texas representatives and find themselves saying, “Eeny, meeny, miney, moe, one of you has got to go.” The reason is simple: Even as the state has added enough population since 2010 to receive as many as three new seats in Congress, the Big Empty hasn’t kept pace. A congressional district drawn in Texas in 2011 needed to have a population of 698,488; districts drawn this year will need to have about 763,000. West Texas will be about 100,000 residents short of justifying three congressional districts.
The dilemma of the Big Empty is an example of how difficult it will be for Republicans to create the kind of partisan gerrymanders that have contributed to the large majority in the state’s House delegation that they enjoy today. Texas’s population has grown by 4.2 million since the 2010 census, according to the state demographer, Lloyd Potter, but that growth has not been where Republicans need it. Potter recently told a state Senate redistricting committee that most new Texans live in a triangle anchored by Dallas–Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio, and encompassing Austin. That triangle is home to the bulk of the state’s Democratic voters: the counties of those five cities went for Biden by 20 percentage points. Trying to redraw districts in the triangle, let alone fitting new ones in, will be a challenge for the GOP.
Republicans will have two main tools at their disposal to reduce the electoral power of the clustered populations of Democrats: splitting a block of them between or among districts to dilute their voting impact, or lumping multiple blocks together in a single district to limit the reach of their vote. We have some sense now, based on Potter’s estimates, of how they might do so, even as we wait for the Census Bureau to release gross population numbers in April and specific census tract data this summer. Here’s a tour of Texas and how the maps might be redrawn, starting out in the Big Empty.
Ratcliffe cites five areas where the GOP will have to make some tough choices: West Texas, where as noted above the population isn’t there for three whole Congressional districts; Austin, where the strategy of cracking Travis County into multiple districts put three Republican incumbents into jeopardy in the last two elections, thus leading to the possibility that they’ll just draw a super-blue district in the county again; Houston, where the same basic strategy of making CD07 more blue is probably the best way to protect other Republicans; the Metroplex, where the big suburbs just aren’t red enough for them any more; and South Texas, where Trump’s gains with Latino voters may be more illusory than real. We’ve touched on a lot of these topics before, but Ratcliffe brings some new details and puts it all into focus. There will be plenty of time to game this all out before actual maps start appearing, so go check it out.