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Counties of interest, part six: Central Texas

Part 1 – Counties around Harris
Part 2 – Counties around Dallas/Tarrant
Part 3 – Counties around Travis
Part 4 – Counties around Bexar
Part 5 – East Texas

We move on now to counties in Central Texas, which for these purposes will include a number of places along I-35, but also a couple of places that aren’t East Texas or West Texas. Try not to take these designations too seriously and just go with it.


County       Romney    Obama    Trump  Clinton    Trump    Biden    Shift
=========================================================================
Bell         49,574   35,512   51,998   37,801   67,113   56,032    2,981
Brazos       37,209   17,477   38,738   23,121   47,436   35,242    7,538
Coryell      11,220    5,158   12,225    5,064   15,397    7,542   -1,793
Grayson      30,936   10,670   35,325   10,301   43,776   14,223   -9,287
Hood         18,409    3,843   21,382    4,008   26,243    5,605   -6,072
McLennan     47,903   25,694   48,260   27,063   59,432   36,550     -673
Nueces       48,966   45,772   50,766   49,198   64,467   60,749     -524
Victoria     19,692    8,802   21,275    8,866   23,244   10,271   -2,083

There’s some clear good news here. Bell County, home of Killeen, Temple, and Belton, is part of that I-35 Corridor success story. Brazos County isn’t on I-35, but it’s an even bigger mover. Bell is 21.5% Black and has been the center of a deep-cut Dem opportunity district for some time – there were a couple of maps drawn in 2011 that would have created a Democratic State Rep district, and the current HD54 has been a potential target for a couple of cycles. Brazos, home of Bryan and College Station, was more of a surprise to me and has gone from being a fairly deep red county to a moderately purple one. I’m guessing the presence of Texas A&M is the driver of that, but I’m guessing.

McLennan County is Waco, and while it looks to have more or less held steady since 2012, it had improved in 2016 and then fell back in 2020, which is not a good sign. You know how I feel about building up Dem infrastructure in cities, including and especially the medium and smaller cities that have not yet been a key component of the resurgence. Coryell is next door and moving a little farther in the wrong direction.

The tough nuts to crack here are Grayson (home of Sherman) and Hood (home of Granbury). Both are on the outskirts of the Metroplex, with Grayson north of Collin and Denton, and Hood south and west of Parker and Johnson. They’re not close enough to the blue parts of the Metroplex to benefit from spillover. I don’t have an answer here, just noting the problem.

Nueces County is of course Corpus Christi, and it’s been more or less what it is for some time. Like McLennan, it moved towards blue in 2016, then slid back in 2020. As with McLennan, we need to figure that out and get it back on track. I included Victoria County in this collection mostly because it’s a population center and it’s a geographic fit, but it’s kind of an island, its own MSA on the way from Houston to Corpus.

Our all-important metro areas

Another look at the trouble Republicans face in Texas now.

The key to Texas’ political future is whether it finally follows the geographic realignment that has transformed the politics of many other states over the past quarter century.

Across the country, Republicans since the 1980s have demonstrated increasing strength among voters who live in exurbs at the edge of the nation’s metropolitan centers or beyond them entirely in small-town and rural communities. Democrats, in turn, have extended their historic dominance of the nation’s urban cores into improved performance in inner suburbs, many of them well educated and racially diverse.

Both sides of this dynamic have accelerated under Trump, whose open appeals to voters uneasy about racial, cultural and economic change have swelled GOP margins outside the metropolitan areas while alienating many traditionally center-right suburban voters.

In Texas, only half of this equation has played out. In presidential elections since 2000, Republicans have consistently won more than two-thirds of the vote for the two parties in 199 mostly white nonmetropolitan counties across the state, according to a study by [Richard] Murray and Renee Cross, senior director of the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs. (Trump in 2016 swelled that number to three-fourths.) The GOP has attracted dominant majorities from those areas in other races, from the Senate and US House to the governorship and state legislative contests. Democrats consistently amassed big majorities in 28 mostly Latino South Texas counties, but they have composed only a very small share of the statewide vote.

The key to the GOP’s dominance of the state is that through most of this century it has also commanded majorities in the 27 counties that make up the state’s four biggest metropolitan areas: Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio and Austin. Demographically similar places in states along the coasts and in the upper Midwest have moved consistently toward the Democrats since Bill Clinton’s era. But in Texas, Republicans still carried 53% to 59% of the vote in those metropolitan counties in the four presidential races from 2000 through 2012, Murray and Cross found.

In the Trump era, though, that metro strength has wavered for the GOP. In 2016, Hillary Clinton narrowly beat Trump across the 27 counties in Texas’ four major metropolitan areas. Then in 2018, Democrat O’Rourke carried over 54% of the vote in them in his narrow loss to Sen. Ted Cruz, Murray and Cross found. O’Rourke won each of the largest metro areas, the first time any Democrat on the top of the ticket had carried all four since native son Lyndon B. Johnson routed Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential race, according to Murray and Cross.

Looking just at the state’s five largest urban counties — Harris (Houston), Travis (Austin), Bexar (San Antonio), Tarrant (Fort Worth) and Dallas — the change is even more stark. In 2012, Obama won them by a combined 131,000 votes. By 2016, Clinton expanded the Democratic margin across those five counties to 562,000 votes. In 2018, O’Rourke won those counties by a combined 790,000 votes, about six times more than Obama did in 2012. Along the way, Democrats ousted Republican US House incumbents in suburban Houston and Dallas seats and made substantial gains in municipal and state house elections across most of the major metro areas.

“We have now turned every major metropolitan area blue,” says Glenn Smith, a longtime Democratic strategist in the state.

Yet that, of course, still wasn’t enough for O’Rourke to overcome Cruz’s huge advantages in smaller nonmetro communities. That outcome underscores the equation facing Texas Democrats in 2020 and beyond: They must reduce the GOP’s towering margins outside of the major metropolitan areas and/or expand their own advantage inside the metro centers.

Few in either party give Democrats much chance to record many gains outside of metro Texas, especially given Trump’s national strength with such voters. O’Rourke campaigned heavily in Texas’ smaller counties and made very limited inroads there, even relative to Clinton’s abysmal performance in 2016. Exit polls conducted for a consortium of media organizations including CNN found that O’Rourke carried just 26% of white voters without a college education, only a minuscule improvement from the 21% Clinton won in Texas in 2016.

O’Rourke’s very limited rural gains have convinced many Texas Democrats that while they can’t entirely abandon smaller parts of the state, their new votes are most likely to come from the metropolitan centers.

“It’s a matter of emphasis,” says Smith, a senior adviser to the liberal group Progress Texas. “You’ve got to do urban/ suburban areas first. You’ve got to maximize your advantage there.”

The stakes in the struggle for Texas’ big metro areas are rising because they are growing so fast. While the four major metro areas cast about 60% of the statewide votes in the 1996 presidential election, that rose to about 69% in 2016 and 2018, Murray and Cross found. Murray expects the number to cross 70% in 2020.

And the concentration of Texas’ population into its biggest metropolitan areas shows no signs of slackening. The Texas Demographic Center, the official state demographer, projects that 70% of the state’s population growth through 2050 will settle in just 10 large metropolitan counties. Those include the big five urban centers that O’Rourke carried as well as five adjacent suburban counties; those adjacent counties still leaned toward the GOP in 2018 but by a much smaller cumulative margin than in the past. Overall, O’Rourke won the 10 counties expected to account for the preponderance of the state’s future growth by a combined nearly 700,000 votes.

We’ve been talking about this literally since the ink was still wet on the 2018 election results. I touched on it again more recently, referring to a “100 to 150-county strategy” for the eventual Democratic nominee for Senate. None of this is rocket science. Run up the score in the big urban areas – winning Harris County by at least 300K total votes should be the (very reachable) target – via emphasizing voter registration, canvassing apartments, and voters who turned out in 2008 and/or 2012 but not 2016. Keep doing what we’ve been doing in the adjacent suburbs, those that are trending blue (Fort Bend, Williamson, Hays), those that are still getting there (Collin, Denton, Brazoria), and those that need to have the curve bent (Montgomery, Comal, Guadalupe). Plan and implement a real grassroots outreach in the Latino border/Valley counties. We all know the drill, and we learned plenty from the 2018 experience, we just need to build on it.

The less-intuitive piece I’d add on is a push in the midsize cities, where there was also some evidence of Democratic growth. Waco, Lubbock, College Station, Abilene, Amarillo, Killeen, San Angelo, Midland, Odessa, etc etc etc. There are some low-key legislative pickup opportunities in some of these places to begin with. My theory is that these places feature increasingly diverse populations with a decent number of college graduates, and overall have more in common with the big urban and suburban counties than they do with the small rural ones. Some of these places will offer better opportunities than others, but they are all worth investing in. Again, this is not complicated. We’ve seen the data, we will definitely have the resources, we just need to do the thing.