Why Texas’s laws are moving right while its population shifts left

Demographic changes point to a more progressive state, but Republican-controlled redistricting makes it unlikely policy decisions will follow suit.

By Brittany Renee MayesLeslie Shapiro and Zach Levitt, Washington Post

Over the past decadehighly concentrated demographic shifts in and around Texas cities have diversified pockets of the traditionally red state. Flourishing non-White populations are fueling Texas’s rapid growth, according to the 2020 Census, and the change is most pronounced in areas where presidential, congressional and state legislative races have grown increasingly competitive for Democrats.

But Blue Texas remains elusive. By contrast, Republicans maintain a conservative majority that, earlier this month, enacted some of the nation’s strictest laws around abortion and voting rules.

State legislators convened on Monday to begin redrawing congressional and state legislative lines, which could allow Republicans to strengthen their grip on the state House majority, even as data show movement in Democrats’ favor.

Preservation is the first law of nature, said Albert Kauffman, a professor at St. Mary’s University School of Law. “I think a lot of [Republicans] look at the demographics and say, ‘We might not have more than four or six or eight more years in control so we probably ought to put in as many mechanisms as we can to protect ourselves long-term.’”

In 2020, 67 percent of non-White voters in Texas selected President Biden according to exit polls from Edison Research. Among White voters, the margins were flipped. Sixty-six percent voted for Donald Trump.

Texas Republicans have sole control over redistricting this cycle. They’ll get two additional U.S. House districts to draw, more than any other state, thanks to the state’s explosive population growth. Political watchers anticipate boundaries that attempt to maintain GOP advantages. Also expected: a large pile of lawsuits, some which have already started.

Redrawing the lines this time could be even more one-sided: It’s the first time the state has redistricted since the Supreme Court struck down part of the Voting Rights Act in 2013 that mandated states with a history of discrimination based on “race or color”, including Texas, have their maps reviewed by a panel of judges in Washington.

Republicans had held about two-thirds of the seats in the Texas House from 2012 until the nationwide blue wave in 2018. Democrats gained 12 seats that year and had hopes of wresting control of the 150-seat chamber in 2020 but were unable to flip any of the nine seats needed.

Democratic margins improved in 25 of the 34 state legislative districts that were contested in both 2012 and 2020, though some districts in the primarily Latino Rio Grande Valley, which historically has been a Democratic stronghold, took huge steps to the right in 2020.

Political experts think it’s only a matter of time before demographic changes make the state competitive enough for Democrats to win, though Republican inroads with Latino voters could thwart those ambitions.

Rep. Colin Allred (D) flipped a Dallas-area U.S. House district in 2018. “We’ve already seen a number of the districts similar to mine that were competitive in the last election and … many of them … were gerrymandered to be, you know, solid Republican districts,” he said.

Allred pointed to a younger and more diverse population, particularly in cities and suburbs, as one of the reasons he was able to win a previously Republican district.

In the state House, Democrats have flipped six rapidly diversifying districts in the Dallas area since 2012.

Almost all of the 4 million people that Texas gained in the 2020 Census were Hispanic or non-White. White Texans accounted for less than 5 percent of that increase, while Hispanics accounted for half.

Non-Hispanic White Texans now make up just under 40 percent of the population, down from 45 percent in 2010. Whites are still the largest group, but only by a fraction of a percentage point. The population share for Hispanics of any race of any race rose to 39 percent.

“Essentially 60 percent of our population is … minorities,” Texas state demographer Lloyd Potter said, but “[minority] voting power is somewhat diluted” by age and citizenship status. “Latino and African American [populations] tend to have a higher proportion of their population below 18 … [and] a higher percentage of, in particular, the Latino and Asian population are likely to be noncitizens,” he said.

The data show that a large majority of the state’s growth was in the “Texas Triangle” cities of Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio and Austin and the surrounding suburban areas. Rogelio Sáenz, a sociologist and demographer at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said the growth around cities has bolstered Democratic support in the state, while population losses in rural areas, which are predominantly White, have diminished Republican support.

Within the Texas Triangle in 2012, the only counties that President Barack Obama won were those which held the major cities. In 2020, candidate Joe Biden won double the number of counties, all adjacent to the counties with major cities.

Holding back the wave

Despite demographic indicators and some election results pointing to an approaching blue wave, experts say the shift in any political landscape is more nuanced and complex.

“Demography is not destiny,” said Victoria DeFrancesco Soto, an associate dean at the University of Texas at Austin’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. “Yes, communities of color traditionally tend to vote more Democratic, but there’s always been wiggle room.”

There are about 5.6 million eligible Latino voters in Texas, and they make up nearly a third of Texas’s electorate. When speaking about Latino voters, especially in Texas, political experts emphasize that the group does not vote as a single bloc. While President Biden won Hispanic and Latino voters by 33 percentage points nationwide, according to exit polls from Edison Research, that number was slashed in half in Texas.

“Latinos in Texas have traditionally been a little bit more conservative, just like Texans in general, a little bit more conservative than folks elsewhere,” DeFrancesco Soto said.

Conservative Latinos along the Rio Grande Valley contributed to a surprise swing last election, according to Sáenz. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won — in most cases by a large margin — almost every county in the southernmost tip of Texas and along the border. But in 2020, the margins shrank and President Trump flipped several previously reliable Democratic counties in the same region.

“[You] have these communities where Homeland Security, Border Patrol are major employers of the people in these areas and you find the argument is that Latinos are voting for their own economic interests in those particular areas,” Sáenz said. The border areas are predominately Latino, and last election they aligned more closely with Republicans around the oil industry, abortion laws, the military and family values.

In spite of the shifts in the Rio Grande, the Latino vote has often been suppressed during the redistricting process since the group overall tends to lean Democratic.

“[Republicans] maximize their Republican districts and minimize Democratic districts and also, of course, minimize the Latino and African American districts,” said Kauffman, who added that since Republicans got a majority in the early 2000s, the maps have been “very much pro-Republican.”Advertisement

But Republican-drawn maps couldn’t halt the significant loss of House seats in the 2018 midterms. After that,Allred said, Republican politics were much more moderate to appeal to a larger group of voters. But this term, he said, GOP leaders have passed extreme measures because they know the upcoming redistricting process will redraw the districts in their favor.

“How you draw the lines that make the rules matter,” said DeFrancesco Soto, “and the fact that Republicans are squarely in the driver’s seat for this next round of redistricting will have [an] impact and will allow that conservative agenda to have more staying power.”

State election results from Texas secretary of state. Presidential precinct results from Decision Desk HQ. Demographic data from Census Bureau. Texas House makeup from the National Conference of State Legislatures. Updated September 17, 2021

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