Is This the Year When Texas’ Gerrymander Finally Breaks?

Texas 2020 is going to be a wild one.EXPAND
Texas 2020 is going to be a wild one.
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For the better part of two decades now, Texas has been Lucy with the football and Democrats have been Charlie Brown, thinking, "If we just target these voters, moderate on these issues or raise this much money, maybe we'll have a chance." It hasn't happened. However much hype a candidate generates — hello, Beto O'Rourke — or money he or she pours into his or her own campaign — looking at you, Tony Sanchez — the results have been the same statewide. Republicans win and everybody gets to bed at a reasonable hour on election night.

November's midterm election brought similar results but different takeaways. Republicans swept the statewide contests, but O'Rourke, Mike Collier and Justin Nelson finished closer to Sen. Ted Cruz, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton than anyone could've predicted a few months prior. There were signs, too, that the gerrymander Texas Republicans have fought so hard to keep since the state's most recent round of redistricting was threatening to give way.

Democrats picked up a dozen seats in the Texas House in 2018, tightening their grip on the state's biggest urban areas. They also knocked off two Republican congressional incumbents, one each in the Dallas and Houston areas, after voting gains in the suburbs. After 2018, Dallas County has just two Republican state House members. Houston, San Antonio, El Paso and Austin are dominated by Democrats, too. O'Rourke beat Cruz in Tarrant County, previously the state's most reliable urban county for the GOP. And Collin County, blood red for decades, only went for Cruz by six points. Democrats are finding votes where they didn't, or couldn't, before.

Dallas County's Texas House map
Dallas County's Texas House map

Texas' U.S. House and legislative districts, drawn with the intent of wedging as many Republicans into office as possible, now threaten the GOP's hold on the state. That's the good news for Democrats. The bad news is that they may have only one election to capitalize on the shift.

"(When you're looking to maximize the number of seats held by your party), you don't want to draw districts that your party wins by 80% because, if you do that, you're using your voters inefficiently," says Michael Li, the senior counsel for the Brennan Center's Democracy Program. "What you want to do is take your voters and spread them out in order to win as many districts as possible. The danger for that, of course, is that you spread yourself too thin — instead of building an eight-foot wall to defend against a flood you only build a three-foot wall and that can be overwhelmed."

Texas' current district boundaries aren't eight-foot walls, but it's going to take one more election to find out how high they truly are. Democrats will have good shots to win several of the U.S. House seats being vacated by retiring Republicans. They'll have outside shots against GOP suburban and urban incumbents, too. The right candidate — again, Mr. O'Rourke, that's you — might even have a shot at knocking off Sen. John Cornyn. Those races are all secondary, however. The most important contests for Texas Democrats in 2020, including the presidential race, are in the Texas House of Representatives.

If Democrats turn at least 10 red state House districts blue, they will win control of the Legislature's lower chamber, something that would've been impossible to fathom even a couple of years ago. They'll get veto power over both the state's legislative agenda during the 2021 session and an equal role with Republicans in drawing up the state's congressional boundaries for the next decade. It's a now-or-never situation for Texas Democrats.

The Texas gerrymander is in trouble, according to Li, because of Texas' changing demographics and Republicans' failure to anticipate the exodus of suburban voters from the party.

"This decade, you've had white, college-educated voters, especially white, college-educated women, turn fairly decisively against Republicans — gerrymanders only work if you accurately predict what voters are going to do, but if voters perform differently then they don't work," Li says. "Usually, you could actively predict what white voters would do. No one built in (the idea) that any meaningful number of white voters would be leaving the Republican Party. That's what's happened in the suburbs. The Republican Party of 2011 is not the Republican Party of 2019."

If Texas Democrats win the Texas House in 2020, there's a good chance that they will only be in power for two years. Unlike congressional redistricting, which is handled by the federal courts, if the legislature can't agree on a map, the fate of Texas' legislative districts will likely end up in the hands of the state's Legislative Redistricting Board. The board has five members — the lieutenant governor, the speaker of the House, the attorney general, the comptroller and the commissioner of the general land office — and at least four of those spots will be filled by Republicans, should the board be called into action in 2021.

"(In 2021 Republicans) can reset the gerrymander some. There's a question about how much you can do that — in some places it's easier than others," Li says. "It's a huge play on multiple levels. You'd rather play on this map than a new map, if you're a Democrat. You'd rather be competing on this map where their gerrymander is breaking down than on a new gerrymandered map and try to figure out how to make that work ... This is going to be a huge year, not only in Texas, but nationally. A lot of people are really focused on the Texas House, more people nationally are focused on the Texas House than ever."

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