What Happened in Texas?

Democrats winning statewide in Texas seems to remain like the football that is continually pulled away from Charlie Brown just as he is about to kick it. While Vice President Biden improved upon Hillary Clinton’s 2016 performance in the state, he also unperformed many people’s expectations and fell short of Beto O’Rourke’s high water mark of 2018. President Trump meanwhile continued to bleed support in the suburbs of Houston, Austin, and the DFW, however made striking gains in all along the Rio Grande basin among Latino voters.

The shift in support from 2016 to 2020 in the Texas popular vote.

As can be seen above, eight counties, all heavily Latino, flipped from Clinton in 2016 to Trump in 2020. Even more counties that Biden won should still be cause for concern for how competitive they have become. Take Starr County in the Valley for instance. In 2012 President Obama won Starr County with 86% of the vote. Clinton won Starr County in 2016 with 79% of the vote. In 2020 Biden won Starr County win only 52% with President Trump not far behind at 47%.

As concerned as Texas Democrats should be about losing ground in what was once their most reliable strongholds outside of inner cities, the Texas Republicans should be equally concerned at the continued bleeding of support among the larger population centers and suburban counties. Collin County for example gave then Governor Bush 73% of the vote for president. In 2020 Trump carried Collin County with a mere 51%. Near by Denton County has experienced a similar journey, and the much larger Tarrant County, home of Fort Worth has fully flipped from 60% for Bush in 2000, to 49.2% for Biden in 2020.

What lessons can be learned from these drastic shifts in multiple directions across the state?

Perhaps one is that Latino voters are not married to the Democratic Party, and as the Democratic Party continues to shift leftward, (a claim I am sure left-wingers would dispute) the largely religious and rural Latino communities in South Texas may feel as represented in their historic party of choice. Many in the Valley are pro-life Catholics, who have routinely re-elected a pro-life Catholic Democrat to the Texas Senate. For those who consider themselves culturally more conservative, the Democratic Party may seem an increasingly woke home that is hostile to some of their core religious beliefs. Meanwhile the Republicans may equally have a tough pitch to make as well, considering social justice is important to many Catholics.

For Republicans, while many may be tempted to take a large sigh of relief for having successfully defended Texas’ status as “Red”, the fact that their historic strongholds have not stopped bleeding should be of concern. With the exception of El Paso, and the cities in the Valley, nearly all of the largest population centers in Texas have continued to shift away from Republicans. Letting their party be ran by the activist “grass roots” wing who tends to hold that anyone they disapprove of is automatically a RINO-Communist, regardless of how conservative that person may be, is not the best strategy in the long run for winning in a start that is becoming increasingly diverse .

Outside of the Presidential race, Texas remained relatively stable. In Congress not a single seat changed hands. Despite a more competitive races, Democrats failed to expand on their 2018 gains and Republicans failed to reclaim their lost ground. For U.S. Senate, John Cornyn was re-elected, but with a significantly reduced margin. In the Texas House of Representatives Republicans maintained their majority, which many believed was at risk, and the Texas Senate saw only one seat change hands (SD-19) where the Republican incumbent actually did much better than many believed he would.

Ultimately 2020 in Texas is a case of Democrats falling far short of expectations, and Republicans living on to defend the title of being a red state for another cycle. The focus in Texas politics will now shift to the Legislature where battles over the 2 year budget, redistricting, and likely pandemic emergency policies will become the new battlegrounds of 2021.

It is Time for the Electoral College to Graduate.

When the framers created the Constitution of the United States, they were wise in making it difficult to amend, but not impossible. Without tossing out the entire document, when enough support in Congress and the various states is there, change is possible. It is well past time for a new change, the abolition of the Electoral College.

Now by this point every red blooded history-loving conservative American is probably thoroughly triggered and would respond “Without the EC, California and New York would decide everything, and no one would campaign in the small states!!!”

First lets address the notion that California and New York would decide everything. Under the current rules of the EC, and the laws of those respective states, they give 100% of their electoral votes to one candidate. With the popular vote the loser could at least get some of the vote in those states and is incentivized to try and compete for it. Which brings up the other point, that people would only compete in the major population centers. Lets take Wyoming, both Dakotas, Vermont, and Hawaii, for example. They are all small states, and because they are all deemed safe for one party or another, presidential candidates are free to ignore them. And they do. meanwhile under our current system of an EC, who gets the lion’s share of attention? The largest states with the potential to swing. Without an EC candidates would still spend their time chasing voters who are considered swingable, but now there would be incentive to either run up their numbers in their safe states, or try and whittle away from the their opponent’s votes in states considered out of reach.

Next I am sure you are preparing to argue “But we are not a democracy dag-nabbit! We are a republic!”

This is true, but the popular vote electing a president is not what makes the difference between a democracy and a republic. For what it is worth, I agree, direct democracy across the board for everything is unwise, but I am not here trying to advocate for some Greek city-state model.

Something that I feel gets lost on many people who are ardent defenders of the EC, is that what was intended by the framers and what exists today are two separate things. The original vision was a group of wise elites who could come together and make an informed decision, with much better information than the general public had. For the first few presidential elections multiple states had no popular election at all for determining the their electors. It wasn’t until after the Civil War that South Carolina’s citizens had any input in presidential elections. What exists today is a convoluted hybrid approach where the electors still exist, but are generally partisan insiders, and generally bound by state law to the outcome of the popular votes in their respective states. More states have recently moved even towards enacting legal punishment towards electors who would dare vote other than how they are told (faithless electors.)

Under this approach we are left with not the will of the people deciding our elections, or even a college of wise and learned individuals, but rather outcomes based on pure chance of who happens to eek across the finish line first in which states.

For those still mentally living in 1859, I assume there is no convincing you on this, but for those who accept the fact that we are one country and not 50 in loose confederation, I strongly encourage you to give thought to the electoral college and the potential benefits of moving past it. (Need I even mention that the the total cluster-cuss of the current election wouldn’t be nearly as big as big a problem without electoral votes?)

Texas Redistricting: Part 1, Gerrymandering

In 1812 the Governor of Massachusetts, Elbridge Gerry (pronounced Garry) approved of a State Senate redistricting plan that would clearly favor his own Democratic-Republican Party over the rival Federalists. One State Senate district drawn from that plan was mocked in Massachusetts news papers where they noted the district resembled a salamander, labeling it “The Gerry-Mander” (some how becoming pronounced Jerry) and giving birth the modern term gerrymandering.

The Gerry – Mander of 1812

Gerrymandering is the process of drawing electoral districts in a way to give one group greater influence in the election results over another. Elbridge Gerry lost re-election that year and the Federalists saw a large resurgence in the state, but at the end of the day the gerrymander did its job, the Democratic-Republicans held control of the Massachusetts Senate.

Fast forward over 200 years later and the practice of gerrymandering is alive and well. In Texas since 2003 districts have been drawn to heavily favor Republican outcomes (It should be noted that prior to that Democrats had gerrymandered the districts to favor their party). To understand how Texas districts are gerrymandered two terms should be defined, “packing” and “cracking.” Packing refers to drawing a district in a way that places as many people of a race/party inside as is necessary so as to dilute their influence in other surrounding districts. Cracking is the opposite approach, where the lines are drawn to purposefully spread a targeted group out among multiple districts to the point where that group has a majority in as few as possible districts. Given a large enough population, both of these methods can be used together.

Texas’ 35th Congressional District

Above is Texas’ 35th congressional district, an example of packing. Containing the heart of San Antonio, and stretching along Interstate 35 to include parts of south Austin. Two communities that have very little in common apart from voting Democratic. With a large portion of Democratic voters safely sequestered away in TX-35, the remaining Democrats in the region are then cracked into multiple oddly shaped districts that reliably elect Republicans.

Travis County Texas, home to Austin, contains around 1.2 million people. In the Texas Senate that is enough warrant one state senator representing Austin, and then room for part of another district. Instead is broken among four districts, two meant to pack Democratic voters (one even stretches down to South Texas), and two cracked into Republican districts. At the federal level, Travis county could reasonable expect to be home to two congressional districts, both likely to be heavily Democratic favored. Instead is split among five, including the previously mentioned 35th district which packs Democratic voters, leaving the remaining cracked among four Republican congressmen.

The danger to Republicans in cracking the Democrats is what can become a “dummymander.” When Party A voters are cracked into multiple Party B favored districts, Party B may win more districts, but those districts still contain a number of Party A voters. A gerrymander becomes a dummymander when Party B placed too many Party A voters into their district and over time their advantage disappears and a district drawn to favor Party B becomes a Party A district. As populations shift, demographics change, and voting habits evolve, you cannot expect election results to remain fixed in place over time. A recent example of this could be seen in 2018 where multiple Central Texas Congressional districts were suddenly competitive because of growth of those cracked democratic voters now becoming larger parts of the districts.

Ideally the purpose of electoral districts is the representation of communities. If everything was voted at-large, the voices of the smaller communities would be lost in the larger population. The problem is when the process of drawing these districts becomes weaponized to cement your party’s hold on power. While Texas may currently be dealing with Republican Gerrymanders, the fact of the matter is that both parties have blood on their hands, and shamelessly employ this weapon with the excuse “they will do it to use when they are in power, so we will do it to them!”

So what is the solution? Through the federal Voting Rights Act (VRA) and court decisions, some progress has been made in redistricting. The VRA ensures that if a geographic location is large enough to contain a district that is majority-minority, it cannot be broken up. Race legally cannot be a motivation for drawing districts (except for VRA protected districts). While this is progress, it does not address partisan gerrymandering. The U.S. Supreme Court has taken up cases on partisan gerrymandering only to essentially just shrug their shoulders as the issue is “political, and thus beyond the scope of the Judicial Branch.”

Reform then is in the hands of the states. Ten states have wisely acknowledged that if neither child can play nicely they both lose the toy, establishing independent redistricting commissions (IRC). These IRC’s remove the responsibility for drawing congressional and state legislative districts from the state legislatures.

In part 2 we shall discuss what redistricting in 2021 will look like for Texas, and the prospects for reform.

Is Texas Turning Blue?

People tend to broadly categorize states as being red states or blue states based generally off of how the state in question votes in presidential elections. If they go back and forth or are won by relatively thin margins the term purple state or swing state may apply. So how then should we label Texas?

If we are to look purely at who wins elections, at almost every level, then the answer is easy, solid red. The last time Texas voted Democratic for a presidential race was Jimmy Carter in 1976. The last Democratic governor was Ann Richards who lost re-election to George W. Bush in 1994. All statewide office holders are Republican, and both houses of the Texas Legislature are controlled by Republican majorities. At face value it would appear Texas is certainly in the red category, but not so much if we look deeper into the margins of victory and the trends.

Historically Democrats have dominated the politics of the Lone Star State. From the first presidential election that Texas participated in 1848 through 2016 Texas has voted Democratic (including Southern Democrat in 1860 and Liberal Republican* in 1872) twenty-seven times, compared to just fourteen Republican victories. Democrats have elected thirty-nine governors in comparison to seven Republican governors. The Texas Legislature has been more or less dominated by Republicans since the late 90’s and early 2000’s, although their strength in the legislature has fluctuated considerably as can be seen below.

Partisan Makeup of the Texas House of Representatives since 1991

Looking forward we may be able to see some possibilities from most recent Senate race. In 2018 Republican Ted Cruz won re-election to the U.S. Senate with 50.9% of the vote, where Democrat Beto O’Rourke won 48.3% and Libertarian Neal Dikeman won 0.7%. More Significant than the thin margin that an incumbent Republican senator in a seemingly red state won by, is where Cruz lost. O’Rourke won counties such a Tarrant (Fort Worth), Williamson (Round Rock), Hays (San Marcos), and Fort Bend (Katy). All of which went for Cruz in 2012 and are home to a significant and growing portion of Texas’ population. Of the Texas House of Representative districts, O’Rourke won more votes than Cruz in 76 districts, enough for a majority of the House.

What we can learn from all of this is that Texas could probably be described as a red state on the surface with growing blue population centers. As the coalitions of people that make up political parties change, Republicans have cause for concern if they lose ground in the suburbs. Their winning coalition for a generation has been the wealthy suburbs of Houston, Dallas-Forth Worth, and San Antonio, & the smaller rural counties that were once home to conservative Democrats. As the Republicans peeled off the rural counties from the Democrats in the 90’s and 2000’s, the suburbs may now find themselves up for grabs signaling a major shift that could mark the end Republican domination in Texas.

2020 and 2021 will provide much greater indications for the direction of Texas. In 2020 we have a Presidential, Senate, and state Legislature elections. We will see if the changes seen in 2016 and 2018 continue, becoming long term trends, or if O’Rourke was an outlier. 2020 will also be done without the option for straight-ticket voting. 2021 will bring about redistricting, a powerful tool typically wielded by those in power to maximize their advantage. Both parties are guilty when it comes to gerrymandering, Republicans have just been guilty more recently. If Democrats manage to win control of the Texas House of Representatives, which is no guarantee, then it is very possible that the Legislature will fail to agree on new maps, which then falls to the Legislative Redistricting Board, which consists of the statewide office holders (currently all Republicans). While gerrymandering may slow the bleeding for Texas Republicans in the short term, as Democrats learned in 2002 it doesn’t address their deeper problems which is an increasingly large part of their coalition that is walking away.

*The Democrats did not field a candidate in 1872, instead opting to nominate the Liberal Republican candidate Horace Greeley.