Politics

How Might Texas Get Gerrymandered? – Texas Monthly

Texas’s congressional districts are notoriously misshapen beasts, often drawn to pack residents from one part of a city into a district dominated by rural voters, sometimes including ones hundreds of miles away. Maps of these jurisdictions sometimes resemble Rorschach blobs: the Second Congressional District, represented by GOP congressman Dan Crenshaw, looks like a discarded balloon animal, tossed aside by a freshman at clown college, while Texas’s Thirty-second bears a remarkable resemblance to a Scottish terrier. 

If you’ve grown attached to these lil’ guys, alas, we have some bad news. As happens every decade, the state is set to get some new creatively drawn districts. In this year’s redistricting process, which began this week, Texas legislators will need to shoehorn two additional congressional seats into Texas to keep pace with the state’s population boom—more new districts than any other state received. 

How the GOP-controlled Legislature draws the 38 districts—with each to represent around 763,000 Texans—will have major political implications. Republicans will try to maximize the advantages they already enjoy in the state by further gerrymandering districts in ways that grant more electoral heft to their voters and less to Democratic ones. (This is standard practice in states where the redistricting process is controlled by partisan actors, regardless of which party is in power. Democrats heavily gerrymandered Texas through the nineties, when they retained control of the Lege.) Here are the big questions as GOP mapmakers begin the redistricting process.  

Will the GOP be able to ensure both new seats are safe Republican ones?

Texas currently sends 36 members to Congress, 23 of them Republicans. But many of the safest seats the party controls are in parts of the state that are losing population—rural areas in East and West Texas. For example, the Thirteenth Congressional District, which is represented by former Trump White House physician Ronny Jackson and spans the northern Panhandle, needs to add another 60,000 residents to meet federal requirements for a district. Meanwhile the fastest-growing parts of Texas are its urban and suburban centers, which are trending blue. The two new seats the state received will likely have to include parts of the Dallas–Fort Worth and Houston metro areas. The former’s population grew from 6.3 million to 7.6 million in the past decade—nearly two districts’ worth of new residents—while Harris County added about 800,000 residents—a district and change. 

As Republicans redraw maps, they’ll have to balance the tension between trying to gain seats and making sure they hold onto the ones they currently occupy. Consider the problem for the GOP in the Dallas suburbs. What is now the Twenty-fourth Congressional District, split between Carrollton and Grapevine and home to DFW Airport, was won by a Republican in 2014 by 33 percentage points. In 2020 the Republican candidate, Beth Van Duyne, held onto the seat by just a 1.3-point margin. Similar stories have played out in many suburban districts—including two, the Seventh, largely outside Houston, and the Thirty-second, outside Dallas, that Democrats (Lizzie Fletcher and Colin Allred, respectively) picked up in 2018 and held in 2020.

Republicans could draw ambitious maps that attempt to win back seats such as the Seventh and Thirty-second—slicing up the districts to split Democratic voters into neighboring districts with more Republicans. But the risk for the party is that putting those Democrats into districts currently held by Republicans, such as the Twenty-fourth, will jeopardize those seats, particularly as the state grows and the demographics in the suburbs shift. The party could instead decide to secure current GOP-held districts by siphoning likely Democratic voters and packing them into the Seventh and Thirty-second, effectively writing those off as no longer competitive. Operating that way, the party could probably ensure that one of the new seats is firmly in GOP control.  

Will Texas be sued over these maps? 

Historically, redrawing electoral maps in Texas is just the sunrise; lawsuits over those maps take up the rest of the morning. Federal law bans the most aggressive kinds of gerrymandering, and requires districts to fairly represent voters of color—they aren’t supposed to be divided to dilute their electoral power. Nonetheless, Hispanic populations in Texas have been underrepresented in D.C.: 40 percent of the state’s residents are Hispanic, but only 20 percent of the congressional delegation is. “Texas has struggled for decades to fairly treat Latino, Black, and other nonwhite populations, and that’s going to be one of the key battles of this decade’s maps, especially with [Hispanics and] non-white people accounting for 95 percent of the state’s growth rate,” said Michael Li, senior counsel at the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice, whose work focuses on redistricting and gerrymandering. 

Li expects challenges to this year’s redistricting efforts. “Texas maps always end up in court,” he said. But he pointed out that because so much of the growth of the Hispanic population and that of Texans of color occurred in the suburbs, it will be harder to win suits than it was decades ago, when evidence of racial gerrymandering was easier to spot. Moreover, even successful suits might not proceed quickly enough to change the shape of districts in the 2022 election. Courts ordered some changes to the 2011 state House maps, for example, in 2017—after three elections using those maps had already occurred.   

It’s hard to know exactly what sort of legal challenges to expect from maps that haven’t even been drawn yet. Democrats have already filed a federal lawsuit, however, around the mapmaking process at large, holding that the state constitution does not allow for redistricting to occur in a special legislative session, and thus that drawing maps falls to the courts. Republicans say the U.S. Constitution leaves it to the states, not courts, to draw maps and that interpreting the Texas constitution is not a matter for federal courts. 

What will Republicans do with the state’s other blue cities?  

For a decade and a half, the approach to Austin in the GOP-controlled mapmaking process has been to divide and conquer. The trick to packing one of the state’s largest cities, with one of the most progressive electorates, into GOP districts? Slice the city up, and put slivers of its Democrat-voting population into districts that radiate hundreds of miles away into the Hill Country or the rural expanses in the directions of Houston and Dallas. Currently, of the four districts that include Austin, only one, the Thirty-fifth, is held by a Democrat—and most of its voters live in San Antonio. 

Austin’s population has grown by nearly 25 percent since the last census, however, which threatens the old approach. With the city’s rapid rate of growth, Austin’s Democratic-leaning voters could overwhelm the Republican voters in other parts of their current districts, creating a slew of new Democratic seats. It almost happened with the 2011 maps. In the Twenty-first Congressional District, which includes parts of Austin as well as much of rural and exurban Hays County, Democrats didn’t even field a candidate in 2014. But by 2018, they came within 2.6 points of winning the seat over Representative Chip Roy. 

To avoid that possibility, Republicans could reverse course. They could give Austin—the eleventh-largest city in the country—its own congressional district and pack it with Democratic voters. The current maps do something similar in San Antonio, putting the bulk of the city’s population in two of the safest Democratic districts in the state: the Twentieth, represented by Joaquin Castro, and the aforementioned Thirty-fifth. Such a district in Austin would probably be similarly reliable for Democrats, as Joe Biden won Travis County by a 45-point margin. But it would allow several Republicans, who currently represent growing slivers of the city along with shrinking rural areas, to stop looking over their shoulders. 

Will Republicans try to create a South Texas district for the party?

Few stories in Texas electoral politics have attracted as much attention in the past year as the possibility that Democrats’ fortunes in South Texas—long a reliable, if low-turnout, source of political power for the party—might be shifting. The GOP came within 10,000 votes of upsetting Democratic incumbent Vicente Gonzalez in 2020 in the Fifteenth Congressional District, which includes McAllen and has never sent a Republican to Congress in its one-hundred-year history. In the Thirty-fourth, based in Brownsville, incumbent Democrat Filemon Vela is retiring after running the closest race of his congressional career last year. Might the GOP pursue one of the two districts, by drawing in more conservative voters from areas to the north? 

Li thinks Republicans might try, but there are risks. There’s an opportunity cost to trying to flip a South Texas seat: rural voters who get packed into the Fifteenth or Thirty-fourth can’t get put into, say, a suburban district outside of Houston, where a Republican incumbent might need a boost to fend off a Democratic challenger in a wave election. It’s all a big puzzle, where moving any one piece affects pieces elsewhere on the board. 

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