By Gregory Korte and Joe Carroll
The booming economy that helped the Lone Star State weather the 2008 recession has also sparked a migration there that’s changing the face of Texas politics. The workers who’ve moved to Texas for jobs in the energy and tech sectors are more liberal than Texas natives, slowly turning the deep-red state into a richer purple.
Democrats now find themselves close enough to winning Texas that they’ve scheduled the third round of 2020 primary debates for Houston on Thursday.
Texas is a big political prize, and getting bigger. Second only to California in size and electoral votes, it’s the eighth-fastest growing state in the country, helped by a higher-than-average birthrate, immigration, and domestic migration.
And while a growing Hispanic population may someday fundamentally transform Texas politics, for now the leftward turn is driven mostly by the predominately white people moving to Texas from other states.
“The Latino growth gets a lot of the attention, but that’s far from the only thing going on,” said Ruy Texeira, a political demographer at the liberal Center for American Progress. “You can’t understand or explain the way Texas has shifted in the last couple of decades without looking at what’s going on with the white population.”
Texas Republicans see it in their new neighbors.
“There are some who are coming here for the jobs and they don’t have the Republican or conservative mindset, if you will,” said Republican activist Nancy Large. “We realize we can’t sit on our laurels. We have to get out there and fight.”
Large lives in Williamson County, a former Republican stronghold outside Democratic Austin, one of the fastest-growing counties in the state. That growth is being fueled in large part by Sun City, the retirement community where she lives, which is drawing retirees from inside and outside Texas.
WilCo, as it’s known, went for Trump by 20,000 votes in 2016 but favored former Representative Beto O’Rourke by 6,000 in the Senate race against Republican Ted Cruz two years later. The 2018 shift was driven by 32,000 new-voter registrations and 5,000 more ballots cast on election day, in a usually low-turnout midterm contest.
Honor the Flag
The newcomers are so numerous that at monthly meetings of the Sun City Republican Club, President Cathy Cody puts a placard at the front of the room with the text of the Texas Pledge: “Honor the Texas flag; I pledge allegiance to thee, Texas, one state under God, one and indivisible.”
The pledge is a legacy of the state’s former status as an independent nation that’s recited in every school room and civic gathering across Texas, but is unfamiliar to many new residents.
About 40% of Texans were born somewhere else: 22% from other states and 18% outside the U.S. And three deeply Democratic states account for 62% of the net domestic migration to Texas, according to IRS statistics: California, New York, and Illinois.
The migrant wave hasn’t been uniformly liberal, however. Among the Californians in particular there’s a segment moving to Texas “who are getting the hell out” to escape rising tax burdens, Large said. And Texas’s large number of military bases means that military families — who typically lean Republican — constitute much of its migration.
Local Republicans aren’t the only ones worried about losing their grasp on Texas. Brian Walsh, president of the Trump-endorsed super PAC America First Action, is too.
Rattling off a list of battleground states the super PAC will spend money in next year, Walsh put Texas in its own special category: the “watch list.” He’s assuming it goes for Trump, but not without looking over his shoulder.
“You got to keep an eye on Texas,” he said.
Trump won Texas by 9 percentage points in 2016 and maintains a 70% approval among Texas Republicans. But there have been tremors across Texas politics since then.
O’Rourke came within 215,000 votes of knocking off Cruz in 2018, in a contest that made national headlines and attracted millions of dollars in outside donations. Had he won, he would have been the first Democrat to hold a Texas statewide office in more than 20 years.
Since losing the majority in the House of Representatives in November, five Republican congressmen from the state have announced their retirements at the end of this Congress.
Early House Retirements Signal GOP Woes Heading Into 2020 Races
Texas Democrats, though, have been demoralized for decades.
The last Democratic governor was Ann Richards, the quick-witted feminist who seized national attention with her Democratic National Convention speech in 1988 mocking the Connecticut-born George H.W. Bush for being insufficiently Texan, even though he worked in the Texas oil business before getting into politics. “Poor George, he can’t help it,“ she said in her Texas twang. “He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”
Six years later, she would lose the governor’s office to Bush’s son, George W. Bush.
Bush and his successor Rick Perry, now Trump’s energy secretary, ushered in a series of pro-business economic policies: low taxes, fewer regulations, and a legal system more favorable to corporations. While the fracking boom that unlocked natural gas reserves helped, too, there’s no denying that Texas led the nation in job growth through the Great Recession.
“Ironically, the strong economy that Republicans brag about and largely made possible is contributing to the demographic change that is now eroding their influence” in Texas, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.
But candidates and policies matter, too. Unlike California, where Republicans pushed anti-immigration initiatives, Texas Republicans courted Hispanic voters and enacted immigration policies that were anathema to the national GOP, like the Texas DREAM Act making undocumented immigrants eligible for in-state tuition at state universities.
Texas Hispanics also tend to be more conservative than those in other states. Many can trace their ancestry to the period when Texas was part of Mexico, or even Spain. Immigration is less important an issue as they’ve intermarried and accumulated wealth.
Texas Republicans appealed to socially conservative Latinos by opposing abortion and gay rights. “Wedge issues work, whether you’re black, brown or white,” said Chuck Rocha, a Democratic strategist and senior adviser to the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign. “But that’s changed with Trump, the way he’s vilified brown people.”
According to Latino Decisions, 74% of Hispanic voters in Texas voted for O’Rourke. And they turned out in higher numbers too, with 800,000 more showing up compared to the 2014 midterms.
Still, there’s a huge reservoir of untapped Latino votes in Texas. Almost 1.7 million Hispanics were registered but didn’t vote in 2018, and another 2 million weren’t registered. By 2020, another 400,000 young Hispanics will join the voting-age population.
“I wouldn’t hold my breath for Latino turnout of eligible voters to match that of whites,” said Texeira, “but the potential is there to close that gap significantly.”
A Dallas Morning News poll in August had Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders each beating Trump in Texas by 2 percentage points, inside the poll’s 3-point margin of error.
A Democratic win in Texas would fundamentally redraw the electoral map. With 28 electoral votes, it’s worth as much as Pennsylvania and Ohio combined.
And Texas’s importance as a battleground state will only increase in 2024. Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan are each expected to lose an electoral vote after the political map is redrawn after the 2020 census; Texas is likely to gain three.
“I view it as more permanently purple than eventually blue. I see Texas in the future more like we see Florida and maybe Georgia,” Rottinghaus said. “But I think the short answer is that yes, Texas is going to be competitive.”