For three decades, Texas has been reliably red — staunchly Republican in its overall voting patterns and predictably conservative in its outlook. But the state is undergoing significant changes that threaten that dominance, and those trends have accelerated during Trump’s presidency.
Republicans got a wake-up call in 2018 when then-Rep. Beto O’Rourke gave Republican Sen. Ted Cruz a major scare and Democrats picked up two House seats and scored in local races. After what happened two years ago, Republicans are taking nothing for granted.
Few analysts are willing to predict that Texas will go for former vice president Joe Biden, though a Biden upset in a state with 38 electoral votes would crush the president’s chances of winning a second term. Beyond that, his presence could affect down-ballot races.
Early voting began last week, and in some of the most populous counties, where Democrats have been gaining strength, numbers have been eye-popping. Data experts say it’s far too early to draw conclusions about whether the early turnout signifies a huge Democratic surge or merely a sign that Democrats determined to deny Trump a second term are eager to cast their ballots right away. Strategists in both parties nonetheless are trying to decipher the numbers for any trends.
The presidential race isn’t the only closely watched contest. The Cook Political Report lists three Texas congressional districts held by Republicans as tossups and another leaning toward the Democrats. Texas analysts say several more could go from red to blue if there is a sizable Democratic wave. The Texas House is also in play, with Democrats needing to pick up a net of nine seats to capture the majority.
The story of the political change in Texas begins with the enormous population growth the state has experienced over the past decade, with most of it concentrated in the major metropolitan areas of Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio and Austin.
Between 2010 and 2018, the 27 counties that comprise these major metropolitan areas collectively added nearly 3 million people — an increase of 19 percent — and today they make up one of the most vibrant economic areas in the entire country. Republican elected officials have bragged about the state’s ability to attract new businesses, but the added growth has helped to change the political balance in the state.
One change is the increased dominance of the big cities and suburbs in overall turnout. According to data compiled by Richard Murray and Renee Cross of the University of Houston, the 27 counties that make up the major metropolitan areas account for 69 percent of the statewide vote, compared with 60 percent in 1996 and 52 percent in 1968.
For a long time, the balance between metro and non-metro Texas didn’t make much difference. The metropolitan areas split their votes between Republicans and Democrats in about the same proportions as in the smaller towns and rural areas, according to Murray and Cross. That began to change in the past two decades and has quickened in the past five years. Not only do the big cities and surrounding suburbs account for a larger proportion of the statewide vote, they are increasingly voting Democratic.
Changing demographics are a major factor as well, as Texas becomes increasingly diverse. For years, Democrats have pointed to the growth in the Latino community as the pathway to turning Texas blue — the demographics-as-destiny argument. With birthrates in the Anglo community having slowed, the Latino population is on pace to equal or surpass the non-Hispanic White population by 2022.
Before Trump came on the scene, some Texas Republicans had made more significant inroads among Hispanic voters than, say, Republicans in California. Former president George W. Bush focused on Latinos and was rewarded in both his gubernatorial and presidential races. Other Republican elected officials are still able to attract good levels of Latino support.
The success of Republicans like Bush and others frustrated the predictions of Democrats of a more rapid red-to-blue shift in the state, as the party’s disappointing showing in gubernatorial and Senate races over the years has shown. But Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric has made it more difficult for Republicans to maintain, let alone expand, their Latino support.
Beyond the growth in the Latino population, another demographic change that is affecting the political balance is the rise of Asian Americans: Vietnamese, Indians, Chinese and others. Asian Americans are now the fastest-growing segment of the Texas population, and they are voting for Democrats more than they once did.
Black voters, meanwhile, remain the most loyal part of the Democratic coalition, and while their numbers are not increasing, they are giving the Democrats a solid base from which to build in places like Harris (Houston) and Dallas counties.
The diversity of the metropolitan areas is exemplified by Fort Bend County, outside of Houston. Today, the county is nearly a third Anglo, a quarter Hispanic, a fifth Asian and a fifth Black. Fort Bend also happens to be one of just six counties nationally that, after supporting Republicans for president for at least four straight elections, flipped in 2016 to back Hillary Clinton against Trump. In 2018, Democrats made significant gains in local elections there as well.
Changing allegiances in the suburbs also are causing problems for Republicans in Texas, just as they are elsewhere. When the Bush family was preeminent in Texas politics, the suburbs were a backbone of Republican growth and eventually dominance in elections. Today, that support is eroding.
Two years ago, Democrats captured House districts in Houston and Dallas that were home to George H.W. Bush and to George W. Bush. This year, the new Democratic incumbents, Rep. Lizzie Fletcher in Harris County and Rep. Colin Allred in Dallas County, are heavily favored to win reelection.
The House seats in play this year all fit into this pattern — districts that include substantial numbers of suburban residents. Rep. Will Hurd (R), whose district stretches from the San Antonio suburbs to the far reaches of West Texas, barely won reelection in 2018 and decided to retire from the House rather than risk losing in 2020. Hurd has told people for months that Texas would be in play this year.
Trump is the major reason for the shift in suburban voting in Texas. “He was kind of the monster built in the basement of the Democratic Party headquarters,” said Murray, long a student of the state’s changing politics. “I think he just accelerated the change in the state so much more than would have happened with any kind of normal Republican.”
Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University, said Trump “catalyzed” the demographic changes that already were at work. “If we say what explains why Texas has become much more competitive in 2018 and 2020, it’s Donald Trump’s presence in the White House. He is a drag on the Republican Party.”
Trump won the state by nine percentage points in 2016, a comfortable margin but the smallest of any Republican nominee dating back to 1996. This year polls show Trump leading, but by single digits. The FiveThirtyEight poll average shows Trump with a lead of fewer than two points. A Post analysis of polls shows the margin as slightly larger.
Given the prohibitive cost of competing fully in Texas, neither Trump nor Biden has made a major investment in the state, but money is flowing into the state for congressional races and for the Senate race between Republican incumbent John Cornyn and Democratic challenger M.J. Hegar.
The Republican future in Texas is problematic. Even if Trump is denied a second term, the state’s Republican Party could face its own civil war: a battle between the remnants of the Bush wing of the party and a far more conservative wing that recently elected Allen B. West, the former Republican House member from Florida, as its state chair at a tumultuous state convention.
Which means that, while there is much at stake this fall, the story of political change in Texas will not end with the results in November.