Texas’s population boom could be a boon to Democrats. But Republicans are reaping the gains.
SAN MARCOS, Texas — In a fast-growing city in a fast-growing state, Yvonne Flores-Cale is typical of the population surge that is transforming Texas.
The native Midwesterner is relatively young, Hispanic and politically left of center. She has lived in Kyle — a booming suburb just south of Austin, on the edge of Texas’ famed Hill Country — only for a decade but has watched as the surrounding county has morphed from red to purple to a pale shade of blue.
Last year, she won a seat on the City Council, and she sees herself as part of a broader wave that will ultimately crest in the state legislature and Congress, washing away incumbents she regards as more reflective of the state’s past than its future.
“It’s only a matter of time before people like me fill those seats,” said the paralegal and mother of three. “You get mad enough and change is going to come.”
Yet the change coming to Texas, for now, probably will be the opposite of what one might expect. The state’s growth — fueled by people of color in its largest cities and their suburbs — could be cause for celebration among Democrats.
But because of the way the GOP-controlled legislature is expected to redraw congressional districts, this growth is predicted to be a boon for Republicans instead. When coupled with new lines in states such as Florida and Georgia, it might even be enough to flip control of the House in next year’s midterm elections.
“Gerrymandering is an easy road map to a Republican majority,” said Michael Li, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute. “They have a lot of incentive to be very aggressive.”
The way state legislators of both major political parties draw congressional boundaries to engineer a particular outcome, rendering most of the nation’s House districts noncompetitive, has not received the same intense focus as other forms of voter suppression. Yet that will probably change as states prepare to go through a once-a-decade redistricting. In most states where seats are in play, it is Republicans who will hold the pen as new lines are drawn.
Nowhere is that process probable to be more contentious than in Texas, where critics see an ever-widening divide between the state’s fast-changing demographics — which have put the onetime Republican bastion into play in statewide contests — and the ever-redder way it is represented in Congress.
“I am anticipating a big battle,” said Rogelio Sáenz, a demographer at the University of Texas at San Antonio. “It could get ugly.”
That’s in part because there’s nowhere else in the country where the stakes are as high.
In a nation where population growth has slowed to historically low levels, Texas is a standout exception. Numbers in the state are rising at an explosive pace — more than double the national average. That made Texas the big winner in this year’s congressional reapportionment, with the state gaining two additional seats to represent its 29 million residents — a total second only to California, where growth has stalled.
The trends in Texas have made the state far more diverse and urban. About 90% of its growth over the past decade has been among people of color, with out-of-state moves, immigration and new births all contributing. By late this year or early next, the Hispanic population is expected, for the first time, to top the non-Hispanic White population.
The gains, meanwhile, have been spread across the state unevenly. Texas’s multiethnic major cities are growing at a rapid clip, with the state now having five of the 13 biggest in the country. Increasingly diverse suburbs, too, are reaping the gains. But Texas’s rural areas, many of them largely White, are in sharp decline.
“Texas added more people than any other state” over the past 10 years, said Lloyd Potter, the Texas state demographer. “But about 100 of our counties lost population.”
Republicans tout the state’s growth as evidence that Americans are voting with their feet, choosing to move from Democratic-led states such as California, New York and Illinois to enjoy the low-tax, pro-business policies that Texas offers.
But they also recognize that the new arrivals pose a threat. State GOP Chair Allen West greeted news of the state’s census count last month by comparing incoming Democratic voters to “locusts, bent upon destruction.”
The newcomers have made Texas more competitive. Democrats have not won the state in a presidential vote in nearly half a century, and they have routinely lost by 20 points or more. But last year, the margin was less than six points.
The state’s congressional delegation has moved sharply the other way. At the start of the century, Democrats had a pronounced advantage — a product, at least in part, of maps drawn by Democratic-controlled legislatures that favored their side. But after the GOP won full control in the state capital in 2002, the balance decisively shifted, with Republican lawmakers now outnumbering Democrats in the House in Washington 23 to 13.
Republicans are expected to add two more to their column next year. But Democrats say the additions will not come without a fight — one that, if past is prologue, will ultimately be settled by judges. “Whatever Republicans do, this will almost certainly end up in court,” said Li, who is a Texas native.
Challenges probably will focus on the argument that the new districts are being drawn to either “pack” minority communities into a single district or “crack” them across many. Both tactics can dilute the power of voters, and judges can deem them discriminatory.
“I hope that the legislature, after losing in court repeatedly on voting rights matters, will have learned its lessons,” said Rafael Anchía, a Democratic state representative who chairs the Mexican American Legislative Caucus.
Anchía said his Dallas district — which he has won with nearly 80% of the vote — is evidence of the “egregious” way that lines have been drawn in his state not only for Congress but for the legislature as well.
“As good as I might be, I shouldn’t be winning 80%. Those are Benito Mussolini numbers. They’re Fidel Castro numbers,” he said. “That’s why our voters are often so disconnected. They feel like the rules of the game have been rigged.”
In many ways, they have. The evidence is visible in maps of the state’s congressional and legislative districts, with lines swerving and curling, spaghetti-style, to exclude or include neighborhoods, or even specific streets.
In Austin — the ultraliberal state capital, home to nearly 1 million people — the map is a tangle of six districts, with lines radiating out from city blocks deep into the Texas prairie. Only one of the districts is represented by a Democrat.
But the state’s growing diversity is making the task of drawing safe GOP seats more complicated for the party.
That’s evident in Hays County, south of Austin, where a suburb that once voted reliably for Republicans in federal contests has become a key engine for Democratic votes.
Straddling Interstate 35, Hays is a string of tethered communities cropping up along the corridor connecting Austin and San Antonio. On each side of the interstate, large swaths of onetime prairie and ranch land are being cleared for development, and new apartment buildings are in various stages of construction.
Among the fastest-growing counties in America, Hays has more than doubled in size over the past 20 years. While many of the new arrivals are transplants from elsewhere in Texas, a large share has moved here from out-of-state.
“In the cul-de-sac where I live, there are six houses. Five of us came from somewhere else. Four are from California,” Jason Giulietti said.
Giulietti moved to Texas from Connecticut to lead the region’s economic development organization, the Greater San Marcos Partnership, and said the qualities that draw so many people to the area applied to him: beautiful scenery, reasonably affordable housing, ample job opportunities and a lower cost of living.
Companies have helped to feed the growth, with tech firms sprouting up and beginning the transformation of what had long been sleepy commuter towns into what Giulietti and others call the “Texas Innovation Corridor” — a still somewhat aspirational moniker, but one becoming more real by the day.
The rapid growth has brought the usual set of challenges. Traffic congestion is growing more interminable each day, along with pressure on water, power and other infrastructure. Concerns about gentrification, displacement and rising housing costs also abound.
Flores-Cale ran for Kyle City Council, she says, because she could help address some of those issues while serving as a bridge between longtime residents and the city’s newer arrivals. She was not “trying to be political,” said the 43-year-old. “I was trying to be a part of change.”
She said she does not identify with a political party, though President Joe Biden’s inauguration in January allowed her to exhale in relief. Many in Hays probably felt the same: The county voted for Biden by a double-digit margin, after siding narrowly with Donald Trump in 2016.
Lorraine Lane was among the new Hays voters who helped make the difference. The 53-year-old moved to the county’s largest city, San Marcos, three years ago to run a jobs program for at-risk youths.
She was apprehensive at first, wondering whether she, a gay Black woman, would be accepted. Her concerns have largely been put to rest. She has found her community, along with a taste for Texas wines and a fondness for the recreational opportunities that come with the region’s scenic rivers and hills.
“San Marcos feels like a small town, but I’m a small-town girl, so I absolutely love it,” she said. “And Austin and San Antonio are only 40 minutes away if you want bright lights, big city.”
But the way she and her fellow citizens are represented in Congress bothers her. Her city is split down the middle, with one side of its main commercial center in one congressional district and the other side in the other. It all feels manufactured to achieve a partisan result, and to Lane it goes in the same category as other attempts to discourage people from engaging in their democracy.
“My parents and grandparents were very active in ending voter suppression,” said Lane, who is originally from Georgia. “This is just another form of it. If you want people to vote for you, give them a reason. It’s really as simple as that.”
Yet getting voters to engage with the issue of gerrymandering is not so simple. Relatively arcane and abstract — with much of the action taking place out of sight — the question of where congressional district lines should be drawn has seldom captivated public attention.
The top elected local official in Hays, Democratic Judge Ruben Becerra, said he is attempting to change that, appointing a citizen commission to study the issue, help educate the public and advocate for the county in Austin.
“This gerrymandering that we deal with is so un-American,” he said.
Becerra, the first Latino to lead Hays, said he would like to see an independent commission, rather than the legislature, draw the new lines. He also wants his county in a single district, rather than split among three, so the community’s voice is amplified in Washington and its increasingly diverse populace is adequately represented.
While non-White voters in Texas have traditionally favored Democrats, as is true nationally, the state has offered recent reminders that many of those voters are far from locked in.
In the November election, surprisingly large gains in Latino support for Trump in the Rio Grande Valley helped solidify his victory statewide.
That’s one reason, experts say, that Republicans would be unwise to write off the state’s newest residents — and why Democrats should not take them for granted.
“It’s not automatic that these new residents will be logged into the Democratic ledger, particularly with Latinos and, to a certain extent, Asians as well,” said Sáenz, the demographer.
Walt Smith, for one, sees the newcomers as an opportunity. The former Capitol Hill staffer moved back to his native Texas to raise a family, and now is a Republican member of the Hays County Commission.
The 45-year-old said many of his new neighbors and constituents are a lot like him. They did not want their children to grow up in cities experiencing upheaval, and are trying to escape the political rhetoric and regulation associated with Democratic rule.
“Many feel like they are refugees from places like California and Colorado, where they don’t feel heard,” Smith said. “They’ve come to our area because they don’t like taxes and want to have a more free place to live.”
Republicans statewide have said they plan to conduct a fair redistricting process, and Smith said he expects “there will be an honest effort to do everything as it’s supposed to be done.”
He also expects Democrats to challenge the new lines in court, but he does not have much sympathy for the minority party’s inevitable complaints of unfair treatment.
It’s politics, after all.
“At the end of the day,” he said, “elections have consequences.”
Witte reported from Washington.