Republicans’ Gerrymandered Maps Turn Back Time in Texas

Republicans’ Gerrymandered Maps Turn Back Time in Texas

With a quick glance at the new redistricting maps that Texas Republicans just rammed into law, you could be forgiven for thinking that the Lone Star State’s population became a whole lot whiter, more Republican, and more rural over the past decade. 

But that is a political illusion achieved through surgical lines that create donut-hole districts, gnarled fists, and land bridges, drawn by a party desperate to avoid confronting the realities of a transformed state. People of color constituted 95 percent of Texas’ population growth over the past decade, including roughly half from Latinos alone, earning the state two new congressional districts. But Republicans used redistricting to effectively turn back time, locking in the white majoritarian rule that has controlled Texas since Reconstruction.

Democrats, voting rights advocates, and everyday constituents alike protested that the maps carved apart neighborhoods and voters of color in blatantly discriminatory fashion. But Republicans rushed through the legislative process with their fingers in their ears, providing the public with only a perfunctory chance to provide input as the maps advanced at a rapid clip. GOP leaders insisted that the maps were drawn “race-blind” and that their lawyers had assured them they were not running afoul of the federal Voting Rights Act. 

By spreading out the electoral power of their white base in the vast expanses of deep-red rural Texas, Republicans shored up their current hold on power. They drew majority-white districts and fewer Hispanic majority districts, making red seats redder and blue seats bluer. This was done by defusing the ascendant political power of Latino, Black, and Asian voters in the cities and suburbs of Texas. 

If this all sounds familiar, it should. During the last redistricting cycle in 2010, Republicans similarly maximized their political control with districts that courts repeatedly found were drawn with intent to racially discriminate. Those legal battles lasted through almost the entire decade. Now, more examples of brazen racial gerrymandering have cropped up in the new maps, just as they did 10 years prior. Take State Senate District 10 in Tarrant County. In 2018, a coalition of Black, Hispanic, and white voters flipped the seat by electing Democrat Beverly Powell. She may not have the seat for long; the new map transforms the 10th district into a conservative stronghold that dilutes Black and Hispanic votes by way of Republican voters in several nearby rural counties. 

In the Texas House map, the GOP-held 54th district in Bell County had become increasingly competitive as the Black and Hispanic population grew in Killeen, which overwhelmingly voted for Biden in 2020. To protect that seat, Republicans made the 54th into a Bell County donut that completely encircled another Republican district. Each district got a piece of the county’s two Democratic-voting cities, Killeen and Temple. 

Districts like the 22nd in Fort Bend County and the 24th in the Dallas-Fort Worth suburbs had finally become political battlegrounds in the last election cycle as multi-racial coalitions banded together. “That was like a glimpse of the future of American politics. Very coalitional, very multi-racial,” says Michael Li, a redistricting lawyer with the Brennan Center for Justice. But Republicans chose to dismantle those seats, packing diversifying areas into new deep-blue Democratic districts or cracking them off into Republican-held seats made whiter and redder by extending out into far-flung rural counties. 

“Republicans are really scared of the suburbs because they’re becoming more diverse and because white voters in the suburbs aren’t as reliable for Republicans anymore and they’re not sure they’re getting it back anytime soon,” Li says. 

Republican Beth Van Duyne won her 2020 race for suburban Dallas-Fort Worth’s 24th congressional district by just under 5,000 votes—the closest margin in the state. She was the only Texas Republican to win a congressional district that President Joe Biden carried. 

With the new maps, Van Duyne has little to worry about from a Democratic challenge. The 24th went from being the most competitive in Texas to a carefully constructed conservative cocoon, swinging from R+3 to R+22. Van Cleave is likely worried more about a primary challenger than any opposition from a Democrat. Trump would have easily won her new district, 55-43.  

While Van Cleave’s district underwent the most severe rightward shift of any Texas congressional seat, it’s emblematic of the GOP’s new maps. 

Republicans carved Dallas and Tarrant County into a Russian nesting-doll of gerrymandering, and Van Duyne’s district is the outer shell. Inside that is the 33rd, a predominantly Black and Hispanic district. And inside that is a portion of the 6th Congressional District that was redrawn from an R+11 to an R+22 district. The new district reaches up from a mostly white, conservative expanse of rural counties. State Representative Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas) described this as a “fist” that reaches into the cities of Arlington, Grand Prairie, and Irving and grabs a big chunk of predominantly Latino neighborhoods. 

Before Republicans even passed their maps, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund filed a federal lawsuit arguing the maps were intentionally discriminatory against Hispanic voters. While Latinos made up half the state’s population growth last decade, Republicans slashed the number of districts with a majority of eligible Latino voters—from 33 to 30 in the Texas House and from eight to seven in Congress. This is just the first in what’s expected to be a flood of legal challenges. 

But those lawsuits will now play out in an entirely different legal landscape. Since the last redistricting cycle, the United States Supreme Court has said it will no longer consider partisan gerrymandering challenges  and has also issued rulings that make it near-impossible for intentional racial discrimimination in electoral maps to be proven. After last decade’s litigation, Republicans in Texas and across the country took precautions ahead of this cycle. At a redistricting panel at the 2019 conference for the right-wing policy group ALEC in Austin, the influential Republican election lawyer Hans von Spakovsy warned: “Don’t say anything in emails or in private that you don’t want to see on the front pages . . . because if you get into litigation it’s all going to come out.”

That same year, Texas lawmakers had quietly passed a new law that allows legislators and staff to withhold all records related to redistricting from the public. This session, Republican Todd Hunter, the chair of the Texas House Redistricting Committee, secretly hired a GOP operative who played a key role in 2010 with the Wisconsin Republicans’ redistricting. The operative held meetings with the entire Republican assembly—and no Democrats—and required members to sign confidentiality agreements. 

Texas Republicans aren’t just turning back time on the state’s demographic shifts. They’re returning to an era where the Republicans hardly needed to lift a finger to get reelected—and Democrats rarely bothered to field challengers. With these new maps, the GOP has sought to rid the state of competitive down-ballot races. 

The maps also stand to ease the strain on GOP campaign war chests. In the past two elections, Texas Republicans had to raise and spend more money than ever just to hold onto power. That sort of campaign competition is costly, and not just for airtime. After their down-ballot shellacking in 2018, Republicans made the 2019 legislative session laser-focused on public school funding and property taxes while sidelining the typical right-wing fare. It’s easy to see what happens when Abbott and Patrick feel secure in their party’s positions — after holding onto power in 2020, this year’s legislative session was one of the most unhinged, mean-spirited, punitive sessions ever. 

Now that the Legislature is out of session, the parties retreat to their corners. Republicans will soon become consumed with their own primary fights as Republicans try to outflank each other for the right to these shiny new ruby-red districts. Meanwhile, the maps leave Democrats with few opportunities to flip seats in 2022. Redistricting has already begun a game of musical chairs, setting off what will likely be a number of crowded primaries for deep-blue seats in Democratic cities. 

With the newly drawn 37th congressional district, Republicans finally gave back to Austin a seat it can call its own. It’s similar to the one that the GOP took from Democratic Congressman Lloyd Doggett and sliced up the city into several districts back when they first seized full control of the maps in 2003. Twenty years later, Doggett is leaving his current seat in the 35th with hopes of a homecoming in the 37th. 

Under Republican rule, time in Texas is a flat circle.

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Source: The Texas Observer