Population shifts set up huge House battleground

As many as 1 in 5 seats in the House of Representatives may be competitive next year as population shifts and partisan realignment conspire to create one of the most widespread battlefields in generations.

Democrats will find themselves on defense in dozens of districts the party captured in 2018, including 31 districts President TrumpDonald John TrumpZuckerberg launches public defense of Facebook as attacks mount Trump leaning toward keeping a couple hundred troops in eastern Syria: report Warren says making Israel aid conditional on settlement building is 'on the table' MORE won in 2016. Already, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has identified 36 members for its Frontline program, which protects endangered incumbents.

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Republicans, too, will have to defend districts in unexpected areas, seats that Democrats narrowly lost in 2018. Districts that have not been targets for years are suddenly in play, either because suburban voters revolted against Trump or because new residents are moving in and changing the makeup of those areas.

All told, 89 congressional races were decided by 10 percentage points or less in the 2018 midterm elections.

A shifting political battleground is common at the end of a decade, years after the decennial census reapportions districts and states redraw their political boundaries. New residents moving between states and across district lines distort old political balances, struck every 10 years to ensure districts have even population numbers.

Over the last seven years, however, those balances have become imbalanced at an unusually precipitous rate. Population shifts out of the Rust Belt and into the Sun Belt have created districts groaning with new residents. 

Nearly two dozen congressional districts have seen their populations increase by more than 10 percent since the last census, according to the Census Bureau’s figures, and 52 districts have added at least 50,000 new residents.

In states where lawmakers carefully drew district boundaries to maximize their chances of winning, those population shifts become even more destabilizing.

Nowhere is that clearer than in Texas, where Republicans drew district lines that assured they would hold a supermajority of seats in Congress after the 2010 census. To do so, they had to draw several districts where Democrats would earn huge majorities and others where Republicans could win with 55 to 60 percent of the vote.

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“The GOP gerrymandering efforts rely on the most efficient distribution of GOP voters across as many districts as possible, the idea being to waste very few votes in each victory margin,” said Tom Bonier, a Democratic data analyst who runs the firm TargetSmart. “Combined with the population trends in many exurban areas, as they become more racially and ethnically diverse, the gerrymanders can become somewhat less effective the closer we get to the next decennial redistricting.”

Texas has grown at such a rapid pace that those careful calculations have been thrown out of whack. Where the average congressional district in the United States has grown by 23,200 people since the last Census, the average Texas district has grown by 74,000 people — and the average competitive Texas district, mostly centered around Houston, San Antonio, Austin and Dallas, has grown by an incredible 96,500 residents.

Texas Republicans publicly celebrate so many new residents, who come from states like California and New York in search of plentiful jobs and lower taxes. Privately, those Republicans bemoan the fact that the new residents still vote like they live in California or New York.

The phenomenon has occurred before: Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado, once swing states at the heart of the presidential battleground, have become increasingly blue as they attract new residents. Republicans have not won any of those states since George W. Bush won all three in 2004.

“We’ve seen this in places like Nevada before,” said Mark Gersh, a pioneer in Democratic data analytics. “So much of this is [the growing] minority population, and they’re more likely to vote than they were before.”

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In many cases, the new residents moving into these new swing areas are from other parts of the country. Rep. Kenny MarchantKenny Ewell MarchantBlood cancer patients deserve equal access to the cure What's causing the congressional 'Texodus'? House Ethics Committee reviewing two GOP lawmakers over campaign finance MORE’s (R-Texas) district, which covers part of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, includes about 800,000 people — almost 55 percent of whom were born in another state (30 percent) or another country (24 percent). 

Marchant’s vote share has declined from 65 percent in 2014 to 56 percent in 2016 and just 50.6 percent in 2018. His campaign said it is counting on higher turnout among Republican voters who stayed home during the midterms.

“Rep. Marchant has been a dedicated, effective leader for the 24th district who has proven he knows how to get things done,” said Keats Norfleet, Marchant’s campaign spokesman. “This is a Congressional district that Republicans won by more than 6 points in 2016, and as a Presidential year, Republican voters will be more enthusiastic than ever to turn out and make their voices heard next year.”

Carter’s district, based in Austin’s fast-growing northern suburbs, is also emblematic of a changing state. He has won his last three elections with slimmer and slimmer support: He took 64 percent in 2014, 58 percent in 2016 and just 50.6 percent of the vote in 2018. Over that span, his district has added 133,000 new residents.

“It’s about a quarter of the electorate that’s brand new, first-time voters over the last two cycles,” said Jeff Burton, Carter’s campaign strategist. “The district’s changed considerably since 2012. It’s not as conservative.”

Carter spends every weekend in his district, in part introducing himself to those new voters. He has held five town halls since March, Burton said, and he prizes accessibility. He will begin holding office hours later this summer.

“We have a congressman in Judge Carter who works his butt off,” Burton said.

Olson’s district, south of Houston, is 171,000 residents larger than it was when the last census was taken, fueled by an influx of west Asian immigrants. As the district has become more diverse and better educated, Olson’s vote share has also shrunk, from 67 percent of the vote in 2014 to 51 percent last year.

“Republicans probably didn’t anticipate this happening in the suburbs. They may have known about the demographic shifts,” Gersh said. “Suburban voters in a place like Texas, who were at one time more supportive of Republicans, have deserted Trump.”