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 TrumpTrump pushes back on recent polling data, says internal numbers are 'strongest we've had so far' Illinois state lawmaker apologizes for photos depicting mock assassination of Trump Scaramucci assembling team of former Cabinet members to speak out against Trump 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.”

Democrats captured two House seats in Texas last year and a dozen seats in the state House. But several Republicans, including Reps. Michael McCaulMichael Thomas McCaulPelosi warns Mnuchin to stop 'illegal' .3B cut to foreign aid Trump moves forward with F-16 sale to Taiwan opposed by China Top Foreign Affairs Republican: 'It would benefit all of us' for Omar, Tlaib to visit Israel MORE, Pete OlsonPeter (Pete) Graham OlsonTexas faces turbulent political moment Another Texas congressman planning to retire Hurd retirement leaves GOP gloomy on 2020 MORE, Will HurdWilliam Ballard HurdDemocrats keen to take on Cornyn despite formidable challenges Republicans offer support for Steve King challenger House Democrats target 2020 GOP incumbents in new ad MORE, Roger WilliamsJohn (Roger) Roger WilliamsPopulation shifts set up huge House battleground The 27 Republicans who voted with Democrats to block Trump from taking military action against Iran The Hill's 12:30 Report: Dems aim to end anti-Semitism controversy with vote today MORE and John CarterJohn Rice CarterDemocrats keen to take on Cornyn despite formidable challenges Texas Democratic Senate candidate says she does not support Green New Deal Population shifts set up huge House battleground MORE, won reelection by far narrower margins than they are used to, while freshman Reps. Dan CrenshawDaniel CrenshawCNN slams GOP for not appearing on network after mass shootings, conservatives fire back Texas Democratic official: GOP needs to 'get real' about gun reform after El Paso Conservatives call on Pelosi to cancel August recess MORE, Ron WrightRonald (Ron) WrightConservatives call on Pelosi to cancel August recess Population shifts set up huge House battleground GOP moves to block provision banning use of Defense funds for border wall MORE and Chip RoyCharles (Chip) Eugene RoyGOP lawmaker blasts Omar and Tlaib: Netanyahu right to block 'enemies' of Israel The Hill's Campaign Report: 2020 Democrats step up attacks ahead of Detroit debate Conservatives call on Pelosi to cancel August recess MORE won by slimmer margins than their Republican predecessors.

In many cases, the new residents moving into these new swing areas are from other parts of the country. Rep. Kenny MarchantKenny Ewell MarchantHouse conservatives call for ethics probe into Joaquin Castro tweet Texas faces turbulent political moment Democratic Party official: Texas is 'biggest battleground state in the country' 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.”