Dems face fundamental problem in Texas: Getting people to vote

Dems face fundamental problem in Texas: Getting people to vote
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SAN ANTONIO — On paper, Texas should be a swing state.

Urban growth and suburban sprawl have radically changed Lone Star country, which not so long ago was largely rural.

A demographic shift is also underway. Forty-three percent of residents now are non-Hispanic white.

Thirty-nine percent are Hispanic, another 13 percent are African-American, and almost 5 percent are Asian Americans.

Yet amid all this change, Texas has become more solidly red.


Republicans control supermajorities in both the state House and Senate, every statewide elected office and the vast majority of the 5,000 or so local elected positions throughout the state.

Still, there are some hints, if only slight, that Texas represents new possibilities for a Democratic comeback.

Of the millions of new residents pouring into the state, a little more than half come from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and other South and Central American countries. The rest largely come from California, Florida, New York and Illinois.

Democrats say this demographic change suggests the state has purple characteristics, if only people would go to the polls.

“We’re not a red state. We’re a low-turnout state,” said Rafael Anchia, a Democratic state representative from Dallas.

This is the sixteenth story in The Hill’s Changing America series, in which we examine the demographic and economic trends driving American politics today.

Texas was once a bastion of Yellow Dog Democrats, a state where Lyndon Johnson helped John F. Kennedy capture the presidency. But slowly, the state’s politics changed.

The East Texas counties that helped Kennedy beat Richard Nixon are now among the most solidly Republican in America. Fort Worth is one of the largest cities in America that consistently elects Republican leaders. Former Gov. George W. Bush’s election in 1994, when he beat popular Gov. Ann Richards, marked the beginning of what has so far been a three-decade-long drought for Democrats.

The story of Texas is one of growth: Across the state, new migrants are moving in so fast that simply building the infrastructure necessary to serve the population has become a policymaker’s greatest challenge.

Even at midday on a recent Friday, the stretch of Interstate 35 that connects Austin to San Antonio was jammed with pickup trucks and tractor trailers flying south at 75 miles per hour. A reporter had been warned to leave especially early. Traffic these days is always bad.

This drive through the rolling scrubland of Texas Hill County was once dotted with small oases of civilization. Today, most of the 80 or so miles between Texas’s two fastest-growing metropolitan areas are taken up by urban sprawl, as new developments wind ever farther into the most rapidly expanding counties in America. 

Since Bush quit the governorship in 2000 to become president, San Antonio’s Bexar County has added half a million new residents. Travis County, where the red granite dome of the state capitol looms over downtown Austin, has added 350,000 new residents. Among the top six fastest-growing counties in America, three are suburbs of San Antonio or Austin.

“People have gone from a rural setting in Texas to a largely urban setting,” Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said in an interview, just moments after the reporter who had not heeded advice to leave Austin early showed up at his reelection kickoff in San Antonio.

Most of the state’s population lives in a triangle between San Antonio, Dallas and Houston.

“The cities and the counties that are growing fast, they basically can’t build roads fast enough and can’t build schools fast enough and can’t build the infrastructure they need,” said Lloyd Potter, who heads the Institute for Demographic and Socioeconomic Research at the University of Texas at San Antonio and serves as the state’s official demographer.

About 86 percent of Texans live east of Interstate 35, Potter said. And about 80 percent of all Texas voters live in just 40 of the state’s 254 counties. 

Many have come for the economic opportunity, which Abbott’s predecessor, Gov. Rick PerryRick PerrySenators urge Energy chief to prioritize cybersecurity amid growing threats Rachel Maddow calls into question Cornyn connection to Gupta Exclusive: GOP officials offer support for Vanita Gupta MORE (R), called the “Texas miracle.” Since Perry was sworn in, the state has added about 2.8 million jobs. Texas has added jobs every month since March 2009, even before the rest of the country hit the depths of the recession.

“The Texas miracle was not a cosmic accident,” said Jeff Moseley, the former head of economic development under Bush and Perry who now heads the Texas Association of Business.

Democrats believe the votes exist to make Texas a competitive state. Hundreds of thousands of people eligible to vote have not bothered to register. Millions more simply don’t show up on Election Day. A state court has found that hundreds of thousands who might vote do not have access to the ballot box because they lack the necessary identification under a strict voter ID law passed earlier this decade.

The pace of demographic change has given Democrats hope that they can compete once again. Hispanic voters turn out at markedly lower rates than blacks or whites; if those numbers increase, Democrats believe they have a chance to be competitive. Younger voters are aging into the electorate, and Democrats will spend millions registering and turning out older voters in the future.

“Much of [the Hispanic] growth is being driven by natural increase. That means they tend to have a younger population,” Potter said.

They point to the 2016 presidential race when, without the aid of any paid advertising, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonClose the avenues of foreign meddling Pelosi planned on retiring until Trump won election: report Pence autobiography coming from Simon & Schuster MORE came closer to winning Texas, which she lost by nine percentage points, than she did to winning Iowa.

“The political awakening is happening now,” Anchia said. “We are now seeing in the Hispanic community a great deal of fear and loathing in the Trump/Abbott brand.”

But at a time when Republicans like President Trump are alienating Hispanic voters with intemperate language, Texas Republicans have made a concerted effort to build bridges where none had existed — beginning with Bush, who won 44 percent of the Hispanic vote when he sought reelection in 2004. 

It was no accident that Abbott, after kicking off his campaign in his wife’s hometown of San Antonio, headed south for a swing through the heavily Hispanic Rio Grande Valley. In the four main counties that make up the valley, the Republican share of the vote has grown from about 32 percent in 2002 to 36 percent for Abbott in 2016.

“We spent time and money and resources down there, and statewide, courting Hispanic voters,” said David Carney, Abbott’s chief strategist. “You can’t expect people to support you if you don’t go out there and aggressively court their vote.”

Most demographers believe the pace of growth, and the much slower increase in voter participation, will eventually make Texas a swing state. If Texas is in play, it will be a huge advantage for a Democratic candidate’s path to the 270 electoral votes necessary to win the White House. 

Already, two of the nation’s four largest states — California and New York — are solidly in the Democratic column. The third, Florida, is the consummate swing state. Together, those four states represent 151 electoral votes, more than half those necessary to get to 270.

But Democrats are still parched from their three-decade drought, and the rains seem a long way off. 

Abbott has yet to draw a serious Democratic challenger. Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzHarry Reid reacts to Boehner book excerpt: 'We didn't mince words' GOP lawmakers block Biden assistance to Palestinians Cruz on Boehner: 'I wear with pride his drunken, bloviated scorn' MORE (R) has a credible rival in Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D), but other prominent Democrats — including Rep. Joaquin Castro (D), former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, Anchia and a handful of others — have decided against statewide races.

Several months ago, some of the biggest donors to Texas Democratic candidates sat down with the Castros, Anchia and former Houston Mayor Annise Parker (D). One donor pledged to write a $1 million check if he saw a plan that could get a Democratic candidate to the 50 percent threshold necessary to win. The check remains unwritten.

“I still think we’re a couple of years away,” Anchia admitted. “We just want to win one.”