The Republican takeover of Texas was gradual. First came the shocking upset of populist Democratic Gov. Ann Richards in 1994, who was upset by the party boy-turned-evangelical George W. Bush. Two years later, the GOP flipped the state Senate. It wasn’t until the midterms of 2002, with Bush in the White House and riding a post-9/11 wave of popularity, that Texas Republicans achieved their trifecta.
The new majority went to work quickly on two primary objectives: to make Texas the most hospitable state in the country for business and the least hospitable for Democrats. By most measures, they delivered on both fronts. Yet success on their first objective ended up, to Republicans’ great surprise, undermining their second. Texas did indeed become home to hundreds of thousands of new jobs as companies either launched or newly headquartered there with generous subsidies and low taxes. The problem for Republicans is that the environment they built to attract those companies also drew people to the state who are not Republicans.
In 2003, one of the new majority’s first acts of business was the creation of the taxpayer-funded Texas Enterprise Fund, an incentive program offering “deal-closing grants” to certain businesses considering coming to the state, which has distributed more than $600 million in grants since it started, according to the body’s 2019 legislative report. Grants would only be awarded when Texas was competing with another state to attract a company site. The effectiveness of those funds in creating new jobs is up for debate, as several companies receiving grants already had plans to come to the state, said University of Texas at Austin professor Nate Jensen, who studies state business incentive programs. But it was emblematic of the GOP’s approach. No longer were Texas populists battling the barons on behalf of the little man. The full power of the state would now be aimed at making businesses in Texas more comfortable and attracting as many from out of state as possible.
In Austin, the Republican-controlled legislature used the last two decades to create a business haven in the state, creating billions of dollars in corporate incentives and tax breaks. Texas has never levied a state income tax and is one of nine states without one. The state also has generally low taxes, a low cost of living, and relatively high quality of life. It also has land — lots of it. As housing prices soared in the 2000s, particularly in California, life in Texas, where a large home could be bought on a reasonable salary, people came in droves. New developments sprang up as the suburbs of Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, and Austin exploded. Each new suburban development or relocated headquarters created its own expanded economic activity, a virtuous circle that helped feed what became known as “the Texas miracle.” That miracle was concentrated in Texas’s major cities while poorer and rural areas saw declines. Texas still has one of the highest poverty rates in the nation, and while the average rate declined slightly in recent years, almost 4 million people fell below the poverty line between 2016 and 2018, the Houston Chronicle reported.
In their first year controlling the chamber, GOP legislators, guided by national Republicans Karl Rove and Tom DeLay, also did away with Democrats. Because the state legislature had been divided the previous session, redistricting hadn’t been completed. It was stuck in the courts, but the newly empowered Republicans decided to do it themselves, putting a radical gerrymandering on the House floor. Democrats fled the state to try to deny quorum. Holed up in Oklahoma, they became known as the “Killer Ds.” But Republicans got the map through anyway and cemented their majority. Democrats clawed back slightly but were crushed again by the tea party wave in 2010, leading to a fresh new gerrymander.
The success of Texas in luring so many well-educated workers predisposed to vote Democrat happened, in part, in spite of the Republicans, not because of them.
Texas has also led the way when it comes to voter suppression — despite a rapidly growing population and the spike in turnout in 2018, the state still ranks near last in voter turnout. Texas’s slowly shifting political demography, from red to purple, is often attributed to its three fast-growing metro areas, which have drawn in Democratic voters from around the country. A record number of voters in Texas have registered so far this year. That, paired with its population boom and a backlash to Donald Trump among Republican voters in the state, could make 2020 the year Democrats take control of the state House for the first time since 2002 and possibly vote for a Democrat in the race for the White House and the U.S. Senate.
The success of Texas in luring so many well-educated workers predisposed to vote Democrat happened, in part, in spite of the Republicans, not because of them. “I wouldn’t ascribe that to the Republican Party or certainly not those who are in power right now,” said former Democratic presidential candidate and Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke. “A lot of this just has to do with ingenuity and innovation of everyday Texans who are making this a more and more attractive state.”
Some of that ingenuity is centered in the state’s major cities, which the Texas Republican lawmakers are regularly at war with. “The Texas business success is a complex story, and business incentives are probably a very small part of it,” Jensen said, explaining that some receiving companies were either already operating in the state or planning to expand there. “That being said, we offer really large incentives, in particular for a successful state.” Other factors contributing to Texas’s population boom are its size and physical infrastructure, Jensen said, including having a large market and its own power grid, a robust renewable energy sector, and major shipping and airports.
In just the last two years, Apple, Uber, Tesla, and Facebook all announced plans to expand offices in Texas. Nasdaq is in talks with Republican Gov. Greg Abbott about relocating trading systems to the Dallas-Fort Worth area, the Dallas Morning News reported last week.
Companies like Uber and Tesla typically offer higher-paying jobs concentrated in cities, Jensen explained, and the state isn’t seeing even development in the state’s more rural areas. Those areas have simultaneously had dips in population. “A lot of our really high-end, really great investment that’s coming here has been clustered around just a handful of cities. Again, not uncommon. But it’s easy to say, ‘Well, Texas is a great business environment.’ It’s more like there’s few cities in Texas that have been very good at attracting [business].” For example, he said, the high quality of life in Austin attracts people on their own. “In some sense, it’s attractive for workers and that makes it attractive for companies that are trying to attract kind of a global workforce.”
The state’s population grew by more than 3.5 million people between 2010 and 2018, a 14 percent increase. About 40 percent of Texans are Latino, compared to 18 percent nationally, and the state has a slightly younger population than the nation as a whole — a quarter of people are under the age of 18. People of color make up close to half of Texas’s eligible voting population and estimates show that Latinos will represent a plurality of the state population by 2021. Those changes created a much more competitive landscape last cycle, eventually pushing six GOP members of Congress to announce retirement last year, and a seventh, John Ratcliffe, was confirmed as director of national intelligence in May.
Trump’s election in 2016 changed the future of Republican politics in the state for the worse and foreshadowed a slow erosion. Trump won the state by a much smaller margin than Mitt Romney had in 2012, and slightly less than John McCain did in 2008. Another six House Republicans retired ahead of the 2018 midterms, compared to two Democrats, including O’Rourke, who challenged Republican Sen. Ted Cruz that year. More than 1.8 million additional people have registered to vote in Texas since 2016, and Democrats are nine seats away from taking control of the state House for the first time in 20 years, sights set on breaking a long-held Republican trifecta ahead of redistricting in 2021.
If Democratic gains in the Houston and Dallas suburbs hold, it’s a matter of when, not if, Texas flips blue.
Those trends, combined with spikes in voter turnout in recent years and efforts by local groups to engage working-class and low-income voters, laid the groundwork for O’Rourke to come within 3 points of unseating Cruz in 2018. That year, voter turnout in the state reached its highest point since 1970. Democratic candidate Lizzie Fletcher defeated nine-term Republican Rep. John Culberson by 5 points in Houston that year, and Colin Allred ousted former Republican House Rules Chair Pete Sessions by 7 points in Dallas. (Sessions is running in November in the open race for the 17th District, where Rep. Bill Flores announced his retirement last year.) Twelve Democratic candidates ran in this year’s March Senate primary, with labor organizer Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez coming in third with more than 246,000 votes.
If Democratic gains in the Houston and Dallas suburbs hold, it’s a matter of when, not if, Texas flips blue. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden “has his foot in the door” in Texas, O’Rourke and Tory Gavito, Texas activist and co-founder of the progressive fundraising group Way to Win, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed last week, “and needs to kick it open for a quick end to the election.” A “pattern of underestimating Democratic candidates shows Biden can win Texas,” they argued. Days later, the Biden campaign booked a $6 million digital ad buy in the state, the largest such investment there from any Democratic presidential nominee in more than 20 years. But the campaign appeared to scale back some of those efforts, the Dallas Morning News reported Friday and canceled some of the planned ads. Jill Biden and Douglas Emhoff, husband of the Democratic vice presidential candidate, California Sen. Kamala Harris, traveled to the state in recent weeks ahead of the first day of early voting on Tuesday. Biden and Harris have not visited since the March primary.
The Lone Star state’s major corporate incentives and property tax abatements have helped attract major tech companies, and their employees, who tend to be younger and more highly educated. The state’s urban hubs have shifted further blue, and national Democrats are paying more attention to Texas in the final weeks leading up to Election Day — a notably late investment.
But even as more and more voters are engaging each year, voter suppression tactics by Republicans could block Democratic progress.
Voter suppression in Texas has been exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic. While most states have expanded mail-in voting, some doing so even before the start of the coronavirus outbreak, Abbott, the Texas governor, has repeatedly refused to do so, most recently on October 1. The GOP has also erected barriers to early voting; early Tuesday morning, a panel of three Trump-appointed federal judges overturned a lower-court ruling allowing counties to use multiple drop boxes to make voting easier during the pandemic, upholding Abbott’s October 1 order that counties could have only one box.
That’s likely because they know that shifts in the voting population don’t bode well for them. “Texas is arguably the most voter-suppressed state in the union,” O’Rourke said, during a break from a 12-hour phone bank with his voter outreach group, Powered by People, on Monday, when they registered 18,000 volunteers to help call 1 million people. “No state tries harder to keep its own people from voting — and specifically Black Texans, Latino Texans, Texans from communities of color. Prior to 2018, we were 50th, dead last, in voter turnout,” O’Rourke said. The share of Latino voters who turned out during the state’s 2018 midterms nearly doubled from 2014, reaching 1.87 million voters, the Corpus-Christi Caller-Times reported. Groups like the Texas Organizing Project, MOVE Texas, and Jolt, which Ramirez founded, focusing on grassroots organizing and activating the state’s young, Latino and working-class voters, helped make that possible.
“All that was really the prologue or preview of 2020,” O’Rourke said, adding that turnout during presidential cycles tends to favor Democrats. On top of that, he said, Texas is dealing with “miserable leadership from Republicans nationally and certainly in the state of Texas where we have 16,500 Covid deaths disproportionately impacting communities of color.” As of Tuesday, that number surpassed 17,000.
Democrats haven’t won a statewide office in Texas since the early ’90s, but they’re within reach of flipping the state House before redistricting takes place next year, a process during which Texas is expected to add at least three new congressional districts. State Democrats need to flip nine seats to take the House and are targeting 22 seats where Republicans won by less than 10 points. The state Democratic Party has capitalized on that growth, O’Rourke said, listing candidates for the state House running to flip districts in Houston’s suburbs like Akilah Bacy in District 138, a local attorney and former assistant district attorney in Harris County, and Natali Hurtado in District 126, who’s running a second time against Republican state Rep. Sam Harless after losing to him last cycle by just under 10 points.
Other state House districts most likely to flip from red to blue are clustered around the metro areas of north Dallas, including Districts 108, 66, and 112, and in Houston and its western suburbs in Districts 26 and 134. “There’s a real chance Democrats could flip the Texas house this year. Just imagine that for a second,” said Rita Bosworth, founder and executive director of Sister District, a grassroots group founded after Trump’s election focused on flipping state legislatures blue. “Beto won nine seats in 2018, nine of these seats in a Republican house. It’s not like this is Democrats and their pipe dream. This is actually a possibility,” she said. O’Rourke carried nine of 17 districts represented by Republicans that year.
For all its growth in recent years, Texas still follows the federal $7.25 minimum wage and has some of the highest numbers of uninsured people in the country, a massive maternal mortality crisis disproportionately impacting Black women, and a county jail system as the largest provider of mental health care, O’Rourke said. Following national trends, unemployment as a result of the pandemic has disproportionately hit the state’s Black and Hispanic residents, the Texas Tribune reported, exacerbated by the state’s already unequal economic expansion. Focusing on those issues is what’s resonating with voters, O’Rourke said. “There are a lot of things that make it very hard for a lot of people to live in Texas. And I think that is creating an opportunity for Democratic challengers who can connect the dots.”
Unlike other major states preparing for delayed election results due to expanded mail-in voting, Texas is expected to know the winner of the presidential election on November 3. If the state goes blue, it could be decisive in determining the overall results of the election on the very same day, O’Rourke said. “You could wait days or weeks for Pennsylvania to come in, and that’s gonna be contested in the courts, and Donald Trump’s gonna seek to invalidate this or that state’s returns, or individual ballots, in a kind of nightmare reminiscent of the year 2000 in Bush v. Gore. Or we could decide this with Texas. And then it is mathematically, psychologically, and in every other way that matters, impossible for Donald Trump to claim victory. And we as a country can avert the kind of crisis that he would seek to create if there’s any confusion about the results.”