The 2008 election is occurring at a moment when the political pendulum in Texas could swing the other way—much as it did in 1994, when George W. Bush defeated Ann Richards as part of a nationwide Republican sweep that included takeovers of both houses of Congress. No Democrat has won a statewide race since. This election will not restore the Democrats to power here, but it will provide a yardstick for how much ground the party has recovered since the R’s won the last remaining prize that had eluded their grasp: a majority in the state House of Representatives in 2002 and, with it, the speakership. Now, just six years later, the D’s have a chance to retake a slender majority in the House and to pick up seats in the state Senate.
If it seems strange to focus on down-ballot races in a presidential election year, that’s where the action is. The winner-take-all system eliminates the suspense over whether John McCain or Barack Obama will come away with Texas’s 34 electoral votes. Republicans have dominated presidential races here ever since Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in 1980. McCain will carry Texas. The question is, By how much? The presidential race matters because it drives, or fails to drive, turnout. All those years of Bushes on the ballot—the elder four times, the younger twice—killed the Democrats. Finally, the R’s have run out of Bushes. The 2008 election will not be a replay of 2000, or even 2004. The Democrats have a candidate who energizes the party’s electorate, while the GOP nominee would not have been the first choice of most Texas Republicans.
The key to the down-ballot races in this state is that Obama’s strength is where the votes are, in urban Texas. The two big metro areas are rich in potential swing districts in congressional and legislative races. Demographics work in the Democrats’ favor. They may not be ready to win statewide, but they proved in 2006 that they could retake a diverse urban county like Dallas. Harris County is the next target. If Obama can win 42 to 44 percent of the vote, Democrats should do no worse than consolidate their gains. If he can win 45 to 47 percent, the pendulum will have swung enough to resurrect his party.
(No) Change We Can Believe In
On the morning of November 5, the map of Texas’s 254 counties—colored red (Republican), blue (Democratic), and purple (toss-up)—should look very much like this one. It will show that the great rural expanse of Texas to the east and west of the triangle formed by Interstates 10, 35, and 45 is still solidly red but that Dallas County is reliably blue, Harris County has become purple, and Austin’s liberalism has spread to suburban counties. South of U.S. 90, the rural areas remain blue, but Republicans increasingly have targets of opportunity, such as heavily populated Cameron County. The colors on the map are dark and light variants of red and blue, but a more precise version would require many other tints to reflect the rapidity of demographic change in the suburbs, which benefits Democrats. If we used the entire spectrum, the dark reds of Collin and Fort Bend counties would be several shades lighter.
FROM THE MAP
Download a PDF of the Regional Map
It used to be said that crops determined politics here: Wheat was Republican and cotton was Democratic. Now just about everything is Republican except, on occasion, Swisher County (Tulia) (1), and that has less to do with agriculture than with the career of the late H. M. Baggarly, a crusading newspaper editor and pioneering liberal. The Panhandle will give McCain his highest percentage of any region, but the raw number will be quite small.
Bush’s slim margin over John Kerry in Dallas County (1)—fewer than 10,000 votes—was a harbinger of things to come. Two years later Chris Bell beat Rick Perry there, and the Democrats swept every contested courthouse race. The county is Democratic now, and a large black turnout for Obama in Dallas will make it more so. The demographic change that overtook the city has also infiltrated aging suburbs like Arlington. The “collar counties” that surround the urban core remain loyally Republican, but things are changing. The population of Collin County (2) is projected to grow from 491,675, in the 2000 census, to 822,204 by 2010, and the percentage represented by Hispanics, blacks, and Asians is projected to increase from 22.9 percent to 28.9 percent. It’s not as red as it once was.
This used to be the most important swing region of the state—the rural counties helped deliver Texas to Jimmy Carter in 1976—and it still elects a handful of Democratic legislators. But at the top of the ticket, it has been voting Republican since the Reagan era. Today, Harris County (1) and its almost four million residents dominate the region. Race will be a factor: It will help Obama in Harris, a formerly red county in transition to purple and possibly even blue, and hurt him in the suburban and rural counties, which are Republican anyway. The most intriguing county is Fort Bend (2), a stew of demographic change, which no longer resembles the place that sent Tom DeLay to Congress in 1984.
Lots of brush, lots of cattle, and not many people. Only in El Paso, which is true blue, and a few sparsely populated rural counties are there Democratic votes. Val Verde (Del Rio) (1) is one of the few counties west of I-35 where more than 10,000 votes are cast in a presidential year and the two parties are competitive (Bush won comfortably here in 2004,
but Chris Bell edged Rick Perry in 2006).
Uncertainties abound. Will race be a problem for Obama? Will Rick Noriega’s presence on the ballot help the top of the ticket? Will Hillary or Bill Clinton campaign in Texas? Will McCain’s moderate views on immigration attract wayward Democrats? Or will the Republicans’ anti-immigrant fervor rub off on him? More