Robert Draper’s dissection of Battleground Texas in this magazine interested me on two cutting issues. One, the Battleground leadership never thought Wendy Davis could win the governor’s race last year, and, two, their goal remains to turn Texas blue by 2020. That’s a presidential election year, and while winning that election might be important for the Democratic National Committee, it probably is too late for Texas Democrats. If winning statewide is delayed until 2020, Texas Democrats likely are looking at another decade of Republican control of the state.
Why, you ask?
Because the governor who can sign or veto any state or congressional redistricting plan for the next decade will have been elected in 2018. The cycle also will elect every member of the Legislative Redistricting Board, or LRB. The board is tasked with drawing the state’s legislative districts if the Legislature fails to do so in 2021 after the next Census. All redistricting plans ultimately are decided in the federal courts, but whichever side can go into court with a legally adopted plan has the advantage.
The Legislature’s current party alignment is in no small part due to Democratic losses in the statewide races of 1998. The LRB consists of the attorney general, the House speaker, the lieutenant governor, the comptroller and the land commissioner. Democratic candidates came close in the elections to two of those offices, but didn’t win. Because of that, House Speaker Pete Laney was the only Democrat on the panel in 2001 when it created what essentially became the map of legislative districts for the remainder of the decade. The maps, especially for the state House, were drawn to minimize how many districts minorities and urban legislators could win, while marginalizing rural white Democrats. In a single election under the new map, control of the House flipped from Democrat to Republican. The Republican advantage was so great that elected members from those districts are the ones who drew the redistricting maps in 2011, retaining a Republican majority for this decade.
Battleground’s task of winning the LRB is even more difficult than just getting into a position to win statewide, because this time it will require knocking off incumbents who were elected last year. Even if the Democrats elect a governor who vetoes a Republican legislative redistricting plan, the map would then go to the LRB to be re-drawn. So for the Democrats, regaining control of Texas can’t be a one trick pony.
Partisan control of the Legislature has a ripple effect. Sheriffs, county commissioners and even supposedly non-partisan mayors find they are more effective if they are dealing with legislators of their own party when seeking laws and state spending benefitting their communities.
The crucial election may be coming far faster than the leaders of Battleground Texas think. Republican victories in 2018 likely will seal another decade of their control of state government. For a Democratic Party that already has been out of power for 20 years, that fate reminds me of an tombstone epitaph I once read: “But forever is such a damn long time.”