Rick Perry famously called West Texas—a sparse land with few trees or humans—the Big Empty. The 92,016 square miles of the High Plains, the Panhandle, and western Hill Country have an estimated population of 2.2 million, less than that of Houston. But the region is also some of the most fertile Republican territory in Texas. The Big Empty delivered 78 percent of its vote to Donald Trump last year and elected three Republicans to Congress—all of whom supported overturning the president’s reelection loss in Pennsylvania and then opposed impeaching him on charges of inciting the Capitol riot in January.

These three congressmen are the kind of reliable soldiers and dependable votes the national Republican party wants voters to elect. Later this year, GOP Texas lawmakers will have the chance to redraw the state’s congressional map to try to make the most favorable conditions for similar representatives to win—and to exert great influence on the last two years of Joe Biden’s first term. Dictating the redistricting process because of the party’s House and Senate majorities and control of the governorship, Republican lawmakers will try to find a way to expand the GOP’s 23–13 partisan advantage in the Texas U.S. House delegation and to imperil the current 221–210 Democratic majority in the lower chamber.

But when those lawmakers begin redrawing the maps, they may look at the three West Texas representatives and find themselves saying, “Eeny, meeny, miney, moe, one of you has got to go.” The reason is simple: Even as the state has added enough population since 2010 to receive as many as three new seats in Congress, the Big Empty hasn’t kept pace. A congressional district drawn in Texas in 2011 needed to have a population of 698,488; districts drawn this year will need to have about 763,000. West Texas will be about 100,000 residents short of justifying three congressional districts.

The dilemma of the Big Empty is an example of how difficult it will be for Republicans to create the kind of partisan gerrymanders that have contributed to the large majority in the state’s House delegation that they enjoy today. Texas’s population has grown by 4.2 million since the 2010 census, according to the state demographer, Lloyd Potter, but that growth has not been where Republicans need it. Potter recently told a state Senate redistricting committee that most new Texans live in a triangle anchored by Dallas–Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio, and encompassing Austin. That triangle is home to the bulk of the state’s Democratic voters: the counties of those five cities went for Biden by 20 percentage points. Trying to redraw districts in the triangle, let alone fitting new ones in, will be a challenge for the GOP.

Republicans will have two main tools at their disposal to reduce the electoral power of the clustered populations of Democrats: splitting a block of them between or among districts to dilute their voting impact, or lumping multiple blocks together in a single district to limit the reach of their vote. We have some sense now, based on Potter’s estimates, of how they might do so, even as we wait for the Census Bureau to release gross population numbers in April and specific census tract data this summer. Here’s a tour of Texas and how the maps might be redrawn, starting out in the Big Empty.

Like dust storms from Lubbock

Of the 97 counties that make up the three congressional districts in the Big Empty, almost half have lost population over the last decade. In addition, the reliably Republican white population in the three districts declined by more than 37,000 over the last decade, while the Hispanic population grew by more than 151,000. Trump made significant gains among Latino voters in Texas in the 2020 election, but, according to exit polling, the group still favored the Democratic candidate by a 58 to 41 percent spread.

The Amarillo-based district held by Ronny Jackson, who served as the White House physician for five years under both Barack Obama and Trump, will fall more than 110,000 residents short of the population requirement for a 2022 district. The Lubbock-based seat of Jodey Arrington, a second-term representative who advised George W. Bush, will fall about 60,000 short.

Meanwhile, the Permian Basin–based Eleventh Congressional District, held by August Pfluger, a freshman representative who served on Trump’s national security staff, has a surplus of about 70,000 residents. But for GOP mapmakers, redrawing his district to share some of the excess population with his northern colleagues will be difficult. They most likely will combine two of the three Big Empty districts into one and poach excess population from Pfluger to shore up Republican members of Congress farther east in the state.

Is the wagon wheel broken?

Democratic gerrymanders kept the party in control of a majority of Texas’s U.S. House delegation from the 1870s through the early 2000s. But after Republicans won the state House in 2002, U.S. representative Tom DeLay of Sugar Land helped hammer through a redistricting plan during a special session that gave Republicans a majority in the congressional delegation.

DeLay’s plan plotted the demise of Democratic officeholders in both rural areas and liberal cities. He divided up urban areas into districts that nibbled into Democratic cores and radiated out, like spokes on a wagon wheel, to Republican suburban and rural regions. Many Democrats in urban centers whose districts reached far into conservative country could only moan about how little electoral impact their votes had.

Nowhere was DeLay’s approach more apparent than in Austin, the San Francisco of Middle America. Incumbent Democrat Lloyd Doggett got a piece of the city, as did two Republicans. For the better part of a decade, Austin Democrats in those two other districts couldn’t defeat a Republican incumbent no matter how hard they tried. Then, during the 2011 redistricting process, Republicans doubled down on the divide-and-conquer plan, letting a third Republican whose voter base is elsewhere eat into the city’s Democratic core (and moving slices of the exurbs to two other GOP-held districts).

But as Austin’s population has grown over the last decade, those once tasty hunks of Democratic humiliation now are threatening the reelections of Republican congressmen Chip Roy, Roger Williams, and Michael McCaul. All three have districts that are solidly Republican outside of Austin, but they lost Travis County by a combined total of 157,210 votes in 2020.

The first goal of any partisan redistricting plan is to protect your incumbents. The easiest way for Republican mapmakers to do that in Austin will be to undo the 2003 and 2011 redistricting plans and to once again create a solidly blue Central Austin district packed with Democratic voters. Such a district probably would elect a Democrat who is so far to the left as to be ineffective in statewide or national politics, but who would hold a reelection advantage for years to come. To ensure that Roy and Williams remained safe, mapmakers could also balance their districts by giving them some of Pfluger’s excess population from the counties between Granbury and Llano.

The rat terrier approach

Because of the population realignment, there is no question that one of the new districts will go to Houston and another to the Dallas–Fort Worth area.

Republican Kevin Brady has such a surplus of conservative voters in his Montgomery County–based district, north of Houston, that drawing a new seat that the GOP can hold should be easy. Settling a new district into Denton and Collin counties, north of Dallas, will be a bit more problematic. Both counties have had huge population growth since 2010 that has already threatened once safe Republican seats. Denton and Collin counties gave Mitt Romney 66 percent of the vote in 2012, but gave Trump only 53 percent in 2020. Over the same period, participation in the Democratic primaries in the counties grew from fewer than 10,000 voters to 152,000—surpassing the GOP primary turnout last year for the first time in decades.

Republican mapmakers will have another difficult choice in the state’s two biggest cities: contest seats they shockingly lost to Democrats in 2018—Lizzie Fletcher’s in Houston and Colin Allred’s in the Dallas suburbs—or yield them to liberals to preserve other nearby seats for the GOP. The first instinct will be to rip up the Democratic districts like a rat terrier. But Republicans might decide the better course is to pack the two districts with even more Democrats so those voters are not troublesome to Republican incumbents. Need to get rid of some new Collin County liberals? Maybe Allred’s district is the place to put them. Need to preserve a suburban district near Houston for the GOP? Siphon the red clusters in Fletcher’s district—Bunker Hill Village, Hedwig Village, and Jersey Village—to that of McCaul or Houston Republican Dan Crenshaw.

The South Texas wild card

The three major counties along the Rio Grande—Webb, Hidalgo, and Cameron—have increased their populations over the last decade by a combined 143,000 residents. This growth could overpopulate the three existing South Texas congressional districts and require the creation of a new one per the federal Voting Rights Act, which could require Texas, under certain circumstances, to draw “majority minority” districts.

Such a seat, if required, would likely be a given for the Democrats, who have held congressional districts in the Rio Grande Valley for decades and last year withstood a rightward shift in the region toward Trump. That would change the math everywhere else: the GOP might cede a district or two to the Democrats, but it isn’t likely to give up more than that. If South Texas gets a fourth seat, Republicans might be more wary of creating an Austin district packed with liberals and of conceding to Allred or Fletcher.

None of this is to say Democrats are suddenly going to end up with the bulk of the seats in the congressional delegation. But expanding the GOP majority will not be the slam dunk Republicans—still high on withstanding a predicted “Blue Wave” in the 2020 voting—may have hoped for.