Tarrant County—with Fort Worth as its seat of government—for two decades has been the Republican Party’s major urban Alamo, the last stand against a rising Democratic resurgence. Austin, El Paso, and San Antonio stayed Democratic during the Republican rise of the 1990s, but Dallas, and Houston fell to the GOP before turning blue again in this decade. Only Tarrant County stood unbroken. Donald Trump got 52 percent of the vote in 2016; Mitt Romney, 57 percent in 2012. And hometown Democratic state Senator Wendy Davis got whomped when she ran for governor in 2014, receiving just 41 percent of the county vote. If Republicans were safe anywhere, it was Tarrant County. And their hold on the county kept them safe statewide in the urban/rural political divide that has gripped the entire country.
But this year’s election showed the county is no longer safe in Republican hands. Democrat Beto O’Rourke edged out Republican U.S. Senator Ted Cruz here, even while losing statewide. The Democrats picked up a seat on the Tarrant County Commissioner’s Court, as well as a justice of the peace position. They came close to defeating tea party Republican state Representative Jonathan Stickland. And the Wendy Davis state Senate seat that was lost to a Republican was regained by the Democrats with the victory of Beverly Powell over incumbent Konni Burton.
So how do the Tarrant County Republicans lick their wounds and prepare for the 2020 elections? By fighting over whether to oust a Muslim surgeon as the county party’s vice chairman.
The struggle was launched before the election by a Tarrant County precinct chair, Dorrie O’Brien of Arlington. She claims county Vice Chair Dr. Shahid Shafi is part of a Muslim conspiracy to take over the United States because a practicing Muslim follows Shariah law. Shafi has told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that he became a naturalized citizen in 2009 and quickly became active in Republican politics. He told the newspaper he has never been associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or any “terrorist organization.” Shafi said he has never promoted Shariah. In a 2015 op-ed, as a Southlake city councilman, Shafi wrote that Americans can trust Muslims.
O”Brien’s crusade has made national news and led the State Republican Executive Committee to pass a resolution asking “all Republican organizations” to uphold party planks “protecting and preserving religious liberty for all Americans.” Retiring House Speaker Joe Straus and Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush also put out Twitter statements in support of Shafi.
Some in the Tarrant County Republican Party want to remove a party officer because of his religious faith. This effort is disgraceful and un-American, and Republicans in Tarrant County should defeat it handily. #txlege
— Joe Straus (@SpeakerStraus) November 30, 2018
I urge the Tarrant County GOP to stop this attempt to remove a hardworking county party official based on religious beliefs. We must move towards a more inclusive Republican Party and stop tearing down our own if we are to keep Texas red. https://t.co/kr0zv0NCPT
— George P. Bush (@georgepbush) November 30, 2018
O’Brien responded with a public posting on Facebook that essentially accused the leaders of her party of aiding and abetting an enemy. “So far, it’s been Texas members of the Republican Party who’ve been the gift to the Democrats on this issue. From the TCGOP chairman appointing the man, to this latest astonishing show of adulation (not simply support) for the man at the SREC,” she wrote. “Nowhere is the SREC mandated to butt into anything a county EC (executive committee) is doing. Not that that’s ever stopped Islam before.”
With a party-builder like O’Brien in the mix, Tarrant County may go Democratic faster than anyone thinks. She is the chair of Precinct 2466, which in November gave 70 percent of its vote to O’Rourke. As popular as Republican Governor Greg Abbott is statewide, he received just 34 percent of the vote in O’Brien’s precinct. And her precinct contributed to the defeat of Republican County Commissioner Andy Nguyen by delivering 69 percent of its vote to Democrat Devan Allen.
County Democratic Chair Deborah Peoples told me she believes the battle over Shafi shows how many in the leadership of the local Republican Party are missing a trend that will return the county to Democratic control in just a few more election cycles because of migration from other states. “If they’re sitting there thinking this is a one off, they’re sadly mistaken. And stunts like they pulled right now where they’re trying to oust a Muslim member of the Republican Party … is just this is absolutely mind boggling to me.”
Peoples says some Republicans want to shrink their party while she wants to grow hers. “I mean if you want to grow your party you’ve got to open your doors and welcome people all the time,” Peoples said. “I would love to see Republicans who said I voted Republican but I can’t do it anymore. Those are the people that I embrace and hug very hard because I say, ‘Welcome.’”
The whole affair disgusts county Republican Chair Darl Easton who appointed Shafi as his vice chair. The move to oust Shafi raised “its ugly head” before the election and now cannot be settled until the county executive committee meets again on January 10. Easton says Shafi has been a loyal Republican and works hard for the party, but Easton says the move to rescind his appointment has been growing among the precinct chairs. “I don’t know exactly the balance of power, but they’ve been pretty active in trying to recruit people to revoke his appointment,” Easton says. The Star-Telegram reports that the movement has expanded to try to remove Easton as well as two other members of the county executive committee: a former Democrat and a woman who is married to a Muslim man.
Although Easton acknowledges that an influx of people from out of state is changing the Tarrant County voter profile—”They’re coming from California, Illinois and New York”—Easton says he believes this year’s election was more a reflection of the energy O’Rourke brought than a permanent shift toward Democrats. He says the Cruz campaign initially did not want to match O’Rourke’s yard signs because they are a name identification tool, but they also became a visible demonstration of support.
The Democrats also ran a voter registration campaign that targeted young people and local college campuses. “When I look at the end, there was a voter drive; it was a heck of a voter drive,” Easton told me. “I looked at the number of voters from mid-September to the last week in October, and there were 18,000 new registered voters in that amount of time.” O’Rourke sold students on the idea of a free college education. “Beto runs on apple pie and ice cream, free education, free college education and that’s going to get students out,” Easton says. “Of course, what they really don’t know is that somebody else is going to pay for it.”
Personally, I agree with Peoples. There is a dramatic influx of people from out of state who are more inclined to vote for Democrats. The population of rural Republicans is stagnant, while that of urban Democrats is growing.
The demographic change pushing Tarrant County toward the Democrats has been due to migration from other states rather than from a growing number of Texans. In fact, the Texas Demographic Center reported that between 2010 and 2014, the Dallas/Fort Worth area actually lost population of Texans moving elsewhere, but the metro area grew because of an influx of 158,000 people moving there from out of state—primarily California. In Tarrant County, these new residents have mostly been settling into new subdivisions in the southeastern part of the county and southwest Fort Worth. Between 2010 and 2017, Tarrant County’s total population grew by 186,000 people. The number of registered county voters grew by 197,749 between the 2010 election and the one last month.
“We have transplants that are coming from the northeast, from New York, and I love blue, blue New York,” Peoples says. “People are coming not just from California, but they’re coming from all over.” And the migrants are young, moving to Texas for jobs in the booming economy of the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex. She said southeast Tarrant County already is Democratic, and the numbers are growing in the tea party strongholds of the northeastern part of the county.
And that is why the Republican struggle over Shafi is so self-destructive. The Republicans are in-fighting while the Democrats already are looking to 2020. “A lot of people will tell you there’s usually this dead period right after the election … you lay on the floor, tickling yourself, or you’re celebrating,” Peoples told me. “I will tell you, on the Wednesday after the election, my staff and I were in this office because we were fielding calls … This has been a wild and crazy time around here, but it’s been a very good day.”