Magazine | December 3, 2018, Issue

Urban Cowboys

Eugene Kettletop Montoya waits for midterm voters in El Paso, Tex., November 6, 2018. (Reuters/Adria Malcolm)
As Texas grows less countrified, Republicans struggle to adjust

There were once so few Republicans in Fort Bend County (just west of Houston) that a letter addressed to “Mr. Republican” went straight to the county GOP chairman. That was 1960. Eight years later, Richard Nixon would narrowly carry the county, and he won it again, less narrowly, in 1972. By the 1980s, Fort Bend was sending the likes of Ron Paul and Tom DeLay to Congress.

But what suburbia giveth it also taketh away. In her 2016 race against Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton became the first Democratic presidential contender to carry Fort Bend County since Lyndon Johnson. Its larger cities, such as Sugar Land and Stafford, are growing and densifying into polyglot communities of BBQ joints and Hindu temples where native Texans now readily swing from red to blue.

And it was from counties such as Fort Bend that a blue tide washed over Texas in 2018. It swept outward from the Democratic urban cores into neighboring suburban counties of Austin, Dallas, and Houston, flipping Republican bastions or turning them several shades pinker. Once-safe Republicans, such as Dallas’s Pete Sessions and Houston’s John Culberson, were taken out in its wake. The Republican carnage was felt down-ballot too, in the all-important state judicial and legislative races that stock each party’s farm team. And while the entire slate of statewide Repub­licans was returned to office, many candidates, such as Senator Ted Cruz, won with anemic margins.

El Paso congressman Beto O’Rourke’s contest with Senator Cruz drew the bulk of the national media spotlight. O’Rourke became a Kennedyesque celebrity with coattails long enough to flip twelve state-house seats and two state-senate seats and take out every county GOP official in Houston’s Harris County, the state’s largest. “It is a wake-up call,” said U.S. senator John Cornyn during a post-election stop at the North Texas Food Bank in Plano. “I don’t know whether this is a once-in-a-lifetime confluence of events or whether this represents something of a new normal.”

O’Rourke’s success revealed significant demographic trends across Texas that intersected with his party’s high turnout and outrage over President Donald J. Trump. Lone Star cities are getting bluer, populous suburbs are tipping purple, and rural areas are getting redder and emptier. Republicans will have to figure out their electoral future in an urbanizing Texas — after all, the 2020 election is just around the corner.

Texas’s wide-open spaces are getting wider as more people pile into the state’s urban areas. Seven of America’s 15 fastest-growing cities are in Texas. El Paso is now bigger than Boston or Washington, D.C., while San Antonio has grown to twice the size of Seattle. Urban areas are expected to soak up more than 90 percent of the Lone Star State’s population growth between now and 2050. By contrast, the more sparsely populated counties of West Texas and the Panhandle are losing people. At present growth rates, Texas’s urban areas will double in size in 40 years; it would take rural counties 218 years to do the same.

Migration is a big part of Texas’s urbanization. Roughly a quarter million people move to Texas every year, and the vast bulk of these new entrants choose to live in the state’s largest metro areas. They come from all over — from countries in Latin America, but also from China and India. In America, new Texans are made on the coasts, moving to the Lone Star State from California and Florida and New York in droves. These twin population flows are changing Texas, but not always in expected ways.

Ted Cruz warned his fellow Texans in the waning days of the 2018 campaign that coastal migrants “want us to be just like California, right down to tofu and silicon and dyed hair.” But a 2013 poll from the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune found that California expats in Texas were conservative by a ratio of two to one. And a CNN exit poll from this election found that Cruz won non-native Texans and lost those born in Texas. All of which suggests that native Texans may be a key source of a bluer Texas.

It’s hard to hear a Texas twang these days, especially in Dallas. But driving west through the suburbs of my youth, past the glitzy Cowboys Stadium and an airport larger than the island of Manhattan, you see the city of Fort Worth rise like a lone star in a constellation of yankees. There you can still watch longhorn cattle being driven through the streets — twice a day, every day — by cowboys talking in leathery drawls. It was here in Cowtown on the eve of this election that Ted Cruz dubbed Tarrant County “the reddest county in the reddest state in the nation.” Four days later, Tarrant County went for Beto.

Texas’s big urban counties are all blue; for years, Tarrant County was the single exception. Ted Cruz won the county by a 16-point margin in 2012. This year you could see O’Rourke not just strengthening Democratic support in downtown Fort Worth but extending his party’s reach into the city’s densifying north and northeast and the western suburbs of neighboring Arlington (with a population of nearly 400,000). Native Texans here and elsewhere proved likelier to split their votes than in prior elections; together with the Democratic leanings of their increasingly diverse neighbors, GOP strongholds such as precinct 2520 in west Arlington could flip blue (in precinct 2520’s case, by a two-vote margin).

While we should be careful not to read too much into a single race, Tarrant County may be “a glimpse of the future of Texas politics,” as Harold Clarke, a professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. A future where the Republican firewall shifts farther out into less dense counties, and where a relatively unpopular president in his first midterm test, combined with a strong Democratic contender in Beto O’Rourke, can achieve in Tarrant County what Republicans once thought impossible. “It’s a warning bell to us to reenergize our base,” said Tarrant County GOP chairman Darl Easton the day after the election, speaking from his party headquarters with a red MAGA hat beside him.

Whether or not deeper cuts into a shrinking pie of voters will do the trick in the future, such a GOP base can be found east of Easton in Collin County, the wealthy suburban area north of Dallas that is teeming with out-of-towners. Representative Sam Johnson, a Repub­lican and a Vietnam War POW, held office there for nearly three decades. Domestic migrants fleeing blue states are keeping large, mainly white suburbs such as Plano ruby red — for now. Ted Cruz’s six-point margin of victory in this election was too close for comfort for many Republicans in the county. And the blue wave was lapping at the southern border of Collin County, where Repre­sentative Pete Sessions lost his once-safe seat in George W. Bush’s home district to Democrat Colin Allred.

Republicans in Texas hope their future looks more like Collin County than like Tarrant, and certainly better than their prospects in Fort Bend. Only by holding on to suburbs such as these can the GOP have a fighting chance statewide, particularly as the Texas GOP’s base becomes more at home near a Cracker Barrel than a Whole Foods. But with the state’s rural and exurban vote growing less influential in statewide elections, Republicans will have to find a way to make inroads in more urban areas.

When Mark Hanson, the president of the Arlington Republicans, reflected on this year’s election results, he said his party needed to invest in more yard signs to reach younger voters. “Once you put a sign in somebody’s yard, you establish a personal relationship with them,” Hanson told the Star-Telegram. But young people need yards to put those signs in, a topic of concern as Texas’s housing market becomes increasingly unaffordable closer to its thriving cities.

Housing prices in the Texas Triangle of Dallas–Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio, and Houston are rising above the national average for the first time, and the pace of their price growth exceeds that of construction costs, according to soon-to-be released research by the Manhattan Institute’s Connor Harris. Millions of Americans have moved to Texas for affordable houses and well-paying jobs. The state’s sprawl has long absorbed many of these new residents, but young college grads and the growing ranks of the commute-averse are also embracing denser neighborhoods. Downtown Dallas tripled its population between 2000 and 2010, while Uptown grew by 80 percent, trends that have accelerated in recent years.

Preserving the Texas model of affordability and opportunity will be central not only to the Lone Star State’s future but to that of its Republican party. The GOP’s vision of low taxes and light regulation is not just a tagline for a TV ad but an actual solution for those struggling to afford a house within reach of gainful work. Citing the need for more opportunity for immigrants, or the importance of breaking up the entrenched poverty of the state’s inner-ring suburbs, should be natural fits for the Right. But more practically, the most central aim for the Republican party should be to keep Texas attractive for red flight from blue states.

Texas Democrats are likely to be as fired up in 2020 as they were in 2018. John Cornyn, the state’s Republican senior senator, will be up for reelection, and President Trump will presumably sit atop the ticket. Beto O’Rourke visited all 254 counties in Texas when he ran this year, and Republicans can learn from his broad appeal to make inroads into Democratic bastions downtown, pounding the pavement of Brownsville or San Antonio as much as they reach for the grassroots near the Red River or in the Panhandle.

Because like it or not, as Texas goes, so goes the nation.

Michael Hendrix is the director of state and local policy at the Manhattan Institute.

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