As congressional districts are redrawn after the 2020 census, Texas will once again have a Republican trifecta creating the map. The GOP has used gerrymandering before and with the Democrats retaining only a slim majority in the House, they will most certainly do so again as they head into the 2022 midterms with high hopes. Yet even with full control of the process, it may be harder for the Republicans to press their advantage than one might think.
Democrats are already gearing up for a lengthy legal battle over the redistricting. There are also bills currently in Congress that would restore teeth to the Voting Rights Act and limit if not remove the ability of states to gerrymander.
However, even if Republicans are given a free hand in the redistricting process, the numbers and demographics present challenges. First, it’s important to understand that gerrymandering generally works in one of two ways. You spread the opposing party’s voters among many districts to dilute their influence or you pack them all in a few districts where they have an overwhelming edge but are a non-issue elsewhere.
If Republicans go with the dilution strategy, they could peel away left-leaning voters from competitive districts with Democratic incumbents. Rep. Colin Allred of Dallas and Rep. Lizzie Fletcher of Houston, who flipped previously red districts in 2018, would be the most obvious targets for such a strategy. The benefit of such a strategy is that Republicans would be going on the offensive, flipping seats as part of the broader GOP effort to retake the House in 2022.
But as tempting as it may be to turn blue districts red, this does have drawbacks. Those Democratic voters have to go somewhere and spreading them out could make neighboring Republican districts more competitive. In the case of Allred and Fletcher, they both border districts with newly-elected Republican incumbents who won by less than 10 points in 2020. Rep. Troy Nehls represents a Houston-area district that Trump won by only one point (compared to eight points in 2016), while Beth Van Duyne of the Dallas-Fort Worth area represents a district that was carried by Biden.
Therefore, it may be smarter for the GOP to make these districts more Democratic. By packing them with more left-leaning voters while simultaneously moving Republican voters to nearby districts, the GOP would give Allred and Fletcher an even bigger advantage in exchange for making their incumbents more secure. With many districts, namely the suburbs, trending toward the Democrats due to changing party coalitions and demographics, the Republican gerrymandering may be more concerned with playing defense rather than offense
Redrawing the existing lines is hard enough, but the Republicans also need to add new districts to account for Texas’ population growth. This might sound great given that Republicans are in control of drawing the new districts but the location of Texas’ new residents creates challenges. Solid-red West Texas has seen its population wane and will likely lose a congressional seat. The three new districts will almost certainly have to be drawn in the Texas Triangle, a region that has seen a major population increase that has also contributed to it trending blue. Joe Biden won the counties of the five cities that make up the Triangle by 20 points, even though he lost statewide. There’s also the possibility of a fourth district being created in the Rio Grande Valley, where Webb, Hidalgo, and Cameron have seen growth that could overpopulate existing districts. While Democrats underperformed in the Rio Grande Valley in 2020, they still retained a comfortable lead in those three counties.
When all is said and done, the process may not be as apocalyptic for House Democrats from Texas as one might fear. The Republicans may end up netting few, if any, additional seats. The bad news is that GOP incumbents in previously competitive districts would become harder for Democrats to dislodge.
So the GOP’s will face tough choices when drawing the new map, although one factor in their favor is technology. Previous Republican gerrymandering efforts were taken to new heights by software and recent advances in artificial intelligence could make the process even more advanced.
Finally, it’s important to keep in mind that the new map will stand for 10 years. A decade is an eternity in American politics, and a lot can change during that time. No matter how skilled you are at drawing the maps, predicting the future is hard. In 2013, Texas Republicans gerrymandered the map after the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, creating lots of districts in safe suburban areas. But then the suburbs began trending blue, resulting in the Democrats gaining two seats in 2018 despite losing statewide. Party coalitions are fluid and right now the parties seem to be going through a reshuffling that hasn’t been seen in decades. Likewise, the demographic makeup of states can change quite a bit and that’s been very true for Texas.
So while Democrats are understandably disappointed that Republicans will once again be in control of redistricting Texas, there’s reason to still hold hope.
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