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Gerrymandering Texas could help Republicans take back the House in 2022

HOUSTON — Fort Bend County was a sleepy suburban outpost of Houston when KP George arrived in the late 1990s, dominated by conservative politics and represented in Congress by Republican Party star Tom DeLay.

Twenty years later, the area’s population has more than doubled in size, driven by fast-growing Asian, Latino and Black communities that in 2019 helped elect George — an immigrant from southern India — as Fort Bend’s first non-white county judge.

The wave of left-leaning voters that elevated George and other Democrats to local office in recent years may also help the area land a new congressional district. Texas gained two House seats in the 2020 U.S. Census, driven by a population boom in the Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan regions, among other parts of the state.

But the Republican-controlled state legislature will be in charge of drawing the new districts, leaving Democrats on the sidelines, worried they may not benefit from the region’s changing demographics.

“You feel like you’re not being counted,” George said. “My county is benefitting from people like me. But when it comes to the seat at the table [in redistricting], we don’t have it.”

Redistricting is a byzantine process that plays out behind closed doors, but the stakes are high. New congressional and state legislative lines will remain in place for the next decade, giving the parties that benefit most from redistricting considerable clout in policymaking and upcoming elections.

Texas isn’t the only state headed for a divisive redistricting battle this fall. The new district lines will likely lead to legal challenges across the country from Democrats.

But Texas’ redistricting fight will be closely watched around the country because the state could factor heavily into the fight for control of the U.S. House in the midterm elections. Republicans only need to flip five seats to win the House in 2022, making Texas’ two new seats prime pickup opportunities for the GOP.

WATCH: What Texans stand to gain and lose from the redistricting battle now underway

Texas’ two new House districts will bring the size of its congressional delegation to 38, second only to California, which is losing a congressional seat for the first time. Texas will also now have 40 Electoral College votes, up from 38, making it an even bigger prize in presidential elections just as the state is becoming more competitive in presidential races thanks to an influx of voters from left-leaning states in the Northeast and Midwest.

The changing demographics in Texas are part of a larger trend across the South and Southwest that could threaten the Republican Party’s stranglehold on the region. Arizona last year went blue in the presidential election for only the second time since 1948.

In Texas, Democrats have not won a statewide office since the 1990s, haven’t won a presidential race since 1976 and have been out of power in both chambers of the state legislature since 2002.

A family arrives at an early voting location in Houston, Texas on Thursday, October, 15 2020. (Photo/Scott Dalton)

State Republicans have long used their advantage to enact conservative legislation even as the state as a whole has drifted toward the center. This year alone the party in power passed one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country and a separate measure loosening restrictions on hand gun ownership. Republicans are also aiming to pass a bill rolling back voter protections, which Democrats argue would effectively disenfranchise people of color.

Redistricting offers Republicans an opportunity to shore up their position as the dominant party in the state. Yet carving out reliably red seats — especially at the congressional level — won’t be as easy in Texas as it once was.

“No force in the world is going to stop Houston or Texas or America from becoming more African American and Latino in the 21st century. Republicans understand that. They can’t win [anymore just] by appealing to old white guys,” said Stephen Klineberg, the founding director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University in Houston.

State lawmakers drawing new districts are only bound by two basic criteria: the congressional seats must have approximately 770,000 voters each, the same number as the state’s other House seats; and the new districts must follow state and federal guidelines that ban discrimination against voters based on their race, ethnicity or color.

In past rounds of redistricting, Republicans often drew district lines that included parts of major cities — in order to capture a large number of voters — but stretched out into suburban and rural areas that are predominantly white and conservative.

READ MORE: Census: Texas gains Congress seats, California loses for the first time

Republican Rep. Michael McCaul’s 10th Congressional District, for instance, includes a sliver of liberal Austin on one side and Houston’s outer-ring suburbs on the other, but the bulk of the seat consists of rural counties that historically vote Republican.

“That’s what redistricting does,” Klineberg said. In Texas, Republicans “concentrate all the Democrats in one district, and then draw powerful lines from one little piece of [a city] out into the boondocks.”

Source: DRA2020, U.S. Census Data, Composite Election Data 2012-2016

But that playbook is becoming increasingly obsolete as the state’s suburban population grows more diverse and, as a result, more politically moderate.

Fort Bend County, where George serves as county judge, is a prime example.

The county’s population was 585,375 after the 2010 census. A 2019 census estimate put the figure at 811,000, and it will likely be higher when the census releases more detailed data later this year. Overall, Texas added roughly 4 million new residents over the past ten years.

Fort Bend had been a Republican stronghold for decades; Ronald Reagan carried Fort Bend by 36 points in 1980 and George W. Bush won there by 21 points in 2000.

Demographic shifts have upended the state’s political landscape since then. Non-Hispanic white residents made up just 31 percent of the county’s population in 2019, according to census data, down from roughly 50 percent in 2000.

The county’s Asian population doubled to 20 percent in the past decade alone. A quarter of the county’s residents are Hispanic, and 21 percent are Black. All three groups vote overwhelmingly for the Democratic Party, though Republicans under former President Donald Trump made modest inroads with Latino voters nationally and in Texas.

“Fort Bend County will be the future of America” because that growing “diversity is a trend” across the country, said Alice Chen, the first Asian American woman to serve as a member of the city council in Stafford, a small city outside Houston. And as marginalized groups grow in size, their demand for political representation will rise as well, she added.

“People like to elect somebody who knows their culture, their language, and knows what they need,” Chen said.

Hillary Clinton benefited from the demographic changes in 2016, when she became the first Democratic presidential nominee since Lyndon Johnson to win Fort Bend County. President Joe Biden expanded on Clinton’s 6.6-point victory by beating Trump there by 10.6 points last year.

Republicans “can’t go there and pick up votes” as easily as in past redistricting rounds, Democratic state Sen. John Whitmire said. “Fort Bend County has gone Democratic on them.”

Then- candidate Joe Biden speaks at a campaign event in Dallas, Texas, on March 2, 2020. Demographic changes have made Texas more competitive in recent elections. File photo by REUTERS/Elizabeth Frantz

Republicans face a similar issue elsewhere in Texas as the state’s rural population shrinks and more people move to the suburbs and cities. Now roughly 86 percent of the state’s population lives in East Texas, with the bulk in a cluster of counties surrounding Houston, the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan region, Austin and San Antonio, according to a study released earlier this year by the state demographic center.

International migration, including from Mexico and Central America, accounts for some of the population boom. But domestic migration from other parts of the United States far outpaced the flow of foreign-born arrivals in Texas between 2011 and 2019, the state’s demographic study found. The biggest feeder states were California and Illinois — deep blue states with shrinking populations that each lost one congressional seat in the 2020 census reapportionment. Texas was the only state awarded more than one new seat.

At the same time, within Texas the parts of the state with the biggest population decline are in the north and west — rural counties that represent the Republican party’s base in Texas.

Of course, the demographic shifts don’t guarantee Texas will eventually flip blue. While the fastest-growing segments of the population have historically voted for Democrats, Asian, Latino and other voting groups aren’t monolithic. Trump’s surprisingly strong showing with Latino voters in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley in 2020 showed Republicans pushing a jobs and economic-focused message can do better with Latinos than many Democrats thought possible.

Democrats in Texas said the party can’t take Latino voters for granted, and worried that progressive social policies turned many voters away last fall.

“We have to make sure that we don’t disregard some of the meat and potatoes issues that Latinos” and other minority voter groups care about, said state Sen. Carol Alvarado, who represents Houston.

Republicans recognize the challenge they face as they prepare for the coming redistricting fight, in particular in suburban areas that helped Biden beat Trump in 2020.

“The landscape of suburban Texas has changed, and I don’t see it changing back,” said Mark Clark, a prominent Republican strategist in Texas. “I don’t know how you can put the genie back in the bottle.”

State Sen. Joan Huffman, the Republican chair of the senate’s redistricting committee, declined to be interviewed. Other Republican state lawmakers involved in redistricting did not respond to requests for comment.

The redistricting process in Texas won’t formally start until the census releases community-level data later this summer or early fall showing where exactly states gained and lost residents. So far, the census has only put out statewide population totals. The U.S. Census Bureau typically releases the redistricting data earlier in the year but the agency said in February that the coronavirus pandemic delayed its timeline.

While the final numbers aren’t in, Democrats and Republicans believe they’ll show that the Houston, Austin and Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan areas drove the population growth in Texas in the past decade. State lawmakers don’t have to put the two new congressional seats in those areas, but they will have little choice because of the federal population density requirements for House seats.

The leading candidates for new seats are the Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth areas, according to state officials, political strategists and others following the process. Austin, arguably the most liberal part of the state, is not seen as a serious contender given the challenges any Republican would face winning a congressional race there.

In addition to creating two new districts, Republicans will look to protect incumbent House lawmakers who could be vulnerable to a strong Democratic challenger. The most vulnerable House Republican in Texas is seen as Rep. Troy Nehls, a freshman lawmaker who won a close race for the 22nd Congressional District last fall.

The seat, which includes Fort Bend County and was held for years by DeLay, has flip-flopped between both parties recently and will be targeted by Democrats in 2022.

Once the census updates its data, the state legislature will convene a special session to draw the new district lines. If both parties can’t agree on a new map, then the Republican-controlled state redistricting board would step in to draw the new lines.

The fight is widely expected to wind up in court, potentially delaying the March primaries next year. New lines likely won’t be in place until the spring, in time for a condensed primary race in the months before the fall midterm elections.

Complicating matters, redistricting across the country will be scrutinized in Washington as well. Last week, Attorney General Merrick Garland said the Biden administration planned to watch closely to ensure a fair process now that states are no longer required to run their changes by the federal government.

This will be the first time since the 1960 census that redistricting will take place without “preclearance” in place, a provision in the Voting Rights Act that required states with a history of discriminating against people of color to get approval from the federal government before making changes to their electoral systems. That measure was stripped out of the voting rights law by the Supreme Court in a controversial 2013 ruling.

The states that had been covered before the law was changed were: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Virginia and Texas. Certain counties in California, Florida, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota, and two towns in Michigan, had also been covered under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

“Democrats will immediately challenge” the Republican-drawn lines in Texas, said Harvey Kronberg, a veteran Texas political observer. But “given how the Supreme Court has essentially gutted the Voting RIghts Act, it’s hard to see how” they would win in a legal fight, he said.

Democratic lawmakers said they were hopeful they could influence the redistricting process, but acknowledged they will have to take a backseat to the Republicans in charge.

“If the reason that we’re getting [the new seats] is driven because of the Latino community and other ethnic communities, then the seats ought to reflect that,” said Alvarado. “But the lines are going to be drawn by people who may not agree with that.”

George, the Fort Bend County judge, said he plans to follow the redistricting process closely, albeit from the outside looking in. “It feels quite helpless,” he said, “and that’s not the way it should be.”