Gerrymandering backfired for Texas Republicans in Dallas County in 2018

Downtown Dallas in January 2018.

At the end of the 2011 legislative session, state Rep. Rafael Anchia, a Dallas Democrat, sat down to dinner with a Republican colleague from the Texas House. Anchia was exhausted and incensed.

It had been a brutal six months for House Democrats, who were down to 48 seats in the 150-seat chamber. After riding a red wave in the 2010 election, Republicans used their new House supermajority to redraw Texas’ political maps following the once-a-decade census in a way that would help them hold onto their gains. They all but assured GOP control of the House for the next decade and secured almost 60 percent of the seats in Dallas County, even though the county was already reliably blue.

Anchia recalled telling the Republican colleague, who he declined to name, that Dallas Democrats were “getting screwed.” But the colleague offered a puzzling piece of solace: “There’s not going to be one [Dallas] Republican left by the end of this decade.”

Seven years later, that political forecast almost became reality. Amid their zeal for control, Republicans in 2011 opted for keeping their numbers up in the county and dismissed the possibility of creating a district with a black and Hispanic majority that could’ve made their seats safer in a Democratic wave election. Going into Election Day, Republicans held seven of the 14 House seats in Dallas County. But a collapse of the Republican-leaning redistricting scheme has left them with just two seats — and even those were won by narrow margins.

“The lesson is you can get too clever in gerrymandering,” said Michael Li, a redistricting expert with the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.

The Republican control of Dallas County seems to have buckled under the combined pressure of increased Democratic turnout and nearly a decade of population growth that’s further diminished the county’s white population. But the GOP majority was vulnerable to begin with.

The Republican losses in Dallas County are as much a product of the 2018 blue wave as they are of 2011 redistricting, when the GOP was forced to confront a politically inconvenient demographic reality. The 2010 census showed that people of color, who tend to support Democrats, were behind all of Dallas County’s growth in the last decade. Meanwhile, the county’s white population decreased by more than 198,000 people.

On top of that, Dallas’ growth relative to the state as a whole meant that the number of House seats in the county needed to drop from 16 to 14. Mapdrawers knew that those two seats would have to be Republican-held seats because the Dallas County districts represented by Democrats — and mostly made up by Hispanic and black voters — were protected by the Voting Rights Act.

As far as Democrats and redistricting experts are concerned, Republicans could have opted to create a new “opportunity district” for the county’s growing population of color. That would’ve reduced the number of voters of color in Republican districts, giving the GOP more of a cushion through the decade, but it would have also likely added another seat to the Democrats’ column.

Opting instead for more power, the Democrats alleged, the Republicans packed and cracked Latino voters across the county to diminish their voting strength overall and ensure a GOP majority.

But Republicans “shaved those things off a little too close because they got greedy,” said Jose Garza, a voting rights lawyer who helped challenge the GOP’s mapmaking. And in a wave election like this, the vulnerable Republican majority loses its edge, he added.

The majority showed signs of faltering by 2016 when increased Democratic turnout cost Texas Republicans a seat held by state Rep. Kenneth Sheets. Another Dallas County Republican, Rodney Anderson, held onto his seat by just 64 votes.

All the while, demographics continued to shift against them.

Take Anderson’s House District 105, which he lost by 4,200 votes on Tuesday. The district was originally drawn in 2011 with a voting-age population that was 41 percent white. But the latest census estimates available indicate that share has dropped to at least 35 percent. (And those estimates are running a few years behind 2018 so that number is likely to be lower.) Taken together, the Hispanic and black voting-age population in the district is up to at least 56 percent — up from 50.7 percent when the boundaries of the district were originally decided.

Those demographic changes are not as stark in some of the other Republican seats that flipped on Tuesday, but those districts are also seeing a downward trend in their share of white voters.

To Sheets, the extent to which power shifted on Tuesday night was surprising. At least two of the Dallas County seats lost by Republicans were drawn to be much stronger than the seat he lost in 2016, which had taken on more of a swing seat quality until this year when the Democrat who defeated Sheets easily held onto it.

“Redistricting shouldn’t be an effort in trying to preserve seats, it should be an effort in trying to ensure that people and communities are represented,” Sheets said. “Both parties are guilty in trying to maximize their political gain.”

To be sure, nothing indicates that Republicans won’t win back some of these seats in 2020, but this could have been prevented, Li said. Taking stock of the Dallas County map ahead of Election Day, Li predicted that Dallas County Republicans could stand to lose three or four of their seats because of the one seat they refused to create.

On election night, they lost five.