Texas GOP tries to protect US House seats under new maps

·5 min read
Hector Andres, an organizer with the Latino empowerment group JOLT, offers voting registration during a community outreach in Arlington, Texas, Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021. Texas this week will begin redrawing congressional lines, and Latino advocates and officeholders say it's time to correct past wrongs. The state's explosive population growth over the past decade, half of which comes from Latinos, has earned it two new congressional seats. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Facing up to Texas' booming suburbs turning bluer, Republicans on Monday proposed new U.S. House maps that would fortify their slipping grip and shrink the number of seats where the majority of voters are Hispanic — even as they fuel the state's blistering growth.

Texas was a big winner in the 2020 Census. Its surging population, driven by nearly 2 million new Hispanic residents, made it the only state awarded two additional congressional seats. Texas will now have 38 House members, and 40 electoral votes.

But Democrats and minority rights groups accused GOP mapmakers of tossing aside those rapidly shifting demographic trends that are threatening decades of Republican dominance. Persons of color accounted for more than nine of every 10 new Texas residents over the last decade, but the proposal reduces the number of Hispanic majority districts from eight to seven.

There would also be no districts with a majority of Black residents under the proposed maps, which are likely to undergo revisions. But outnumbered Democrats in the Texas Capitol have no power to force drastic changes.

“It is not fair, it is not right, it is not Texan or American to do that,” said Domingo Garcia, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, referring to how the maps divide up Hispanic voters.

On the whole, Republicans showed an overarching desire under the proposed maps to protect their nearly two dozen incumbent House members rather than peel away seats from Democrats. One notable exception is along the Texas-Mexico border, where Republicans — encouraged by former President Donald Trump’s strong showing there in 2020 — are taking aim at a longtime Democratic stronghold currently held by Rep. Vicente Gonzalez.

Also Monday, the Oregon Legislature passed congressional maps that include a new, sixth U.S. House seat the state gained following the latest census. The new maps, passed by the Democratic-controlled House and Senate by party line votes, could net the majority party in the state an additional U.S. House representative. The boundaries include four U.S. House seats that either are safe Democratic or lean in the party’s favor, one reliably red seat and one seat that could be a toss-up.

And in Georgia some state Senate Republicans in Georgia released a proposed map that could shift one of Georgia’s 14 congressional seats from Democrats to Republicans. Republicans now hold an 8-6 majority of the seats, down from 10-4 after 2010. The proposal appears to give the GOP a better chance of winning a suburban Atlanta congressional district now held by Democrat Lucy McBath. Beyond changes to McBath’s 6th District, the plan would make the now-competitive suburban Atlanta 7th District much safer for Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux. Georgia state House members will have their own proposals and the two chambers must agree when a redistricting session begins Nov. 3.

The maps are the product of Texas and Georgia Republicans wielding a newly freer hand to reengineer political boundaries: For the first time in more than 50 years, some states are starting the redistricting process without federal oversight. A Supreme Court ruling in 2013 removed mandatory federal approval of new maps for Texas, Georgia and all or parts of 14 other states with a history of discrimination in voting.

In every decade since the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, courts or the Department of Justice have ruled that Texas’ redistricting plans violated federal laws — partly by scattering Democratic-leaning Latino voters among multiple districts dominated by non-Latino white residents who lean Republican.

“It looks like they packed more Democratic voters into fewer districts and sort of spread the Republican voters across more districts," said Adam Podowitz-Thomas, senior legal strategist at the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, a nonpartisan research organization.

He said multiple Texas districts seemed to have been drawn to include a safe 60% to 70% majority Republican vote share that would preserve GOP control. But a new congressional district in the state’s liberal capital was a “Democratic vote sink," said Podowitz-Thomas, one that would insulate surrounding Republicans House members by taking some of their left-leaning voters.

Another proposed new district in Houston is drawn to elect a Republican, meaning both parties would split Texas' new seats. Republicans currently have 23 House seats in Texas, while Democrats have 13.

Latino advocates and officeholders believed the numbers demanded at least one new Latino-majority congressional seat in Texas, around the Dallas area, but none was included in the Republicans' first pass. Booming suburban districts in Texas, which include four of the 10 fastest-growing and rapidly diversifying cities in the U.S., would be fortified with more voters pulled from surrounding rural areas.

Brenden Steinhauser, a GOP strategist in Texas, said the maps reflect a motivation to hang onto political power. He pointed to the proposed new district of Republican Rep. Michael McCaul, whose seat would be buffeted by shedding voters in Houston's fast-changing voters suburbs.

“I think this will stave off some of this purple trending we’ve see for a while,” he said.

The maps are the product of Texas Republicans wielding a freer hand to reengineer political boundaries: For the first time in more than 50 years, Texas is starting the redistricting process without federal oversight. A Supreme Court ruling in 2013 removed mandatory federal approval of new maps for Texas and all or parts of 15 other states with a history of discrimination in voting.

The redrawn Texas districts unveiled by Republican mapmakers are starting points and will likely undergo changes in the coming weeks before being sent to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott for his signoff.

Republicans in America's biggest red state want to expand their political advantage as their typically commanding victories in Texas have become thinner. Last year, Trump carried Ohio by a wider margin than Texas, and Republicans got a scare in 2018 when Democrats flipped a dozen statehouse seats and Beto O'Rourke nearly ousted Sen. Ted Cruz.

But Republicans held their ground in Texas in 2020, emboldening them to mount an aggressive agenda of hot-button conservative policymaking, and gains along the predominately Hispanic southern border have spurred the GOP into trying to expand their reach.

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AP writer Jeff Amy contributed from Atlanta.

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