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Why Texas’ Massive 23rd District Is Important For Republicans And Democrats

Presidio, Texas, is in Congressional District 23. (Carlos Morales / Marfa Public Radio)

The sparsely populated region that’s bigger than some states is 70 percent Hispanic, but also covers part of the Permian Basin where the oil-and-gas industry has a lot of influence.

By Texas Public Radio's Ryan Poppe and Marfa Public Radio's Carlos Morales

Congressional District 23 is often considered one of the few swing districts in the state, and it’s partly because of its sprawling size.

The 29-county district hugs the San Antonio suburbs, where you’ll find all the signs of urban sprawl: shopping centers, traffic, and a few military bases. But head towards the western edge of the district and the scenery changes.

You’ll see oil derricks dotting the desert. Ocotillo and agave are sprinkled across the wide, open stretches of ranchland. The district runs through and past the Big Bend region and stops just short of El Paso. It also includes about 800 miles of the Texas-Mexico border.

The district is “generally speaking a fairly unpopulated area, but does incorporate parts of San Antonio, which is probably the most densely populated part of the district,” said Lloyd Potter, the state’s demographer.  

In all, Potter said, about 770,000 people live in Congressional District 23. About 70 percent are Hispanic.

“One thing that you can see, though, is that the Hispanic population is driving the growth but the non-Hispanic, White population has been declining,” he said.

More than 50 percent of people in the district speak a language other than English at home, according to the latest census data. That’s nearly double the rate of Texas. Education-wise, about 76 percent of the district's population has at least a high school education and about 23 percent have a bachelor’s degree or higher.

That doesn’t come as a surprise to Carmen Elguezabal, who lives in Presidio — one of the many border towns the district covers. Elguezabal says a lot of the people who come into her library mainly speak and read Spanish so she helps them out.

“That's part of my job, you know, to fill out forms, translate documents for them,” Elguezabal said.

Besides its racial demographics, CD23 is also somewhat unique politically.

In 2016, the Texas district was one of about two dozen congressional districts across the country to elect a Republican representative — in this case, that’s incumbent Will Hurd — while voting for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump.

David Crockett, a political science professor at Trinity University, said the district is “finely balanced” between Republicans and Democrats.

“It’s got a lot of both,” Crockett said. “So it makes sense to pour money into that to see if you get more of your base out to outgun the opponent.”

And this year, the millions Hurd and opponent Gina Ortiz Jones pump into this race could set a new record.

CD23’s Workforce: From Ranchlands To Oilfields

Just as much as the district’s landscape varies, the industries that prop up its economy differ wildly as well.  

In the pocket of the district that covers parts of the Permian Basin, Potter said oil and gas are going to be “significant drivers.”

“The Permian Basin area, its population growth has just really taken off with an increase in the price of oil,” Potter said.

In places like Pecos, at last census count, the rural West Texas town had a population of about 10,000. But that’s swelled in recent years thanks to the oil boom, which has made this one of the fastest-growing regions of the state.

There are also thousands of ranches and farms throughout the district.

In 2012, there were more than 9,000 farms throughout the district, where owners raised and sold cattle and goats. In some pockets of the district — like Coyanosa in Pecos County — farmers also harvest melons, potatoes and grains.  

But if you head towards the southeast corner of CD23, around San Antonio, you’ll see the workforce varies a bit more.

“We deal with (information) technology, human resources, workforce development,” said Jose Arzola, a substitute teacher and owns a technology company.

Arzola has lived in Congressional District 23 for the past 10 years. He lives just outside San Antonio and grew up near Lackland Air Force Base. Arzola, a disabled Vietnam-era veteran, says getting older veterans, who still want to be productive back to work, is his top concern.

“It seems like all of the programs that are coming out are geared towards your desert storm veterans and quite frankly us Vietnam veterans still have a lot to contribute but we are not given that opportunity,” he said.

This is the first of a two-part series concerning Congressional District 23 voters.

Carlos Morales is Marfa Public Radio's News Director.