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To Counter Gerrymandering, Texas Democrats Aim To Recapture State House in 2020

By Andrew Schneider, Houston Public Media

Republicans have dominated Congress for the better part of a generation. One of the main reasons is they’ve held most of the power when redrawing congressional boundaries. Republicans have focused on winning and holding state legislatures, and in most states, those legislatures steer redistricting. One-party control often leads to partisan gerrymandering, including in Texas. 

Matt Angle – director of the  Lone Star Project, a Democratic research organization – says you can see that in the statewide vote. “That percentage vote is much higher than the percentage of the districts that Democrats hold, which really throws into relief how grossly gerrymandered the congressional districts in Texas are,” Angle said. 

Last year, Republican congressional candidates took 51% of the vote statewide, Democrats 49%. Yet Republicans wound up winning 23 of the state’s 36 congressional seats.

Democrats finally seem to grasp how important the state contests are. Former Attorney General Eric Holder’s group, the  National Democratic Redistricting Committee, made a big 2018 push at the state level. “We flipped six state legislative chambers. We broke supermajorities in four chambers. We made really significant gains in seven additional chambers,” Holder told  The New York Times’ podcast  The Daily.

As part of that wave, the Democrats picked up 12 seats in the Texas House of Representatives, bringing them within nine seats of a majority in the chamber. 

“We know that when we compete on fair maps, Democrats win,” said Jessica Post, executive director of the  Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, a national organization aimed at winning state legislative races. “We’ve seen that in states like Pennsylvania and in Florida, where lines have been redrawn and Democrats have finally been able to get a greater share of the congressional delegation that is in keeping with the share of statewide votes that they’re getting. And that’s absolutely not the case in Texas right now.” 

Post says the DLCC plans to spend a record $50 million nationwide in the current state legislative election cycle. Texas is one of her group’s top 2020 targets.

If the Democrats win the Texas House, that will give them an equal voice with the GOP-led Texas Senate when drawing the new district lines. The state’s Republicans can see that as well as the Democrats.

“I think taking the Texas House back is going to be Democrats’ number one priority in 2020 in Texas – more so than winning it at the presidential level, more so than defeating Senator John Cornyn, more than any other political goal,” said  Matt Mackowiak, a Republican consultant based in Austin.

But Republicans won’t just hand over the keys to the State House.  Speaker Dennis Bonnen is investing $3 million of his own campaign funds in a political action committee to help reelect Republican state reps. And that’s just part of the effort. The Republican Party of Texas is engaged in the largest voter registration drive in its history.

“Since January, we have had thousands of deputy voter registrars trained,” said State Party Chairman  James Dickey. “We are getting those deputy voter registrars out at events and out into communities so that we can register many of the 1 million conservative Texans who have never registered to vote.”

Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak says it’s an uphill battle for the Democrats, who’ll need to win more than just the nine seats they’re aiming for.

“The challenge that you have when you take back seats is that you oftentimes you win in areas that you can’t hold so they’re not going to need to win nine. They’re going to need to win 12 or 13 probably,” Mackowiak said. 

Texas is expected to pick up as many as three congressional seats in the next census, making a total of 39. With that prize on the line, and with Democrats and Republicans from around the country spending millions in pursuit of it, 2020 could prove to be the most expensive contest for control of the State House in Texas history.