How a Booming Texas Economy May Help Democrats in 2020

For Republicans, the Texas Miracle may become a victim of its own success.

The booming economy that helped the Lone Star State weather the 2008 recession has also sparked a migration there that’s changing the face of Texas politics. The workers who’ve moved to Texas for jobs in the energy and tech sectors are more liberal than Texas natives, slowly turning the deep-red state into a richer purple.

Democrats now find themselves close enough to winning Texas that they’ve scheduled the third round of 2020 primary debates for Houston on Thursday.

Texas is a big political prize, and getting bigger. Second only to California in size and electoral votes, it’s the eighth-fastest growing state in the country, helped by a higher-than-average birthrate, immigration, and domestic migration.

And while a growing Hispanic population may someday fundamentally transform Texas politics, for now the leftward turn is driven mostly by the predominately white people moving to Texas from other states.

“The Latino growth gets a lot of the attention, but that’s far from the only thing going on,” said Ruy Texeira, a political demographer at the liberal Center for American Progress. “You can’t understand or explain the way Texas has shifted in the last couple of decades without looking at what’s going on with the white population.”

Texas Republicans see it in their new neighbors.

“There are some who are coming here for the jobs and they don’t have the Republican or conservative mindset, if you will,” said Republican activist Nancy Large. “We realize we can’t sit on our laurels. We have to get out there and fight.”

Large lives in Williamson County, a former Republican stronghold outside Democratic Austin, one of the fastest-growing counties in the state. That growth is being fueled in large part by Sun City, the retirement community where she lives, which is drawing retirees from inside and outside Texas.

WilCo, as it’s known, went for Trump by 20,000 votes in 2016 but favored former Representative Beto O’Rourke by 6,000 in the Senate race against Republican Ted Cruz two years later. The 2018 shift was driven by 32,000 new-voter registrations and 5,000 more ballots cast on election day, in a usually low-turnout midterm contest.

Honor the Flag

The newcomers are so numerous that at monthly meetings of the Sun City Republican Club, President Cathy Cody puts a placard at the front of the room with the text of the Texas Pledge: “Honor the Texas flag; I pledge allegiance to thee, Texas, one state under God, one and indivisible.”

The pledge is a legacy of the state’s former status as an independent nation that’s recited in every school room and civic gathering across Texas, but is unfamiliar to many new residents.

About 40% of Texans were born somewhere else: 22% from other states and 18% outside the U.S. And three deeply Democratic states account for 62% of the net domestic migration to Texas, according to IRS statistics: California, New York, and Illinois.

The migrant wave hasn’t been uniformly liberal, however. Among the Californians in particular there’s a segment moving to Texas “who are getting the hell out” to escape rising tax burdens, Large said. And Texas’s large number of military bases means that military families -- who typically lean Republican -- constitute much of its migration.

‘Watch List’

Local Republicans aren’t the only ones worried about losing their grasp on Texas. Brian Walsh, president of the Trump-endorsed super PAC America First Action, is too.

Rattling off a list of battleground states the super PAC will spend money in next year, Walsh put Texas in its own special category: the “watch list.” He’s assuming it goes for Trump, but not without looking over his shoulder.

“You got to keep an eye on Texas,” he said.

Trump won Texas by 9 percentage points in 2016 and maintains a 70% approval among Texas Republicans. But there have been tremors across Texas politics since then.

O’Rourke came within 215,000 votes of knocking off Cruz in 2018, in a contest that made national headlines and attracted millions of dollars in outside donations. Had he won, he would have been the first Democrat to hold a Texas statewide office in more than 20 years.

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