As is usual on weekends, I spent yesterday perusing much of last week’s content created on Election Twitter, currently caught between the disastrous outcome of the Iowa Caucus and the highly-anticipated results in my home state of Nevada. Scrolling down the Twitter feed of well-known election analyst and Sabato’s Crystal Ball Associate Editor @JMilesColeman, I stumbled upon a detailed map of the results of the 2016 presidential race in Texas’s 7th congressional district, in juxtaposition with the 1996 results under the same lines. What these maps indicated was a clear talking point from the 2018 midterms: Donald Trump’s vitriolic language, as well as the diversification of wealthy metro suburbs, has propelled such districts to the left and created tough conditions for the GOP up and down-ballot.
While this was an object of much intrigue, my main takeaways from these maps essentially arose from their legends, contextualizing the district within the entirety of Harris County for both elections. The trends associated with the 7th district extended to the county as a whole, with the wealth of blue from Houston’s city center progressively swallowing up the city’s immediate western and southern suburbs. This could help explain how negligible 0.1-point county-wide victory for Barack Obama in 2012 morphed into a healthy 12% win for Hillary Clinton within the span of only 4 years. Yet somehow, at the same time, the far exurbs of northwestern and northeastern Harris County remained solidly red – even turning more red – within the same time period. Considering national trends, how is this remotely possible?
To begin to scratch the surface of this nuanced topic, I would like to start at a very recent reference point. In September of 2019, controversy spread when Texas State House Rep. Briscoe Cain shared a tweet stating “My AR is ready for you,” a response to former Democratic presidential contender Beto O’Rourke’s threat of a semi-automatic weapons buyback program. Cain’s statement, interpreted by many on both sides of the aisle as a physical threat to O’Rourke and his liberal policies in general, would perhaps seem fitting for a GOP state legislator in a far-flung area of North Carolina or Oklahoma. Yet Briscoe Cain’s district, Texas House District 128, is far less rural than one would expect: in fact, it encompasses a large swath of northeastern and eastern Harris County – some of the exact regions that Trump improved upon in 2016. While Harris County voted decisively for Hillary Clinton, HD 128 voted for Trump by an overwhelming 40-point margin, clearly bucking the leftward movement of Harris County as a whole. As shown by Cain’s unapologetic conservatism, while much of Harris County is now blue, some of it has become quite red in modern times.
Cain represents the type of district that has become almost completely out of reach for Democrats, shifting to the right of a fast leftward-moving state. Cain’s district is predominantly located in Texas’s 36th district, which includes swaths of exurban Harris County and rural east Texas. But since this congressional district, represented by Brian Babin, has proven not yet prone to noticeable political trends and major shifts in voter demographics, I would like to juxtapose the modern textbook blueing of Texas’s 7th with a Harris County-based district that embodies much of the staunch conservatism evident in Briscoe Cain’s state legislative district: Texas’s 10th congressional district, represented in Washington by Michael McCaul.
This triangle-shaped district spanning from urban Austin to the northwestern exurbs of Harris County gave Trump a solid 9-point victory, almost exactly reflecting his statewide margin. But what I believe showcases best its unique qualities is its modern voting patterns in relation to the neighboring 7th district. In 2016, Texas’s 10th district voted around 10 points to the right of the 7th district. In the 2018 Texas senate race, as trends in suburban Harris and Travis County pulled both regions left, the former district voted around 6 points to the right of the latter.
Texas’s political history shows that this is, in fact, this is not normal. The blueing of Austin’s suburbs combined with the reddening exurban areas of Harris County has caused the 10th to vote to the right of the 7th in current times. But traditionally, even as recently as 2014, the 7th voted consistently to the right of the 10th in statewide and federal races. In the 2008 presidential race, McCain won the 7th by a resounding 19 points while taking the 10th by a considerable-but-less-impressive 13. In 2012, Mitt Romney won the 7th by 21 percent and the 10th by 20, a very close albeit noticeable difference.
When examined in sync with polling from those federal races, these differences seem to make sense. Exit polls in most modern federal races until 2014 showed white college-educated individuals voting loyally in the Republican camp, with establishment GOP candidates appealing to more affluent and suburban audiences. While non-college educated whites continued to move rightward in past years, their demographic is ancestrally Democratic, in part due to the party’s historical support of labor and blue-collar causes. Near the turn of the century, states in such vein like Kentucky and West Virginia held overwhelming voter registration advantages for Democrats and voted blue up and down-ballot. In a way, this explains some of the voting patterns of the 7th and 10th districts. Texas’s 7th is one of the most wealthy and college-educated districts in Texas, along with other suburban districts like the 24th and 32nd, creating a backbone of GOP support. The 10th, on the other hand, is less educated and includes large swaths of more blue-collar territory; it’s the type of district that drew much support for Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton in the 80s and 90s.
Only in the past couple years has the 7th begun to vote to the left of the 10th, and given Texas’s current political trends, it seems that this reality will remain true, and only be exacerbated, in the years to come. Donald Trump’s appeal to blue-collar interests caused a new Republican bloc to coalesce while alienating traditional stalwart members of the GOP. These realities have resulted in the formation of new coalitions and a more purple Texas looking forward. The 2018 senate race only highlighted these trends, and especially in the midst of a contentious 2020 presidential election, they do not appear to be stopping anytime soon.
In the coming decade, the 7th will continue to pull Texas to the left while the 10th will likely match statewide margins or pull the state slightly to the right. This would’ve been nearly unthinkable 10 years ago, but Texas politics is an ever-changing field of study. Indeed, it is easy to label the state’s most populous county monolithically, yet in numerous ways it reflects the multitude of trends and political realities currently witnessed all over Texas. With the prospect of a blue Texas on the horizon, Harris County provides major insight into the true future of politics in the Lone Star State.