In case you hadn’t noticed, conservatives have had a few reasons to feel glum in recent months. And there might be even more for them to stress about than they realize. As Politico reported last week, some of the good folks who helped Obama win his reelection are scheming to turn Texas (yes, Texas) into a purple state, and if their ambition for that project is remotely comparable to what they showed in November, Karl Rove types might find themselves sleeping a little less. A combination of obvious demographic shifts and left-wing dominance of local government could make Texas the new Virginia in about ten years. And for the GOP, that’s problematic.
Of course, not everyone is worried. Michael Quinn Sullivan of Empower Texans, a 501(c)4 that pushes for fiscal conservatism, says he feels little but amusement about all the handwringing. “Whatever the claptrap might be from whatever political party, at the end of the day Texas remains a conservative state. The talk that Texas will go blue is a little silly. They’re talking about it today, and they were talking about it two years ago, and two years before that, and two years before that, and two years before that.”
His argument for the perpetual redness of Texas is pretty straightforward: Texans are conservative, they’ve long been conservative, and that’s how they’ll stay. Independence and ingenuity are just as natural to them as cowboy hats and cacti. There are some things that changes in the nation’s political climate can’t alter, and the commitment of Lone Star Staters to economic freedom and personal responsibility is one of them.
It’s a pretty convincing argument, though not everyone is sold on it. Some of the conservative politicos I spoke to for this story opted to remain anonymous — nobody wants to be the bearer of bad news, and it’s risky to go on record with predictions that could prove wrong and could hurt the feelings of neighbors. Nevertheless, I heard two compelling reasons for conservatives to worry a bit about their hegemony in Texas: Left-leaning demographic groups are migrating to the state, and Democrats and liberals are gaining influence at the local level (though not yet the statewide level).
Before delving into those reasons, we should understand what is at stake. First, the national GOP as it stands now can hardly survive without the state’s 38 electoral votes and a disproportionate share of its congressional delegation. Second, Texas has enjoyed significant growth despite the sluggish national economy. It’s home to about half of the jobs that were created during Obama’s first term. (Politifact takes issue with this, pointing out that the new jobs in Texas are “on the low end of the desirability scale” — trust the Politifact editors on job desirability, they work in the Beltway — but 1.7 million Americans holding minimum-wage jobs can’t be wrong that work at any wage beats unemployment.) Texas is a pivotal player in the national economy and a haven for those fleeing states where jobs are scarce or taxes are high. In a recent five-year span, 363,000 Californians moved to Texas. It’s estimated that more than 160 people move to Austin every day. That’s about 60,000 a year. Texas matters, for reasons nonpartisan as well as partisan.
And there’s the rub: Texas’s success could be ultimately self-defeating. The state’s prosperity attracts people from liberal states. If they immigrate to Texas in significant enough numbers, they could affect elections there, especially in House races. But the jury is still out on whether Texas’s conservatism will rub off on newcomers. It’s possible that Californians and other interstate migrants will be so enamored of the job growth that’s possible in an economically freer state that they’ll at least become more libertarian.
A more serious concern for the Republican party’s electoral prospects is the rapid migration of Hispanics to the state. “There certainly is a long-term demographic concern if the voting rates among Hispanics stay the way that they are,” one conservative Texas insider says. “The whole state is sort of an employment sanctuary. It’s very easy for illegals to find work in Texas, compared to some of the surrounding states,” he adds. Illegal immigrants don’t vote, but their kids do if they’re born here. So the change might not seem significant in the short term (evinced by Mitt Romney and Ted Cruz’s waltzes to victory in Texas) but could bode poorly for the GOP in Texas if Democrats maintain or tighten their grip on the Hispanic vote.
And if the GOP can’t win over Texas Hispanics, what does that say about the bigger picture? “If the Republican party can’t win the national debate of opportunity versus dependency convincingly enough to make inroads into those groups, it’s doomed either way,” the insider says.
Mario Loyola of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a contributor to NRO, isn’t devastated by any of this. If the Republican party doesn’t win Hispanics in Texas, it probably won’t win them nationwide either. Conversely, if it wins them in Texas, it will likely win them nationally too. So Republicans shouldn’t stress about Texan Hispanics in particular.
More worrisome for conservatives than the GOP’s need to win more Hispanic votes should be the composition of the state’s local government. Of Texas’s five biggest cities — Houston, San Antonio, Austin, Dallas, and Fort Worth — four have Democratic mayors, and their city governments are also dominated by liberals. Even Sullivan, less concerned than others about threats to the Republican majority in Texas, points out that while taxes and debt are low at the state level, this isn’t true for many cities. He points to the Austin school district, which has $1.2 billion in outstanding debt and plans to ask voters for another $1 billion of debt in the spring.
It seems odd that Democrats have had such imbalanced success — victory in the local arena but resounding defeat after defeat in statewide races — but Republicans shouldn’t dismiss the incongruity. In three of the state’s five largest cities, party affiliation is not listed on ballots. According to Sullivan, Democrats enjoy more success in local races because Republican politicians tend to be more interested in polarizing issues such as abortion and low taxes than in mundane issues such as zoning laws, which are more important on the local level. And Republicans in Texas may instinctively (and understandably) care more about primaries in high-profile races than about passing out leaflets for city-council candidates. That could have unfortunate consequences, since it lets Democrats build a strong farm team — the most noted members of which are twins Joaquín and Julian Castro, state representative and mayor of San Antonio, respectively, who drew spotlights at the Democratic National Convention last summer.
So Republicans in Texas could see their fortunes decline if they ignore demographics and fail to step their game up in local elections. We probably won’t see the effects of these shifts in the next few election cycles, but Republicans in the Lone Star State could be in a tricky place come 2022 or so. And if there’s one lesson conservatives should have learned from the last election, it’s to sweat the small stuff. In a state known for its bigness, the little things can be deceptively important.
— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.