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Democrats Are Betting Texas' Changing Suburbs Will Help Them Win Congressional Seats In 2020

Attendees enter the main area of the Texas Democratic Convention in Fort Worth last year.
Julia Reihs
Attendees enter the main area of the Texas Democratic Convention in Fort Worth last year.

Democrats are hoping to flip six congressional seats in Texas in 2020. On Monday, Wendy Davis announced she’s running for one them.

Davis, the former state senator who garnered national attention in 2013 for filibustering an abortion bill, announced she plans to challenge U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Austin, for Texas’ 21st Congressional District.

“I'm running for Congress because people's voices are still being silenced,” she said in her video announcement.

Davis became a sort of icon in the abortion rights movement because of her stand on the Senate floor against the bill, which imposed strict restrictions on abortion providers. She took that clout and ran for governor in 2014, but she lost to Republican Greg Abbott by a whopping 20 percentage points.

This time, Democrats say, Davis has better odds.

“Since 2016, we have seen a massive political realignment across the country, and Texas is no stranger to that,” said Roger Garza, the senior adviser in Texas for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC).

Garza is part of a small team of national Democrats who recently set up shop in Austin. The DCCC has set its sights on six congressional districts. Half of those seats are in the Austin area: the 21st, the 10th and the 31st. The other three are in the Houston area, the Rio Grande Valley and the Dallas area.

“We are looking at districts that … six years ago were never thought to be competitive, but now are absolutely 100 percent competitive,” he said.

Garza said most of the seats have one thing in common: They include suburban counties around major cities that have experienced a population boom in the past few years. In the Austin area, that includes cities like Georgetown, Round Rock and Buda.

Brendan Steinhauser, a Republican strategist in Austin, said these areas are becoming a problem for Republicans.

“The growth is happening in the cities and the suburbs,” he said. “You are getting people moving in from all over the country who are changing the makeup of those areas politically, because they hold views that are a little more socially liberal. The battleground in Texas is going to be the suburbs and exurbs, because that is where people are moving to."

In fact, polling shows that Texas’ urban and suburban counties are looking more alike when it comes to social issues.

Natalie Jackson is a research director at PRRI, a polling firm that focuses on issues related to cultural divides like religion and race. Jackson said political views in Texas are still pretty conservative overall, but Texans are slowly becoming more liberal on some issues – especially those living in the state’s fast-growing suburbs.

“The suburbs are a bit more of an ideological battleground,” she said. “And they are getting less white, less religious and maybe a touch more liberal.”

For example, Jackson’s group has been tracking support among Texans for discrimination protections for the LGBT community. Seventy percent of urban voters PRRI polled over the years said they supported these protections, and that percentage hasn't changed.

Support among folks living in rural parts of Texas, meanwhile, has declined over time. And in the suburbs, Jackson said, support has grown from 57% to 67%.

“Statistically speaking, that is a sizeable jump,” she said. “Typically, you know, public opinion moves pretty slowly on most issues. So for the suburbs in particular to be driving all of the change that we’ve seen on the issue statewide is pretty astonishing.”

That change has led to some big openings for national Democrats.

Garza said Texas Republicans drew up congressional districts in 2011 that favored their party under the assumption that the suburbs were reliably conservative. He said they did not anticipate how quickly the suburbs would grow and change.

“I think it worked for them for about four years, five years,” he said. “Since then, it has shown that they have overplayed their hand, and I think that will show in 2020.”

Another seat Garza and others are hoping to flip is the state’s 31st Congressional District, a seat currently held by Republican John Carter. The seat includes suburbs north of Austin, including Round Rock.

Last year, Carter beat his Democratic opponent, MJ Hegar, by less than 3 percentage points. That’s compared to 2016, when he won election by more than 20 points. ( Hegar announced in April she's challenging John Cornyn for his Senate seat.)

Garza said Democrats typically can rely on higher turnouts during presidential elections, which is why they think they can flip seats that were so close last election.

Steinhauser said he’s not so sure.

“I do think it’s possible that some Austin-area Republicans could lose in this cycle,” he said, “but I don’t think it will actually happen.”  

Steinhauser said the reason he’s not so sure Democrats will take those seats is that the party has been running pretty far to the left. He said policies like Medicare-For-All might do well in liberal cities like Austin, but they won’t go over well in those all-important Texas suburbs.

Copyright 2020 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

Ashley Lopez joined KUT in January 2016. She covers politics and health care, and is part of the NPR-Kaiser Health News reporting collaborative. Previously she worked as a reporter at public radio stations in Louisville, Ky.; Miami and Fort Myers, Fla., where she won a National Edward R. Murrow Award.