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Tarrant Is A Bright-Red Anomaly: A Big, Urban County That Votes Republican

Rodger Mallison Star-Telegram
Every precinct north of I-820 in far north Fort Worth voted for Donald Trump.

Donald Trump was propelled to the presidency thanks in part to Tarrant County. Fort Worth and its suburbs make up the only metropolitan county in Texas that still votes Republican for president. And it's one of just two of the nation’s 20 largest urban counties that favored Trump. So why is Tarrant County so reliably red?

Around the country, big cities in both red and blue states are almost exclusively led by Democrats. Fort Worth’s mayor, Betsy Price, is a long-time Republican, though the office she holds now is nonpartisan.

Price says she realized just how rare Republican mayors are at her first U.S. Conference of Mayors back in 2011. When the mayors split off for Democratic and Republican caucuses, she says, “there must have been 200 in the Democrat mayors' room, and about 10 of us who would self-identify on the Republican side."

“I was shocked,” says Price, who now chairs the mayors caucus for Community Leaders of America, a group working to increase the numbers of conservatives in local government.

Credit Christopher Connelly / KERA News
Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price is one of few big city Republican mayors in the U.S.

There’s no single explanation for why Tarrant County bucks the national trend. Political scientist Jim Riddlesperger from Texas Christian University says the county identifies with its cowboy heritage, practicing what he calls an “open-space politics” that dominates the Texas political landscape.

“We identify with guns, we identify with cattle, and we identify with the Western culture. And that’s characteristic of Tarrant County, also,” Riddlesperger says.

The county is also far less dense than other urban centers. Riddlesperger points out that that even though it’s America’s 16th-largest city, Fort Worth prides itself on a small-town feel.

“Those things plus the oil economy, plus the huge defense industry here in Tarrant County, combine to make Tarrant County more Republican than most urban areas,” he says.

Most of the county's nearly 2 million residents live in the suburbs. And even inside the city limits, large stretches of Fort Worth look and feel suburban or even rural.

The Interstate 820 loop on the city's north side is something of a dividing line. Until recently, the area north of that highway was sparsely populated. Now, new single-family homes, corporate campuses and commercial complexes have sprung up. And while it might be in the city, this area votes like the suburbs. Every single precinct north of 820 voted for Donald Trump in November.

“It is a very much more rural or bedroom-community-type thing,” says Fran Rhodes, who has lived in that area for years with her husband. “I don’t think of Fort Worth unless I go downtown, and you know that’s 20 miles away and an hour on the messed-up freeways."   

Rhodes is a vice president of the Northeast Tarrant Tea Party. That group has grown from a local chapter of activists into a statewide powerhouse often at odds with the Republican establishment. This Tea Party group has helped elect some of the most conservative lawmakers in the state. 

'Potholes don't care if you're Democrat or Republican. A crime spree doesn't care. Your citizens don't care. They just want their garbage picked up. They just want to turn their tap on and have clean water.' - Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price

Konni Burton, who was once a vice president for the group, was elected to the Texas Senate representing Tarrant County in 2014. She replaced Democrat Wendy Davis, who left to make an ill-fated run for governor.

“We’re all very independent-minded Texans that truly believe in us doing things for ourselves, keeping government out for the most part,” Burton says.

Her run was fueled by her belief that, once elected, many Republican politicians fail to follow through on conservative commitments they make while campaigning.

The Tea Party’s orthodoxy runs counter to the more moderate approach to governance outlined by Mayor Price. She says her primary focus is making Fort Worth a business-friendly place. Voters want that more practical, compromise-oriented approach, she says, adding that most issues confronting local governments don’t fall on partisan lines.

“Potholes don’t care if you’re Democrat or Republican,” she said. “A crime spree doesn’t care. Your citizens don’t care, they just want their garbage picked up, they just want to turn their tap on and have clean water."

The county is changing fast. Fort Worth and its suburbs grow more diverse every year, which tends to benefit Democrats.

“Tarrant County is a rapidly growing county," says TCU's Riddlesperger. "There is still a lot of in-migration into Tarrant County not only from other counties in Texas, but from other states as well."

Riddlesperger says these are changes the GOP has to confront to keep this Republican stronghold red.

This story is the product of a collaborative partnership between KERA and the Texas Tribune.

Christopher Connelly is a reporter covering issues related to financial instability and poverty for KERA’s One Crisis Away series. In 2015, he joined KERA to report on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. From Fort Worth, he also focused on politics and criminal justice stories.