In Battle for Political Conquest, Ethnicity Sets the Boundaries for Both Parties

photo of Texas State Capitol Building in Austin at night

The political maps are out, finally, and this is as good as it gets for Texas Republicans unless they can figure out how to win votes from black and Hispanic voters.

For the Democrats, this is probably the bottom. They have to find more voters or be forced to continue relying on the ethnicity of their voters — and the protections that come with that ethnicity — to protect the seats they still have.

The Republicans have snapped up everything not nailed down by the federal Voting Rights Act.

Redistricting nods to fairness but is actually about power. It allows a Republican Legislature, for instance, to put a dog collar and a short leash on Democratic voters in Austin.

Travis County is one of just a few Texas counties that voted for Barack Obama for president. In the new Congressional maps, five districts reach into the county (none is based there), and only one is likely to produce a Democratic representative.

As it stands, the county would be represented by two people from Austin, one from San Antonio, one from Georgetown (a suburb) and one from Bryan. One of the Austin residents, Lloyd Doggett, an incumbent Democrat, will face tough opposition from San Antonio; the other, Michael McCaul, an incumbent Republican, has a district that runs east to Houston.

It’s safe to say lawmakers weren’t trying to empower the locals. It makes you wonder why the city of Austin rewards them with free airport parking.

Lawmakers don’t have to be fair. If they did, the court would have repaired the damage. It’s just that the law doesn’t protect geography as carefully as it protects minorities.

In Travis County, the minority populations are too scattered to draw a Congressional district protected by the Voting Rights Act. The seat most likely to elect a Democrat stretches into central San Antonio, and it is uncertain whether Mr. Doggett can prevail over someone from San Antonio. His district wasn’t protected.

The remaining Democratic seats in the state result from legal protections for minority groups that happen to vote for Democrats. The Republicans don’t have the legal ability to take more ground; the Democrats don’t have the political juice to win anything not legally protected.

Maps aren’t everything. Using the current maps, the Republicans got 101 seats in the Texas House; using the same maps two years earlier, they got only 76.

But maps mean a lot. The partisan compositions of the Texas Senate and of the state’s Congressional delegation have changed only marginally between redistricting episodes over the last 20 years. If you want change in those places, the most effective strategy is to change the maps.

The redistricting fights have been about the clout of minority voters. Virtually every legal skirmish was over a district that either is, or arguably should be, one in which minority voters have the power to decide the winners.

With few exceptions, the decision to create or protect a minority district was also a decision about whether it would elect a Republican or a Democrat. Talk about walking on eggshells — every conversation or argument about the maps teeters between politics and race.

This year’s elections will clear up the remaining questions. Mr. Doggett is the last Anglo Democrat in the Congressional delegation who wasn’t elected in a minority opportunity district. If he wins re-election, it will be in a Latino district. (Representative Gene Green, Democrat of Houston, also an Anglo, has represented a Latino district for years.)

The only genuine swing district on the Congressional map is District 23, where Representative Francisco Canseco, Republican of San Antonio, will face the winner of a Democratic primary that could include former United States Representative Ciro Rodriguez, whom Mr. Canseco beat in 2010. That’s a test of whether Republicans can hold a minority district.

United States Representative Blake Farenthold, Republican of Corpus Christi, got a district with a Republican voting history but where a majority of the voters are either black or Latino. That’s another political test tube.

Republicans can’t increase their already stout majorities without winning minority votes or getting rid of the law that protects minority voters. And Democrats have to figure out a way to win in districts drawn by the opposition.

Read more: Ross Ramsey, the executive editor at The Texas Tribune, writes a column for The Tribune article from the NYT

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