If Democrats win the majority of seats in the Texas House on Tuesday, they’ll have a way to push congressional redistricting out of Republican hands and into federal courts, plus they’ll have a powerful lever for negotiation with the Republican governor and Texas Senate on everything else.
The political attention is on the political maps lawmakers will be drawing next year, because the way those maps are drawn is often the difference between an elected official and a mere candidate — and the maps will remain in use for as long as 10 years. That kind of mapmaking lets politicians choose which voters are in which districts, to concentrate support and dilute opposition.
Much of the out-of-state political money flowing into Texas relates directly to the maps, and a recognition by Democrats elsewhere that what happens here can have an outsize impact on what happens in Washington, D.C.
Something like this happened almost two decades ago. Republicans, led by former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, helped spin a bid for a majority in the Texas House into a fresh set of political maps that shored up the GOP’s advantage on the federal level.
Republicans were able to change the partisan composition of Congress by changing the maps in Texas, and to throw out a handful of powerful Texas Democrats by redrawing their districts to favor Republicans. It was acrimonious. There was an explosion of litigation. It even went to criminal court: DeLay’s efforts to get that GOP majority in Congress — by winning the Texas House races that could ensure it — got him indicted on campaign finance charges, convicted, and later acquitted when his conviction was overturned. But he and the Republicans got their victory, winning a majority in the Texas House. They redesigned political maps that had been approved just two years earlier, when Democrats ruled the House. Challenges to their redistricting do-over — after the Legislature had already made maps — survived all the way through the U.S. Supreme Court. Their new political maps remade the Texas delegation to Congress and with it, the makeup of the U.S. House.
Now the Democrats are running their own play. It’s full of ifs and maybes — just like DeLay’s plan was in 2002. Then, as now, they’ll have to win a majority in the House, get the maps they want, survive the court challenges, and then win the elections that follow.
From the national perspective, the congressional maps apparently justify the expense of trying to wrest nine Texas House seats away from the GOP. That would give Democrats their first majority since 2002. They could elect a speaker, who would in turn appoint the committee in charge of redistricting. They’d exercise an effective veto over Republican maps — not enough to pass maps of their own, but enough to deny the other party that privilege. And they’d send the courts their version of what the map should look like, along with the Republican Senate’s version.
If that seems like a thin chance for Texas Democrats, it’s because it is. Sometimes that’s the only chance you get.