Twenty years ago, a young state representative from Big Spring — a Republican in a Texas House then dominated by Democrats — found himself, via redistricting, in a race against a veteran Democrat.
The Democrat, David Counts, was a committee chairman and a member of the leadership, and the district was drawn in a way that favored him and put the Republican in the shadows.
Facing certain electoral death in the House contest, Troy Fraser decided to run instead for the state Senate. He lost and went home.
Fraser now lives in Horseshoe Bay, in Central Texas. He’s still a Republican, but now he’s a state senator, a seat he won four years after that 1992 loss. He’s a committee chairman and a member of the leadership. But he’s in another redistricting battle — this time with another Republican and based more on what part of the state is shrinking than on politics.
This time, it’s all about Abilene. It’s the secret to Fraser’s political strength in his rural district, but it’s also a logical remedy to the shortage of population in an adjoining district represented by Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock.
Fraser’s district is 32,999 people short of the ideal: each of Texas’ 31 Senate districts, given the state population of 25.1 million, would ideally have 811,147 people in it. Duncan, just to the west, needs 106,807 more folks to reach the magic number. Everyone south and west of those two, generally speaking, is also short of population, so Fraser and Duncan need to grab land to the east to make it up.
That gets very complicated very quickly, and Fraser’s hold on Taylor County — where Abilene is — exemplifies the problem. Duncan’s current district surrounds it on three sides. Abilene is the only population center between Duncan’s district and the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, between him and metropolitan Austin, and him and metropolitan San Antonio. He has to go somewhere, and if Taylor County isn’t an option, he’ll probably have to gobble up several smaller counties to bring his district up to the required population.
Fraser is aware of the puzzle. “It’s kind of a pivot point on the map,” he admitted. But he says he’s not going to bend on this one.
Taylor is the second-biggest county in Fraser’s 21-county district and produced 17.7 percent of the vote in his 2008 election. He and Duncan both have rural districts, but Duncan’s is bigger, with 46 counties, or 18 percent of all the counties in Texas. Duncan lives in the most populated county in his district, which is often the way these things go. Fraser’s district has a handful of counties that are more populous than his, but he’s been able to fend off challengers in large part because of his ties to Abilene. It’s a population center, and he’s got claims to it that go beyond politics and he is lobbying hard to keep it.
“Would it be easier to draw the map? It would,” he said. “But Abilene is my hometown, it’s my birthplace, it’s where my family lives. There’s not a reason for me to give it up.”
Without his Taylor County anchor, he could be vulnerable to challenges from someplace with lots of people, like Bell County, north of Austin.
“I would fall on my sword to avoid losing Abilene,” Fraser said. “That’s a quote.”
It could come to that. Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, is trying to draw a map that can get enough votes to get it out of the state Senate. Unless they bend the rules — always a possibility in a legislative body where the rules often serve more as guidelines than as commandments — it takes 21 senators to bring a measure up for consideration. With 19 Republicans and 12 Democrats, Seliger has to build that supermajority out of a bipartisan mix.
And here he’s got a situation where he might make a Republican — either Duncan, or Fraser — unhappy. That could be a lost vote.
Fraser isn’t particularly sympathetic, if sympathy requires giving up on Abilene. “It’s nothing more than that Robert Duncan doesn’t want to drive any more than he already does,” he said. “Robert is a friend of mine. West Texas has lost population. But I tell him, ‘You’re the one that’s got a problem.’ ”