Update, 7:30 p.m.:
A state Senate panel, voting along strict party lines, approved a Texas redistricting plan designed to increase Republican strength in the U.S. Congress.
The Senate redistricting committee voted 8-4 to send the map to the full Senate, which could consider the proposal as early as Monday. The vote came after hours of public testimony that featured heated and racially tinged exchanges.
The map was drawn to keep Republicans in all the seats they hold now, including two freshmen who won big upsets in 2010 in mostly Hispanic districts in South Texas. The Republicans also want to pick up the seat currently held by U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin. Using those gains as a baseline, the map would take the four new congressional districts coming to Texas and divvy them up evenly between Democrats and Republicans.
Update, 3:45 p.m.:
We've heard back from Ron Paul's spokesman. Jesse Benton said the longtime congressman takes no offense at the redistricting proposal, which would lower the GOP performance of the district considerably.
"Dr. Paul does not feel targeted, and his home county of Brazoria remains the cornerstone of the District," Benton said. "If anything, this is a compliment. The GOP knows Dr. Paul will win anywhere he runs, and that his electoral fortitude allows them to strengthen other districts and have no problems holding the 14th."
State GOP leaders are pressing for quick action on a new congressional map that would transform the district of Tea Party godfather Ron Paul while getting rid of an unusual "horseshoe" or "shrimp" district that had sparked complaints in East Texas.
The plan could be voted out of a committee as soon as today.
Paul, a 2008 and 2012 Republican presidential hopeful, would pick up about 300,000 new voters in the map that the Texas Senate Redistricting Committee is going to consider. It could expose Paul to a spirited primary challenge while placing him in a district with more ethnic minorities and union members.
Democratic operative Jeff Crosby, who has tried unsuccessfully to help candidates beat the longtime incumbent, believes the change is intended to target Paul.
"This is clearly a shot taken by the Republican establishment against the hero of the Tea Party," Crosby said. "By giving him more than 300,000 new voters, it's clear the Republican establishment doesn't want Ron Paul to come back after he finishes his race for president." Under a law originally designed to help Lyndon Johnson, Paul can run for Congress and president at the same time — as he did in 2008.
The chairman of the Senate redistricting panel, Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, said he would like to vote on a new map Friday. The proposal prompted several heated exchanges Friday morning between Seliger and Democrats on the committee. During one flare-up, Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, pressed Seliger to name the congressmen with whom he had consulted before drawing the map.
Seliger ticked off a few names and West asked him to repeat them. That prompted an angry response from Seliger, who told West he had answered the question already.
"I will answer every question one time," Seliger said. When West said he wasn't trying to be "argumentative," Seliger shot back: "Yes, you are."
Sen. Mario Gallegos, D-Houston, was all but shouting when he complained about the treatment of minorities, Hispanics in particular, under the proposal. Despite accounting for 89 percent of the growth in Texas since 2000, Hispanics, West said, were not destined to get more power under the map Seliger wants, and instead are sprinkled out and diluted in strength. Quoting a Dallas political activist, Gallegos said Hispanic were "tired of being everybody's 30 percent bitch."
Seliger was vague on procedural details. He could not say how much time members would have to file amendments, or even when they would be given a deadline for that.
"If there is going to be a hard deadline, it will be announced," Seliger said. Seliger said he wanted the committee to vote on the plan today if possible. It's unclear when the map might be on the Senate floor, but it could happen early next week.
Seliger published the latest proposal Thursday night. It makes big changes to Paul's district and to a new seat that drew derision for its odd-shape and blending of urban and rural Texas.
Paul's District 14 would pick up about 300,000 new voters, including all of Jefferson County — where the city of Beaumont is located — and Galveston County. It would have a smaller chunk of Brazoria County, where Paul lives, than the current configuration. The percentage of his voting-age constituents who are Anglo would drop from 61 percent in his current district to 57 percent in his new one, while the percentage of African-Americans and Hispanics would increase from 35 percent to 39 percent.
Paul, who has drawn a cult-like following among conservative activists, is the father of Tea Party-aligned U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, and embraced Tea Party values long before many other politicians. At home, though, he is not such a darling in the Texas Republican political establishment. And while other congressmen have beaten a path to the Texas Capitol to give their two cents (and more) about what their districts should look like, Paul has not been lobbying lawmakers.
Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, a member of the committee, said he had heard from most GOP congressmen, but not Paul.
"I have not seen Ron Paul in the Capitol in the last three sessions," Patrick said. "If Ron Paul made no effort to give input, then that could impact how a map is drawn."
The new map would also redraw the much-derided "shrimp district," which would have joined up part of urban Houston with rural counties miles away. Republicans said that the odd-shaped district needed to be changed to keep more of a rural, East Texas feel.
Texas is getting four new congressional seats, far more than any other state. Despite huge Latino growth in North Texas, there is no new Latino seat proposed for North Texas as many had predicted. Meanwhile, the map would split Travis County into five districts, turning the seat currently held by liberal Democratic U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett into a heavily Republican seat stretching into the Hill Country.
Another district, designed to elect a Hispanic, would join east Travis County and a big slice of Bexar County into one seat. It is already drawing interest from Latino Democrats in San Antonio. If Doggett were to move into such a district, it could spark a nasty Democratic primary between a longtime Anglo incumbent from Austin and one or more Hispanics from San Antonio.
Even approval by the Legislature represents only a beginning of sorts because whatever comes out of the legislative process will be challenged in court.
“We’ve got litigation in abundance,” said Rep. Burt Solomons, the North Texas Republican sponsor of the map in the state House. He urged anybody who has input to send it to him “ASAP.” Solomons added that candidates who want to run for the newly drawn seat are going to have to wait a while before figuring out if they’ve got a shot to win.
It will be "several months before candidates know exactly what their districts will look like," he said.