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In Legislature, Even Fewer White Democrats

After the winners of Tuesday’s elections are sworn in, there will be only seven white Democrats left in the Texas Legislature.

Rep. Donna Howard (D-48) on the floor of the Texas House, February 15, 2011.

When Donna Howard of Austin won a seat in the Texas House in 2006, she was the only white woman among Democrats in the state Legislature.

Over time, several others joined her briefly. But four elections later, Howard will once again be the only white woman among Democrats in the Legislature.

After the winners of Tuesday’s elections are sworn in, 63 of the 181 seats — 31 senators and 150 representatives — will be held by Democrats. Seven will be white. In contrast, Republicans will hold 118 seats. Only eight of them are minorities.

The tally of white Democrats in the Texas Legislature has been decreasing at a time when the legislative redistricting process and the state’s changing demographics have fueled the relative rise of minority winners from Democratic districts. The party has been trying to broaden its voting base, in part by mobilizing Hispanic supporters and attracting politically unaffiliated Texans.

But some Texas Democrats worry that the loss of white lawmakers could complicate efforts to attract independent voters if they are unable to argue that they represent all Texans, including Anglos.

While the downward trend of white Democrats has been going on for years in the halls of the state Capitol, Republicans flipped two swing districts to their side on Tuesday.

One belonged to state Sen. Wendy Davis, who gave up her Fort Worth-based seat for an unsuccessful gubernatorial bid.. The other belonged to state Rep. Craig Eiland of Galveston who did not run for re-election. Earlier this year, a Hispanic woman replaced a white male representative when the Democrats retained an Austin-based House seat vacated by Mark Strama.

Texas Democrats acknowledge that Republicans have been particularly successful in defeating white Democrats in rural districts.

Republicans have focused on white Democrats in a “very calculated” way “because they wanted to push this idea that the Democratic Party was just about minorities, which is not true,” said Jim Dunnam of Waco, a former representative who lost his seat to a Republican in 2010.

Political analysts said Democrats have been losing in rural areas because they are easier targets. Jerry Polinard, a political-science professor at the University of Texas-Pan American, said Republicans have focused on capturing districts with a majority of white residents, lightly redrawing district lines to favor their candidates.

Districts made up largely of minorities, which tend to lean Democratic, are not easily redrawn without inciting legal challenges, Polinard said.

“Obviously, in terms of the demographics of voting, Republicans pull much more strongly from the white vote,” Polinard said. Historically, minorities in Texas tend to vote Democratic.

Craig Murphy, a longtime Republican consultant, said white Democrats in rural areas became “inherently weak” when Republicans realized that they voted along party lines in the Legislature but went back to their Republican-leaning districts and pretended to be conservative.

“They were just very vulnerable incumbents,” Murphy said. “Many of them should not have had the right expectations to survive.”

But he brushed off the idea that Republicans were attempting to marginalize minority voters. The party was focused on winning as many seats as it could, he said.

Over all, the demographic makeup of the Legislature does not reflect the state’s population. White residents make up 44 percent of the state, but whites will make up almost 65 percent of the next Legislature. Hispanics, the second-largest ethnic group in Texas, compose 38 percent of the state population, but only 23 percent of the senators and representatives.

Asians make up less than 2 percent of the Legislature, though they constitute 4 percent of the population. The smallest discrepancy is in black representation. Twelve percent of the state is black, while black lawmakers make up almost 11 percent of the Legislature.

White Democrats are also a minority in the Senate: Seven of the 11 members are Hispanic, and only two are white.

Rodney Ellis of Houston, one of two black Democratic state senators, said the increase in minority Democrats in has helped give “people of all groups” the opportunity to wield power at a time when American politics is still dominated by whites. But he added that Texans must get past the idea that a minority elected official cannot represent the interests of whites, especially when Democrats’ share of white voters remains lower than Republicans’ share.

“Let’s face it: The number of white Democrats holding office has declined at the same time that the number of white voters in the Democratic Party has fallen,” Ellis added, referring to past elections showing that Anglo voters tend to vote Republican.

As Democrats have struggled to keep Anglo members in the statehouse, Texas Republicans have dealt with a different diversity problem. Despite their focus on gaining more support among minorities, the party’s representation in the Legislature is overwhelmingly white.

“Obviously, we would love to have great diversity because we have great diversity in the party,” said Republican state Sen. Troy Fraser, adding that he believed a conservative minority candidate could win a seat if he or she pursued it.

Republicans did make some headway, increasing their Hispanic head count in the House to five after wresting seats from incumbent Hispanic Democrats in San Antonio and Houston.

The three Asians in the Legislature — two Democrats and a Republican — held onto their seats. But the number of black Republicans dropped to two from three after Rep. Stefani Carter of Dallas lost to a primary challenger earlier this year.

Despite her loss, Carter said she was proud that Texas Republicans were “trending in the right direction” with an increase in Hispanics in the House. But the party still has work to do at the local level to establish a pipeline of conservative minorities to run for office, she added.

“You know, when I first ran in 2010, I was discouraged from running” by a local party leader, Carter said, adding that she was told she did not fit the mold the party was looking for in a candidate. “It’s not just at the Legislature, it’s the city councils and school boards. We need to make sure that they’re in place so if the time comes they can run for higher office.”

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Demographics Immigration Politics State government 2014 elections Texas House of Representatives Texas Legislature Texas Senate