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In diverse Fort Bend, election raised prospects for Democrats

In the suburban enclaves southwest of Houston, Hillary Clinton carried Fort Bend County in what Democrats hope is a sign of things to come in the onetime GOP stronghold.

BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, a Hindu temple in Stafford, is surrounded by apartments and suburban homes.

SUGAR LAND — When Bharthi Chittur moved to Fort Bend County six years ago, her neighborhood was so diverse and heavily Asian that it wasn’t too dissimilar from her life in Mumbai.

“I didn’t find much difference — except maybe more freedom,” Chittur said on a recent rainy day from behind a register at the Asian Market Indo Pak Grocery store she co-owns.

Nestled in a small commercial park on the outskirts of Sugar Land, the market was surrounded by almost a dozen other businesses catering to Asian residents. It's not an uncommon sight in this suburban enclave southwest of Houston where the Asian share of the population is four times as high as their share statewide.

Chittur is among the immigrants to Fort Bend that have helped the county win the designation as the most ethnically diverse in the United States. But it’s also immigrants like her who in recent years seem to be making a difference politically.

Despite long being considered a Republican county, Fort Bend went blue on Nov. 8 when Hillary Clinton won the county with an almost seven-point margin of victory. It wasn’t just an electoral flip — it was a 13-point swing from the 2012 presidential election.

And it marked the third presidential election in which the Republican presidential candidate did not win the county by double digits.

Political observers say it’s still too early to call Fort Bend a battleground county after just one election in which it flipped from red to blue. But given its demographics — and the possibility that those could help it turn reliably purple in the future — they acknowledge that something is afoot in this diverse pocket of Texas.

“This phenomenon is a direct result of the fact that the two population groups Trump did the worst with was college-educated voters and minority voters,” said Jay Aiyer, a Texas Southern University assistant professor of political science and public administration. “Fort Bend is unique in that it has a high share of both.”

Like most suburbs, Fort Bend’s landscape is a combination of affluent neighborhoods, old ranch homes, rows of new subdivisions, strip malls and open space. About 45 percent its residents have bachelor’s degrees — well beyond the state’s overall rate of 28.4 percent.

But unlike most suburban counties, Fort Bend is home to minority working and middle classes — except here they aren’t in the minority.

Black and Asian Texans have long made up a larger share of the county’s population compared to their small numbers statewide. And as the share of the county’s white residents dropped from 40.7 percent in 2005 to 34.5 percent in 2015, the share of Hispanic and Asian residents has steadily grown.

In an election year in which the Republican candidate’s rhetoric toward these racial and ethnic groups was called into question, Nita Pundit, a longtime resident of Sugar Land, says she heard from locals who regularly vote for conservatives but were put off by Donald Trump’s remarks.

“If [Trump’s rhetoric] wasn’t there, they would’ve voted Republican,” Pundit said during a recent shopping trip in Sugar Land’s town square. “I have no doubt of that.”

Turning Fort Bend into a battleground would be a significant coup on the Democrats’ part. And they were quick to celebrate the possibility of a purple Fort Bend.

In an email to supporters a week after the election, the county’s Democratic party chair Cynthia Ginyard celebrated Democrats’ win at the top of ticket, saying Fort Bend is turning “very blue” and pointing out that many precincts had come “into play as ‘swing precincts.’”

But the results in Fort Bend also depicted another reality: Diversity alone doesn’t decide elections. Despite a Democratic win at the top of the ticket, Republicans won most county races, even sending home incumbent Democratic commissioner Richard Morrison who lost to Republican challenger Vincent Morales by five points.

“I have no idea why that happened,” Morrison said in a recent interview. “If you would’ve told me 10 months ago that Hillary Clinton would’ve won Fort Bend County by a significant margin like 17,000 votes and she would have had zero coattails, I would’ve thought you were crazy.”

Morrison’s precinct covers a wide southern swath of the county and includes the town of Rosenberg where a carniceria and a quinceañera party store are lined up next to vintage shops in the town’s historic downtown.

It’s an area where Hispanics make up 59 percent of the population. But that hasn’t necessarily made it solidly Democratic.

Surrounded by quinceañera dresses in every color, Elsa Resinos, a Salvadoran immigrant who opened the party store 14 years ago, said she heard from neighbors and friends who had been planning to vote Republican but were eventually disillusioned by the election cycle.

“I was worried about the election,” Resinos said in Spanish while counting table cloths for an upcoming party. “There were a lot of people who were going to vote for Republicans, but then they didn’t even vote."

The numbers are still being crunched, but political observers attribute Clinton’s win in the county to a boost in minority voters, particularly Asian Americans, splitting their tickets to vote against Trump.

Fort Bend County had the highest share of straight-ticket voters in November among the state’s 10 biggest counties, but Democrats outnumbered Republicans among the 76 percent of voters that cast straight-ticket ballots.

At a time when the Republican party both in Texas and nationwide is generally moving farther to the right, the challenge for Fort Bend Republicans in the future will be bringing back those typically Republican voters who switched over this year, said Aiyer, the political scientist.

“That’s the question: Has the shift become more permanent?” he added.

For now, GOP county chair Mike Gibson isn’t sweating the outcome of the presidential election. He acknowledges his party has “to work to close the gaps” and that many first-time voters and Republicans were behind Clinton’s win in the county.

But he pointed to GOP wins down the ballot as proof that his party was able to overcome the “demographic sensitivity” to Trump and said he doesn’t think the Trump-fueled crossover voters will bring long-term implications for the party.

“If Donald Trump does a good job and runs for re-election, they’ll all be on board,” Gibson said about future elections. “If he does a bad job, he won’t be the nominee anyway. I just don’t see it being a big factor in four years.”

Read related Tribune coverage: 

  • Tarrant County joins a short list of Texas counties that must provide election assistance in languages other than Spanish, the U.S. Census Bureau announced.
  • Though it's teetered between Democrats and Republicans at the top of the ticket in recent elections, this year the state's largest county went decidedly blue.
  • Experts and pundits predicted that Hispanics would vote in record numbers to express their displeasure with Donald Trump. In Texas, it doesn't look like that happened.

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