WASHINGTON - There are few things that strike more fear into the heart of a member of Congress than the word “redistricting.”
That proved particularly true this week among Texas Republicans in Washington, thanks to a recent court ruling that came about just as talk was increasing in Austin that Gov. Greg Abbott may call a special session. Some Texas Republicans in Congress hope that any upcoming special session will include redrawing the state's 36 congressional districts as part of its agenda.
The message coming out of Austin thus far: not going to happen.
Several congressional Republicans told the Tribune they want Abbott to call a special session to redraw the Congressional lines. They believe such a maneuver would put their allies in the state legislature in the driver's seat, circumventing Republicans' worst fear: that a panel of federal judges will draw a less favorable map of its own.
“I can’t speak for my whole delegation but I’ve already reached out to some of my friends back in the legislature…I said, ‘Give me a holler,'" said U.S. Rep. Randy Weber R-Friendswood, on his hopes for a special session.
“My thought is, if the legislature doesn’t [redraw the map], then the court is going to drop the map, which I think is way outside their constitutional purview,” he added.
The problem with that strategy? Austin has no appetite for it — largely, state Republicans argue, because it would make no legal sense in the latest battle of the state's campaign to preserve its current maps.
Abbott has rebuffed the delegation calls for a special session, according to a Republican member of the Congressional delegation. And Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on Thursday filed a legal advisory resolving any questions about where the state's leadership stand: "The State does not intend to undertake redistricting in a special session," it said.
In March, a three-judge panel in San Antonio ruled Texas lawmakers in 2011 purposefully discriminated against blacks and Latinos in drawing the state's congressional map. They flagged particular violations in the 23rd Congressional District, represented by Will Hurd, R-Helotes; the 27th, represented by Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi; and the 35th, represented by Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin.
In April, the same judges concluded the 2011 Texas Legislature intentionally diluted the clout of minority voters statewide in drawing a state House districts.
With the 2018 elections looming, lawyers representing Texas and opponents are scheduled to return to San Antonio in July for a five-day trial concerning the state’s next set of maps.
For most of the state's current legislative session, Republicans in Austin have been reluctant to publicly discuss the court's scoldings — let alone contemplate offering new maps.
State Rep. Cindy Burkett, a Sunnyvale Republican who chairs the House Committee on Redistricting, for instance, refused to call any hearings during the legislative session — whether to probe the impact of the rulings or to discuss any of the seven bills, now dead, referred to her panel. (The committee hasn’t met since 2013.)
That was despite loud calls from Democrats to try to fix the maps during the regular session, which ends on Monday.
State Rep. Eric Johnson, a Dallas Democrat and the committee's vice chair, said Wednesday he hadn’t heard any talk about a special session for redistricting. Calling one would show “bad faith” that judges weren't likely to take seriously, he said.
“The time to do this was now, when we’re in Austin and have a committee in place,” he said. “Not at the eleventh hour.”
Nevertheless, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling earlier this week set off special session speculation among Texans in Washington.
The justices struck down two U.S. House districts in North Carolina, ruling that state lawmakers illegally packed African-American voters into them and minimized their statewide influence.
The decision, some experts say, could affect political cartography in every statehouse — particularly in the American south. It prompted the judges presiding over the Texas case to quickly ask the state whether it was willing to call a special session to redraw the Texas map.
To be sure, the Congressional delegation would like to keep the current lines. But its calls for a special session are rooted in fears that the map will not hold up in court.
And even those fears are not uniform within the delegation itself.
“One attorney will tell you one thing, another attorney will tell you something different,” said U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, R-Bryan. "There’s more confusion than consensus.”
The Trump effect
Even as a tax code overhaul and the investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 elections dominated the news in Washington this week, it was redistricting that absorbed many of the Texans. But the Texas GOP delegation concerns are evolving into a national worry.
As President Donald Trump’s approval ratings flag, control of the U.S. House increasingly appears up for grabs in the 2018 midterms. Republicans are counting every seat on the map, and the fear is that a newly drawn Texas seat will put even more seats into play.
According to one member, “a frantic call was put out” and GOP members of Congress from Texas met at the Republican National Committee on Tuesday night for a presentation of an “Armageddon map.” Republican attorneys and at least one party official showed many in the delegation a potential worst-case scenario if the 2018 Texas map is drawn by the three-judge panel. This potential map could jeopardize as many as a half-dozen Texas GOP incumbents and create ripple effects on the lines of many others.
The presentation did much to deeply rattle several Republican delegation members, according to people who attended the meeting. The RNC declined repeated attempts to respond to requests for comment.
But some sources within the delegation emerged from the Tuesday night meeting dubious of the frantic tone.
Regardless, submitting a new map now would do nothing to bolster the state's position in court, Paxton's Thursday filing suggested.
The state’s lawyers argue for the status quo: That any court rulings on the 2011 boundaries should have no bearing on the coming elections because those maps were never used. Recent Texas elections have involved boundaries that the court quickly drew ahead of the 2012 election and the 2013 Legislature adopted.
Yet the state’s legal opponents argue lawmakers’ swift adoption of the temporary 2013 maps should not insulate them from what they call lingering discrimination created by the state's 2011 redistricting effort.
Additionally, Paxton states, "there is no reason to doubt" that any new Texas-drawn map would draw additional legal challenges ahead of the 2018 elections.
While the Texas Republicans in Congress are debating their next moves, the state's congressional Democrats are mostly blasé about the litigation. They have little control over the process and not much to lose, given that the current map so heavily favors House Republicans.
Among Democratic members of Congress who are most intimately involved with the party’s efforts to take back control of the U.S. House, their ambitions for a new Texas map are far more scaled back than the GOP’s worst fears. In the most bullish of Democratic conversations, those members suggested a gain of two or three Texas seats would be a good night for their party.
Doggett is the Democrat who's most likely to see changes to his own 35th District. The longtime Democrat frequently finds himself perpetually drawn into new districts. He shrugged off the whole notion that his lines could change once again.
“I’ll run wherever I have to run,” he said.