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If Democrats win the majority of seats in the Texas House on Tuesday, they’ll have a way to push congressional redistricting out of Republican hands and into federal courts, plus they’ll have a powerful lever for negotiation with the Republican governor and Texas Senate on everything else.
The political attention is on the political maps lawmakers will be drawing next year, because the way those maps are drawn is often the difference between an elected official and a mere candidate — and the maps will remain in use for as long as 10 years. That kind of mapmaking lets politicians choose which voters are in which districts, to concentrate support and dilute opposition.
Much of the out-of-state political money flowing into Texas relates directly to the maps, and a recognition by Democrats elsewhere that what happens here can have an outsize impact on what happens in Washington, D.C.
Something like this happened almost two decades ago. Republicans, led by former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, helped spin a bid for a majority in the Texas House into a fresh set of political maps that shored up the GOP’s advantage on the federal level.
Republicans were able to change the partisan composition of Congress by changing the maps in Texas, and to throw out a handful of powerful Texas Democrats by redrawing their districts to favor Republicans. It was acrimonious. There was an explosion of litigation. It even went to criminal court: DeLay’s efforts to get that GOP majority in Congress — by winning the Texas House races that could ensure it — got him indicted on campaign finance charges, convicted, and later acquitted when his conviction was overturned.
But he and the Republicans got their victory, winning a majority in the Texas House. They redesigned political maps that had been approved just two years earlier, when Democrats ruled the House. Challenges to their redistricting do-over — after the Legislature had already made maps — survived all the way through the U.S. Supreme Court. Their new political maps remade the Texas delegation to Congress and with it, the makeup of the U.S. House.
It was contentious, noisy — and effective.
Now the Democrats are running their own play. It’s full of ifs and maybes — just like DeLay’s plan was in 2002. Then, as now, they’ll have to win a majority in the House, get the maps they want, survive the court challenges, and then win the elections that follow.
The next Texas Legislature will draw new districts for the congressional delegation, the Legislature and the State Board of Education as soon as the federal government delivers its 2020 U.S. census. If both chambers of the Texas Legislature remain in Republican hands, those will be maps drawn to suit Republicans.
If, on the other hand, the Democrats win the House, Republicans will have to negotiate — especially on congressional maps. If they can’t come up with plans approved by the House, the Senate and the governor, the matter will go to the federal courts. For Democrats, that might be a better outcome than maps drawn by elected Republicans, but it depends on the luck of the draw — which judges are assigned to the case.
Legislative maps are a different matter. Ordinarily, a legislative failure to draw maps for the House and the Senate would send that job to a five-member Legislative Redistricting Board. And no matter what happens Tuesday, at least four members of the board will be Republicans: Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Attorney General Ken Paxton, Comptroller Glenn Hegar and Land Commissioner George P. Bush. The fifth member will be whoever is elected to replace House Speaker Dennis Bonnen when lawmakers convene in January.
From the national perspective, the congressional maps apparently justify the expense of trying to wrest nine Texas House seats away from the GOP. That would give Democrats their first majority since 2002 — the year Republicans took it away from them. They could elect a speaker, who would in turn appoint the committee in charge of redistricting. They’d exercise an effective veto over Republican maps — not enough to pass maps of their own, but enough to deny the other party that privilege. And they’d send the courts their version of what the map should look like, along with the Republican Senate’s version.
If that seems like a thin chance for Texas Democrats, it’s because it’s a thin chance. Sometimes that’s the only chance you get. Look what the Republicans did with theirs, all those years ago.