GOP Redistricting: Hosing down the ballot

The implications of three Republicans – Henry Bonilla, Lamar Smith, and Michael McCaul – all based somewhere else and representing Travis County, aren't merely about the county's representation in Congress. In a world of old-fashioned partisan politics, changing of guard also has down-ballot implications.

Congressional Plan 01418C<br>
State Defendants' Demonstration Plan<br>
 Under Perry and Co.'s proposed state congressional re-
re-redistricting map, CD 23 (currently held by 
Republican Henry Bonilla) would become a predominately 
Republican San Antonio/Austin district; Lamar Smith's 
CD 21 would still be anchored in San Antonio and 
predominately Republican; and Lloyd Doggett's CD 25 
would drop out of Travis County altogether, leaving the 
rest of Travis County represented in CD 10 (boundaries 
unchanged) by incumbent Republican Michael McCaul.
<br><a href=stateredistrict.jpg><b>View</b></a> 
a larger 
map
Congressional Plan 01418C
State Defendants' Demonstration Plan
Under Perry and Co.'s proposed state congressional re- re-redistricting map, CD 23 (currently held by Republican Henry Bonilla) would become a predominately Republican San Antonio/Austin district; Lamar Smith's CD 21 would still be anchored in San Antonio and predominately Republican; and Lloyd Doggett's CD 25 would drop out of Travis County altogether, leaving the rest of Travis County represented in CD 10 (boundaries unchanged) by incumbent Republican Michael McCaul.
View a larger map

In the old-school bare-knuckle combat of partisan politics, the concept of Travis County without a Democratic congressman would be unthinkable.

As Travis County Democratic Party Chair Chris Elliott pointed out, this is a county where no Republican now claims a countywide office, where two county House districts drawn for Republicans now belong to Democrats Mark Strama and Donna Howard, and where the GOP has failed to field a candidate when a Senate seat opened up for the first time in two decades. Among the state's urban counties, Travis County is the most liberal.

But the political implications that would follow from three Republicans – Henry Bonilla, Lamar Smith, and Michael McCaul – all based elsewhere and all representing Travis County (as the state has proposed in its latest re-redistricting map) aren't simply a question of the county's representation in Congress. In the world of old-fashioned partisan politics, the changing of the guard has down-ballot implications, too.

Nowhere has the "down-ballot" issue been more apparent than in North Texas, where Congressman Martin Frost once served as the godfather of the Texas Democrat Party, before he was paired with and defeated by Congressman Pete Sessions. Frost was the consummate partisan politician. He rallied, bullied, and shored up support for Texas Democrats – and opposition to the new Congressional map – more strongly than any other elected official. He raised the money. He stirred up the troops. He protected state and federal candidates in marginal districts with funding. He made sure the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee knew the most important races in the state.

One Democratic consultant called him "the Tom DeLay of the Democrats without all the ethical baggage." And while no one has compared Lloyd Doggett to Martin Frost, the concept of a congressional protector is one that has strong appeal for most local and state candidates. Voters turn out at the polls when a strong, recognizable candidate they support is at the top of the ballot and when the money is flowing in the races, say observers.

Not only is it bad that the districts in Travis County would be all Republican, said Frost's former chief of staff Matt Angle. It's a greater disadvantage because they would be safe Republican districts. "When you start drawing districts that are safe Republican or safe Democrat, there's no incentive to raise and spend money in the fall," Angle said. "So in the absence of strong congressional races, you have to fall back on state, county, and local candidates to raise all of their own money. That's why safe districts hurt as much as they help."

Local Democratic consultant Peck Young said a Republican Congressman at the top of the ticket could be a hassle for Strama and Howard, especially when those who vote GOP here are likely to be hardcore, straight-ticket voters. On the other hand, Young also noted that Travis County voters of whatever party are generally more sophisticated and informed than voters elsewhere and more likely to be outraged by the way congressional districts have been redrawn.

"This is not a city where you have Democratic voting for some of the traditional reasons, like a big labor community," Young said. "This is a city where a lot of our Democrats are highly educated, liberal, if not radical, voters. They're active voters. Republicans may end up regretting that they turned the Democrats in the county mad and mean."

One Democratic consultant predicts the opposite effect on down-ballot races in Republican districts, especially if the Republicans are highly partisan. Kelly Fero, who has had huge success in placing moderate Democrats like Strama and Howard into districts equally split between Democrats and Republicans, said that voters are now fleeing the partisan extremes. The day of reckoning for the ultrapartisans is coming, Fero said.

"I don't see Republicans at the top of the ticket helping or hurting. In fact, if they're ultrapartisan in nature, it might help push some independents into the Democratic column," Fero said. "The fact is, most voters fall into the missing middle. They're looking for someone pragmatic, not political."

FairVote, a nonpartisan think tank out of Washington, called for redistricting to be done at the federal, not state, level in a news conference on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. Executive Director Rob Richie said the overarching partisan goals of political parties – to create safe districts for incumbents – often leads to voters (especially voters of color) who have no hope of ever impacting an election.

"The fact is that most races aren't competitive. Most people realize that their vote matters in very few races, and I think that leads to people who don't participate at all," Richie said. "The point is that we need to be creating elections where all the players are trying to help you participate in the process, so that you have elections that matter, and that's what we haven't done. We haven't had a conversation about that part of elections."

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
More redistricting
So You Want to Redistrict Austin?
So You Want to Redistrict Austin?
The process – and what’s at stake – with redrawing our City Council districts

Lilli Hime, Sept. 18, 2020

Redistricting Maps Head to House
Redistricting Maps Head to House
New maps likely to draw court challenges

Richard Whittaker, June 21, 2013

More by Kimberly Reeves
Charter School Approval Sparks More Debate
Charter School Approval Sparks More Debate
Williamson County charter school wins approval, but the charter school issue in general remains contentious

Jan. 9, 2009

Last Goodbye to Aquarena Springs
Last Goodbye to Aquarena Springs
Texas State plans to trade in Aquarena Springs' renowned Fifties kitsch for turn-of-the-century simplicity

Nov. 14, 2008

KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

redistricting, Travis County Democratic Party, Chris Elliott, Mark Strama, Donna Howard, Henry Bonilla, Lamar Smith, Michael McCaul, Martin Frost, Texas Democrat Party, Pete Sessions, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Tom DeLay, Matt Angle, Peck Young, Kelly Fero, FairVote, Rob Richie

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle