Can Dems Flip the Suburbs?
Democratic challengers target two vulnerable Central Texas House districts
When the GOP-dominated Legislature gerrymandered the state House maps last year, Republicans were trying to strengthen all their holdings. But two Austin-area Democrats believe the GOP overreached – and they see public education as the wedge issue that could flip seats.
When GOP incumbent Paul Workman first took House District 47 in 2010, it ran cleanly along most of Travis County's southern border. Redistricting shifted its core to engulf much of the old HD 48: That district, being defended by Democratic Rep. Donna Howard against Republican Robert Thomas and Libertarian Joe Edgar, now includes most of the western edge of Austin, meaning Workman's is a mostly suburban seat. Conventional wisdom holds that, during redistricting, Workman deliberately sucked up every spare Republican-leaning precinct to build a veritable GOP fortress. Even other Republicans have accused him of this: During the primaries, challenger Ryan Downton attacked Workman for making it basically impossible for any other Travis County Republican to win a House seat. While some Democrats now describe HD 47 as unwinnable, infantry veteran and Dem challenger Chris Frandsen says, "I felt like a lot of the numbers we were looking at were based on 2010 numbers, not 2008." He admits it's still an uphill struggle. "If I can get all the Democrats to turn out at the 75 percent, 80 percent rate that we normally get at presidential elections, then I'm looking still at only getting 47 percent of the vote." (Libertarian Nick Tanner is also vying for the seat.)
However, Frandsen believes he knows the issue that will resonate with independent voters: public schools. Frandsen, who has been an education account manager for Apple and the owner of a school supply shop, sees new educational needs in HD 47; its population is expanding fast, with many young families moving into new developments. With that growth, he said, "The demographics of the district have changed." For example, Lago Vista Elementary School is now a Title I campus. Frandsen said, "That means it's got 40 percent free lunch kids, and that's happening throughout the district." Traditionally well-to-do school districts are now dealing with swelling high-needs populations. He said, "We have an issue – education – that we think these young families can respond to."
HD 47 was heavily redrawn last year, but HD 136 is a completely new creation; the old 136 was down in Harris County, but it was carved up during redistricting, its number reallocated to a new seat in southern Williamson County. And Democrat Matt Stillwell believes that works to his advantage. "Williamson County is most definitely a Republican county," he says, "but this is the most Democratic part of it." The new HD 136 was smashed together from chunks of the old HDs 20 and 52, which were redrawn to make them more securely Republican. Stillwell said HD 52 Rep. Larry Gonzales "really offloaded his most Democratic precincts, which were the ones in Northwest Austin, into this new seat."
The Travis/Williamson line is often seen as an invisible demarcation between blue and red – Democratic Austin and GOP-friendly WilCo. But Stillwell points out that there are thousands of Austin residents in Williamson, plus prime commuter towns Lakeline, Cedar Park, Leander, and Brushy Creek. He faces Tea Party Republican and Cedar Park Council Member Tony Dale for the new seat, but he argues the numbers are with him. In 2008, the precincts in his district only voted 51% for presidential candidate John McCain. This year there's also a Libertarian in the race, Cedar Park-based software developer Matt Whittington; that will normally split the Republican vote, opening up opportunities for Democrats. Moreover, Stillwell has done polling that shows the HD 136 voters support environmental protections and women's health care. "It's just not a socially conservative district," he said.
Like Frandsen, he believes education is the key wedge issue of this election, and he argues that voters are already seeing the impact of Republican public school spending cuts. There are two school districts in HD 136 – Round Rock and Leander – and both have asked the Texas Education Agency for waivers on class size limits. Leander ISD had planned to open Officer Leonard A. Reed Elementary in 2011 but has now pushed that back to 2013 because of budget concerns. Stillwell said, "They lost positions, they had to cut expenses like every other district, so I think people are starting to realize the effects of those cuts." He says his GOP opponent is failing to engage voters on these issues. "He's really running a race against the federal government," said Stillwell, "and not so much about what he can do as a state representative."
Will education be enough to put either Democrat over the top? Frandsen doubts it. "Parents aren't feeling [the cuts] yet, but the school districts are," he said. But he sees other suburban tensions that could break for the Dems, such as transportation. He said, "The problem with the roads is that the state doesn't have enough money to maintain what they have – nevermind build anything new – unless they go with the toll road approach, which I completely object to." Similarly up north, Stillwell calls HD 136 "the growth corridor of the 183 tollway." In fact, the district is quartered by two toll roads – 183 running north-south, and 45 going east-west. Stillwell said, "People around here realize that the main strategy for infrastructure here has been toll roads, and how that is a not-so-hidden tax on them."
Correction: The captions for the sets of candidate photos were previously switched; they ran correctly in print and have since been corrected online.