Texas Republicans, Democrats set to begin redistricting battle Monday

Philip Jankowski
Austin American-Statesman
There are currently 83 Republicans and 67 Democrats in the Texas House. A new redistricting plan could strengthen the GOP's hold on the chamber.

Democrats and Republicans will return to the Capitol on Monday for a third special session that could reshape the partisan makeup of the Legislature and U.S. House of Representatives for a decade.

Drawing new boundaries for Texas' congressional districts and state House and Senate districts is the main agenda item for the session.

For Republicans, who control all aspects of the process, it is a chance to consolidate power within the state and push the U.S. House of Representative toward a Republican majority.

For Democrats, it will be a fight to maintain as much power as possible and maybe even eke out a small victory here and there.

More:Population growth will mean revised state House districts for Austin area

More:Texas' Latino growth and rural population decline set up redistricting fight

State Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, D-Austin, said what she expects to see in the Senate is something "swift and blunt," with that chamber possibly approving draft maps by the week's end.

"It is highly probable that the maps are cooked," Eckhardt said. "They will be presented, they will be voted out by a party majority, and they will be pushed through with as little comment on the floor as they can possibly manage."

Every 10 years, states use new census data to redraw the lines for congressional and legislative voting districts. Texas' lines are decided by the Legislature, where voters have installed a Republican majority.

Because of continued population growth, Texas is gaining three seats in the U.S. Congress, bringing it 38 seats in the House of Representatives. Some projections have shown that those two new seats are likely to be centered in Houston and Dallas with one going to a Republican and the other to a Democrat.

But Democrats on Friday suggested that their Republican colleagues, emboldened by their control of all chambers of state government and in no mood to compromise, would attempt to draw districts that would be politically advantageous to them. Acrimony between the two parties has soared in the aftermath of House Democrats breaking quorum twice in a failed attempt to derail stricter voting laws and the Supreme Court allowing new abortion restrictions to stand.

Analysts in Washington have identified Texas as one of four states on which Republicans are focusing to redraw district lines that could help secure a majority in the U.S. House. The other states are Florida, Georgia and North Carolina.

"It is anticipated that those four states, Texas included, have plans to do extreme gerrymandering that will silence a majority of voters and allow Republicans to hang on to power by brute force," said state Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin.

Another example of how these political battles over congressional seats is playing out across the U.S. can be seen in New York, where the Democrat-led legislature is laying groundwork to attempt to gain five seats for Democrats.

Republican Rep. Todd Hunter and Sen. Joan Huffman are leading the map drawing processes in each Texas chamber. Neither returned messages seeking comment.

Austin-area state Reps. Erin Zwiener, James Talarico and Vikki Goodwin could be forced into more competitive districts. Each narrowly won in 2020 and represents a district that saw rapid growth over the past 10 years that will allow Republicans to make major changes to its geographical makeup.

In the Texas Senate, Fort Worth Democrat Beverly Powell and San Antonio Democrat Roland Gutierrez could be targeted. They won their seats by less than 3.5 percentage points in their last election.

Gutierrez and Eckhardt have sued to try to bring redistricting to a halt, arguing that the Texas Constitution allows redistricting to be taken up only during a regular session of the Legislature. Lawmakers were unable to address redrawing district lines during the session because of delays in the release of the 2020 census numbers related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

They are calling for a federal court to step in and draw the maps instead of the Legislature, a gambit that, if successful, could lead to a map far less disadvantageous for Democrats.

"We're fighting," Gutierrez said Friday. "We're going to continue our work, and we hope that the courts will give us the relief that we need."

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has asked for the suit to be dismissed or at least suspended until redistricting is complete. Paxton's office argued that the suit's interpretation of Texas law is wrong and that it is "inconsistent with past practice and judicial precedent.” 

More:Ken Paxton asks judge to block lawsuit over redistricting, saying it's 'wrong about Texas law'

More:Austin's population slides in under 1M, after another decade of remarkable growth, census data shows

Republicans face fewer roadblocks to creating gerrymandered districts in this round of redistricting. A ruling from the Supreme Court removed portions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that gave the U.S. Department of Justice final approval on maps drawn in some states with a history of racist voting laws.

But even with fewer constraints, there could be tension among Texas House Republicans over changes to their districts. The House is likely to see a more painstaking process as leadership wrestles with the push and pull of creating a map that favors Republicans, appeases incumbents and does not run afoul of the Voting Rights Act.

With 150 members, that is a more complicated endeavor. While Republicans have maintained their control of both chambers and all statewide offices, federal elections have shown increased Democratic turnout, especially in Texas suburbs that were once considered safe areas for Republicans.

"That is where the cracking is going to occur," Eckhardt said, referring to drawing district lines that dilute liberal voting blocs.

Redistricting is not the only item state lawmakers will take up during the special session. Gov. Greg Abbott called on the Legislature to allocate $16 billion in COVID-19 relief funding and to pass laws limiting the participation of transgender student-athletes in school sports and prohibiting vaccine mandates. He also wants lawmakers to pass a measure on dog restraints after he vetoed one earlier this year.

On Friday, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick outlined his goals for the session, making property tax relief his No. 1 priority. Patrick also called for lawmakers to pass legislation steering state money into the unemployment insurance fund.