As Texas grows less countrified, Republicans struggle to adjust
There were once so few Republicans in Fort Bend County (just west of Houston) that a letter addressed to “Mr. Republican” went straight to the county GOP chairman. That was 1960. Eight years later, Richard Nixon would narrowly carry the county, and he won it again, less narrowly, in 1972. By the 1980s, Fort Bend was sending the likes of Ron Paul and Tom DeLay to Congress.
But what suburbia giveth it also taketh away. In her 2016 race against Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton became the first Democratic presidential contender to carry Fort Bend County since Lyndon Johnson. Its larger cities, such as Sugar Land and Stafford, are growing and densifying into polyglot communities of BBQ joints and Hindu temples where native Texans now readily swing from red to blue.
And it was from counties such as Fort Bend that a blue tide washed over Texas in 2018. It swept outward from the Democratic urban cores into neighboring suburban counties of Austin, Dallas, and Houston, flipping Republican bastions or turning them several shades pinker. Once-safe Republicans, such as Dallas’s Pete Sessions and Houston’s John Culberson, were taken out in its wake. The Republican carnage was felt down-ballot too, in the all-important state judicial and legislative races that stock each party’s farm team. And while the entire slate of statewide Republicans was returned to office, many candidates, such as Senator Ted Cruz, won with anemic margins.
El Paso congressman Beto O’Rourke’s contest with Senator Cruz drew the bulk of the national media spotlight. O’Rourke became a Kennedyesque celebrity with coattails long enough to flip twelve state-house seats and two state-senate seats and take out every county GOP official in Houston’s Harris County, the state’s largest. “It is a wake-up call,” said U.S. senator John Cornyn during a post-election stop at the North Texas Food Bank in Plano. “I don’t know whether this is a once-in-a-lifetime confluence of events or whether this represents something of a new normal.”