AUSTIN (AP) – Explosive minority growth in Texas has turned a handful of once solidly Republican congressional seats into bastions of ethnic diversity, putting added pressure on GOP leaders to shore up their districts with white voters who traditionally favor the party.
Look no further than the seat held by the once mighty U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Republican of Sugar Land. As currently drawn, his District 22 – now in the hands of U.S. Rep. Pete Olson and anchored in fast-growing Fort Bend County near Houston – was 61 percent white in 2000, according to figures provided by the Texas Legislative Council. Today, with the new 2010 Census numbers, it’s 45.5 percent white. The numbers of blacks, Hispanics and Asians all rose sharply.
There’s a similar story in the district held by the top Texas Republican fundraiser and organizer in Congress — U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions of Dallas, who chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee. In 2000, the district was 50.1 percent white. Now it’s a majority minority district, with more than 42 percent of them Hispanic and 9 percent black.
Hispanics have a generally younger population and are less likely to be eligible to vote, but the sheer numbers and future voting strength have not gone unnoticed.
“The Republicans do have to react,” said Cal Jillson, political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “I think they will first look at that Pete Sessions district and move him a little bit north, and take some Anglos out of … the adjoining districts to make him safe.”
The new figures that will be used in the congressional redistricting process were released by the U.S. Census Bureau this week. Operatives on both sides of the political aisle are just now beginning to look at the implications of the data, which showed a dramatic increase in the Hispanic population in Texas.
The Latino growth accounted for two-thirds of the state’s population gains between 2000 and 2010, and Latinos now make up 38 percent of the population. Non-Hispanic whites dropped to 45.3 percent and blacks make up 11.5 percent of the population. Hispanics make up 48.3 percent of the under-18 population.
Texas grew more than any other state, and it’s also adding more congressional seats than any other. Where the four new seats will go won’t be clear for months, as lawmakers propose maps and certain court action follows.
Rep. Burt Solomons, chairman of the Texas House Redistricting Committee, says it’s premature to talk about specific maps and who gets what.
But he said trying to keep incumbents in their seats is a legally legitimate goal of redistricting.
“Every incumbent wants to be protected,” Solomons said. “It’s just part of what goes on in redistricting.”
The racial breakdown suggests that a Hispanic-dominated seat in north Texas could help shore up districts held by Republican incumbents such as Sessions because the minorities could be taken out of the Republican’s district and put into a new one. U.S. Rep. Kenny Marchant, also from the Dallas suburbs, had a district that was 64 percent white but has now dropped to 47 percent white, figures show.
North Texas Reps. Joe Barton and Michael Burgess also saw significant declines in white voters and large increases in Hispanic clout. Sen. Kel Seliger, chairman of the Senate redistricting panel, told The Associated Press that it “looks like there’s going to be a new congressional seat in North Texas. Because civil rights laws generally mandate the protection of minority voting interests Seliger said it’s possible that the seat would be a “minority or Hispanic influence district.”
The Texas Republican Party doesn’t like that idea that minority growth automatically makes trouble for the GOP. For example, the party picked up — narrowly — two heavily Hispanic congressional seats from Democrats in South Texas. How those seats get reconfigured will be especially touchy for Republican leaders, but in the meantime party officials present the victories as proof Republicans can win in areas dominated by minorities.
“It’s not like Republicans are having a hard time representing minority areas or winning elections that are very diverse,” said Texas Republican Party spokesman Chris Elam. “Our legislators represent all their constituents. These people didn’t arrive yesterday afternoon.”
Jillson, the political scientist, said the “saving grace” for Republicans is that Hispanics turn out in far fewer numbers than their white counterparts. While whites made up about 45 percent of the population in 2010, they accounted for about 68 percent of the turnout; Hispanics, with 38 percent of the population, accounted for about 20 percent of the vote, Jillson said.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)