By Jim Ellis
Aug. 21, 2017 — The special three-judge panel considering Texas redistricting, which long ago declared the state’s 35th Congressional District as a racial gerrymander, issued a ruling earlier this week that contains re-drawing deadlines.
Early in the decade the panel declared District 35, a seat containing parts of both Austin and San Antonio connected by a thin strip traveling south on Interstate 35 between the two cities and represented by veteran Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Austin), as violating parts of the Voting Rights Act. The ruling cited the intent of map creators to draw the seat using race as a primary basis. The evidence for such a decision consisted of emails among Republican staff members in the state legislature and Congress that proclaimed such a desire.
At the heart of the current issue is then-Attorney General Greg Abbott’s (R) decision to adopt the court’s temporary correction map as the state’s official plan. Once the legislature and governor agreed with his idea, the temporary map became permanent, which theoretically ended the process. The flaw in Abbott’s strategy, however, is the court declared at the time of issuance that the fixes were temporary and all of the problems were not corrected, meaning the plan was designed only to get through the 2014 election after which time the legislature was to create a permanent map.
This week’s ruling surprised most observers because it did not require a re-draw of District 23 (Rep. Will Hurd-R-San Antonio), the long-debated swing seat that stretches from western San Antonio all the way to El Paso, a distance of more than 550 miles. The seat in addition to CD 35 that must be re-drawn is Rep. Blake Farenthold’s (R-Corpus Christi) 27th District. Democrats wanted further changes, most particularly in the Dallas-Ft. Worth Metroplex in order to create another Hispanic seat within the region. Though the court questioned District 26 (Rep. Michael Burgess-R-Pilot Point/Denton) in its original ruling, the final order did not include forcing any modifications to the north Texas seats.
Since changes are mandated for Districts 27 and 35, by definition other districts will be affected. Even in a “least change” map, as many as five or six CDs will be touched.
The alterations to Farenthold’s seat could be done relatively easily, confining a territory swap between just two districts: 27, and either CDs 15 (Rep. Vicente Gonzalez-D-McAllen) or 34 (Rep. Filemon Vela-D-Brownsville). What could well happen, however, is the 27th, a seat that stretches from Corpus Christi north to the Houston suburbs, and then turning west through the city of Victoria and into the Austin suburban area, could lose its main population center, Corpus Christi, which, incidentally contains the congressman’s home. Such a draw would keep 27 as a Republican seat, and not result in a Democratic gain since the party already controls CDs 15 and 34.
District 35’s connection between San Antonio and Austin will likely be eliminated, meaning several other districts are in for substantive changes. It is here where Democrats could add a seat to their delegation at the expense of a Republican incumbent. Most particularly, the seats of GOP incumbents Lamar Smith (R-San Antonio), Roger Williams (R-Austin), and/or Michael McCaul (R-Austin) could be affected.
The court gave the governor, ironically now Greg Abbott, whose advocacy for adopting the flawed temporary map as permanent led to the current ruling, until Friday to call a special session of the state legislature for purposes of re-drawing the map. New map plans are to be delivered to the three-judge panel by Sept. 5.
It is highly unlikely that Abbott will call the legislature back into session, clinging to the risky proposition that the US Supreme Court will overturn the three-judge panel. Presuming that the high court does not act, we could well see a new map formed to last the remainder of the decade sometime in late September or October put in place for the 2018 regular elections. For at least one Austin area Republican, the 2018 election could now become highly competitive.
In order to have a greater chance of capturing the House majority, Democrats need major re-draws resulting from court action in Texas and Pennsylvania. This week’s Texas ruling certainly disappoints them because the ordered changes will likely not result in a multi-seat Democratic gain. The process is a long way from completion since the new map can still chart an unknown course, but we now know the changes will be confined to south Texas.