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Opinion: The new Texas ‘Spindletop’ might be ready to blow
The state dramatically altered the US economy on January 10, 1901, when an oil well, 1,139 feet deep, exploded into a 100,000 barrel-a-day gusher, sending crude 150 feet into the air. Named after a nearby mound known as “Spindletop,” the East Texas discovery led to the nation’s first energy boom, which profoundly transformed industries and the country at large.
And Texas now appears on the verge of prompting another shift in the American paradigm. If and when the state’s politics turn away from Republican control, the notion of a “blue wall” will become obsolete. A fortress will have been established that could keep the GOP out of control of national governance for decades. No Republican will likely get to the White House without Texas’ 38 electoral votes, which is projected to increase by three, assuming the current US Census estimates are accurate.
The pressures on the Texas political “Spindletop” are demographic, not geologic, and like that long ago well, they are about to blow.
Voter registration is a leading indicator. Even in the midst of a pandemic, new voters are signing up in record numbers. The Texas Secretary of State indicates that one out of every five voters in 2020 was not registered in 2016, which accounts for an overall net gain of more than 1.8 million and a record 16.9 million on voter rolls. In Travis County, the location of historically Democratic-voting Austin, almost every eligible voter, 97% of 850,000, has registered. Moreover, one third of the state’s total of new voters comes from Houston, San Antonio and Austin, traditional Democratic strongholds.
Democrats make a compelling argument that the vast majority of those numbers belong to their party. They point to efforts like former Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s Powered by People voter turnout campaigns. The El Pasoan, who lost a close US Senate race to Ted Cruz in 2018, has done more for his party as an electoral loser than he might have accomplished by winning the seat. O’Rourke has enlisted thousands of volunteers, including celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Willie Nelson, to participate in what he calls a “Million Voter Phone Bank” to make voter registration calls to Texans. They claim to have registered 100,000 voters and say have sent 40 million texts and calls. Between Aug. 31 and Sept. 4, the Texas Democratic Party also made its biggest voter registration outreach in history and contacted 1.2 million unregistered Texans.
No expert analyses are needed to see what is happening in Texas. O’Rourke’s near-miss campaign results showed all the state’s metro areas to be blue or blue leaning, and those urban areas have booming population growth. Austin, for example, saw a jump of almost 30% between 2000 and 2019.
And just consider that while O’Rourke was losing by a small margin in 2018, a 27-year-old Latina, Lina Hidalgo, in Harris County (home to Houston) defeated a GOP incumbent county judge who had held the executive office since 2007. In fact, that year, in the judicial districts, all 59 Harris County judges running as Republicans were swept out of office.
The state’s rural counties, dependably red, have reliably swung elections in the past for the GOP, but, according to the US Census Bureau, 96 of them have lost some of their population since 2010.
The changes in Texas are about more than population growth and voter registration — they are about the demographics of these new potential voters. While President Donald Trump’s rhetoric and policies tend to alienate some minorities, Texas is transitioning to a “majority minority” population. According to the state’s official demographer, the White population of Texas has fallen from 68 to 40% since 1980.
The figures for school enrollment are even more telling. The Texas Education Agency reports K-12 enrollment last year was 5.5 million students, and Hispanics were almost double the total of White students at 53% to 27%, African Americans were 13% and Asians were 5%. The rapid transition of Texas demography is most graphic in the state’s two largest school districts, Houston and Dallas, which had White populations of only 9% and 5%, respectively.
Already, though, minority engagement is increasing in the state. According to Texas State Representative Rafael Anchia, a Democrat from Dallas and Chairman of the state’s Mexican American Legislative Caucus, in the 2014 Texas gubernatorial election, only 725,000 Latinos voted. The number jumped to 1.7 million four years later, which might reflect the fact that statistics compiled by his organization indicate 300,000 young Latinos turn 18 each year. The group’s numbers also show that voter participation jumped in that period by 137% for Hispanics compared to 63% for non-Hispanics.
If demography is destiny, the GOP might be in trouble right now in Texas. Perhaps, the numbers explain why the Texas governor has tried to limit each of the state’s 254 counties to one drop-off early vote ballot box, even though some are as big as states or have populations in the millions. It could also be the reason the Texas GOP filed suit against Harris County in Houston to ask courts to stop drive-thru voting. It may even be why even Sen. Ted Cruz has acknowledged that Texas is a battleground, and pundits have begun to use that magic descriptive “swing state” for the once certain GOP stronghold.
Former Vice President Joe Biden is also expected to spend $6 million in a last minute effort to wrap up a victory in Texas, and Democrats believe they will gain control of the statehouse for the first time in nearly two decades. Add one more data point of inevitable change: In Houston, Harris County early voters broke their first day turnout record by early afternoon.
If the numbers mean anything, Texas may play a lead role in facilitating a new federal government of inclusiveness with fair taxation, health care for all, jobs and infrastructure programs, an end to elective wars and a true realization of the American founding promise.
Too big a dream? Maybe, but it also might be time for the Texas GOP to stand back. There are many indications the new Texas “Spindletop” might be ready to blow.