Oh The Times They Are A Changin’. . .


Political Profile! | By Christopher Hill –

There is an attributed Chinese curse (although its true origin is American) that recommends that we live in interesting times. The political landscape of Fort Bend County has been predictable over the past few decades. Locally, it didn’t matter what was happening in Washington, D.C., as Republicans primarily represented local politics. There have been isolated examples of Democrats surprising Republican candidates, but they were usually few and far between. In 2016, despite a polarizing national election, the politics of Fort Bend held red, with 31 out of 33 offices going to Republican candidates. That all changed on November 6th of this year when 16 out of 26 local seats (county, plus area district judges and state reps) went to Democratic challengers. It would probably have been worse for Republicans had there not been six seats uncontested. In a wave election, the baby, as well as the bath water, was swept out.

Why was 2018 unlike 2016?

The election office provides a fascinating electoral packet of information following each election, and over the next few months, that data will be pored over and linked to other statistical formulas to dissect the election thoroughly. At press time, that packet wasn’t available, but we will be diving in the details in our next edition. In the meantime, let’s review just what we will be looking for in the numbers.

The Beto Wave

In 2016, Hilary Clinton won more votes than the eventual president, Donald Trump, in Fort Bend. That raised alarm bells for a lot of local Republicans, but the fact that Secretary Clinton had no downdraft, no effect on the lower races, seemed to temper their concern. The prevailing wisdom was that the county was changing, but strong leadership and successful elected officials would prevail locally. After all, who could argue with the success seen at the local level? Strong infrastructure, along with a low tax rate, has led to a stable and robust economy. For voters to give that up and take a chance on unproven leadership would require an active catalyst. Enter Representative Beto O’Rourke.

It is common political wisdom that signs don’t vote, that the sheer number of yard signs is not a clear indicator of political momentum. However, in Fort Bend, you couldn’t miss the Beto signs. Add to that the Cruz campaign’s inability to provide signs, and there was a clear visual gap. Still, that alone would not portend a wave. It was a symptom of something spreading faster than anticipated. Texas Democrats liked Clinton, but O’Rourke was evangelized. As we look at the numbers, we will be watching the suburban female vote. Traditionally this group leans left. For Secretary Clinton, they did just that: leaned left. But for Representative O’Rourke, look for how far they turned. They didn’t just vote for Beto O’Rourke – they called for him, walked for him and organized small dinner parties to promote him. We don’t have the benefit of exit polling (something we are hoping to remedy), but if we look at national polling in similar areas, we see a clear referendum on the president from this group. Senator Cruz ran as close to Trump as he could get, including holding a rally with him. Suburban women in 2016 voted against the Republican top of the ticket, but in 2018, they actively campaigned against it.

It is important to note that O’Rourke’s momentum was not all organic. Representative O’Rourke paid for a large staff to cover Texas. This is not uncommon, as professionals, not volunteers, run most campaigns. What is notable is the disparity between the two campaigns. The number most associated (but not confirmed) with the campaign notes 800 paid staff working for O’Rourke, while the Cruz campaign staff numbered under 40. If these numbers are accurate, this means Fort Bend had paid campaigners reaching out, confirming lists, knocking on doors and organizing both large and small events for almost a year in the market. The local parties all walked for their candidates, but it is this added boost from a well-funded campaign that may end up being the most significant differentiator.

Diversity

This is a word you will see over and over again. The most notable quoted study is a Rice University research project that shows Fort Bend County will be the first 25/25/25/25 county in the United States, with an equal representation of African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and Caucasians. The Democratic slate visually represented the diversity of the county. Of the 14 county races where Republicans had a Democratic opponent, only one Republican was not Caucasian. Does that matter? It shouldn’t. In an ideal world, the color of one’s skin should not matter when it comes to making voting decisions, as votes should be based on who is the most qualified representative. However, study after study has shown that once people are in the polling booth it can be an influence.

The Rise of the Asian Voter

In 2016, the Asian vote was 10 points higher than in 2014. It is anticipated that those numbers will have increased again in 2018. What will be important in the coming months is to drill deeper into those numbers in order to understand each of the communities. Asian is a broad term that covers Indian-Americans, Chinese-Americans, Taiwanese-Americans, Japanese-Americans and many additional groups. Just look at one of the fastest growing regions in the county, Riverstone, for example. Throughout 2018, 53 percent of the people who moved into Riverstone are of Asian descent, while 18 percent are of Middle Eastern descent.

As these separate areas grow, it is critical for all parties to understand their cultural uniqueness and needs, not just to provide lip service, but to be a part of the communities and recruit like-minded candidates to run for higher office. One may think that is a message only to Republicans, but it is meant to include both parties.

Straight-Ticketing

Originally, 2016 was going to be the last election in Texas that allowed straight-ticket voting. A compromise between the legislature and Governor Abbott pushed it to 2018. Republicans may seek solace in that fact. Some might view 2018 as an abnormality, and in 2020, it will be back to a more traditional voting pattern. Election officials had many stories about new voters with cards from the O’Rourke campaign, listing the steps they needed to follow. The last step was “Vote Democratic Straight Ticket.”

While the numbers will be telling, it is doubtful that the end of straight-ticket voting will be Republicans’ silver bullet. Locally, many prominent Republicans tried to block the end of straight-ticket voting, mainly because Republicans in the county vote straight-ticket in high volumes. Just four years ago, during the last mid-term election, over 16,000 more Republicans voted straight-ticket than did Democrats.

What 2020 will more likely bring is an under-vote. Voters will go in and vote for their preferred candidates (usually the top of the ticket) and leave. This could mean that races at the bottom of the card – judges and constables, traditionally – will be more susceptible to swings based on the candidates’ ability to turn out their voters. The wide margins witnessed in 2018 may be tighter next time around.

Volume

Since the 2016 election, approximately 60,000 people have moved into Fort Bend County. Analyzing where these folks came from will help determine a specific lean in the numbers. For instance, in the Riverstone numbers mentioned previously, a quarter of the new residents came from out of the country. Another 43 percent came from the West Coast or the North East, areas with a more liberal lean. If we generically use a 60/40 split for Democrats, that is an extra 10,000 people leaning Democratic, based on nothing other than a new location.

So what happens next?

Republicans will overreact. It’s natural, expected and an essential part of the next steps. They ran on the success of their candidates, facts that are difficult to dispute. However, in a wave, none of that is material. They will have a circular argument with themselves, one that will frustratingly end with the sense that no matter what they could have done locally, it would not have mattered. The “Beto Wave” was real and far-reaching. That campaign generated revenues and resources that the Republicans did not have. In 2020, President Trump will be on the ballot. Republicans will point to the tax cuts, historically low unemployment and a rising GDP as hallmarks of a strong economy. Locally, that strategy did not work well in 2018.

Democrats will take victory laps. It has already been seen in publications where one successful candidate expressed surprise at the large margin of his victory. They ran on the divisiveness they see coming out of Washington, D.C., and the president. “Had Enough? Vote Democratic!” was a battle cry rooted in that philosophy. While the Republicans talked about the county’s growth rate and their hand in it, the Democrats made it about a national viewpoint.

Democrats should enjoy their historic success, but the real labor begins in January. The wave wiped out decades of experience. We will now have, in many areas, untested but energetic leadership. It is a new environment with a lot at stake. By the end of the next decade, we will have close to one million people in the county. Infrastructure and taxes will both play a role in the momentum others have created. The newly elected will be expected to lead, not to lament the actions of others. Whether to stay the course or chart new paths, it will be theirs to choose and their responsibility.

There is also a good chance that the Democrats will have an internal wave of their own. When you are in a county where one party has dominated for decades, as the Republicans have in Fort Bend County, many talented Democrats stayed on the sidelines. Some went over to the Republican Party to run while others, perhaps based on issues such as a woman’s right to choose or other moral differences, would not. Now, in a more opportunistic environment, they can run and have a good shot at winning. That might make the Democratic primary races the most interesting to watch. At some point, you will also have a known Republican running as a Democrat. It’s bound to happen sometime, so place your bets now.

Regardless of the next steps chosen, we will be analyzing the data for our next issue to highlight critical insights. Politically, we now live in interesting times. The old guard is gone, or is at least severely wounded. It will be fascinating to watch and see if, for Fort Bend County, November 6th, 2018 was a blessing or a curse.