Between Wendy Davis’ campaign for Governor, and the campaign to succeed Wendy Davis in SD10, there’s going to be a lot of attention focused on Forth Worth in the next twelve months.
The two scenes capture the split political personality that has emerged this year in Tarrant County — both the largest reliably Republican county in Texas and ground zero of Democrats’ efforts to turn the state blue. The county, home of the Dallas Cowboys and Texas’ fifth- and seventh-largest cities, Fort Worth and Arlington, has become a focal point in the state’s political future.
“Houston, Dallas, Austin, El Paso, San Antonio — all of these are blue; they’re all Democratic areas,” said Jim Riddlesperger, a political science professor at Texas Christian University. “Fort Worth is the last holdout Republicans have of the big cities.”
For most of the 20th century, Democrats dominated politics across Texas. Amid the Reagan revolution of the 1980s, Republicans made inroads in Tarrant County and elsewhere. By the mid-1990s, the Republican Party held a majority of the county’s political offices and was well on its way to overtaking the political landscape statewide.
“I lived in Tarrant County when just about every judge was a Democrat, so for us to not have even one Democratic judge does not speak well to our efforts,” Tarrant County Democratic Party Chairwoman Deborah Peoples said.
In 2006, Democrats in neighboring Dallas County swept more than 40 local races, upending the county’s longstanding Republican leadership overnight. Tarrant County District Clerk Tom Wilder, a Republican who has been active in the local party for decades, said Dallas Republicans got complacent.
“They were just coasting off the top of the ticket, and they never built a base,” Wilder said. “We don’t have that problem in Tarrant County.”
Indeed, Tarrant County’s geography has played a role in the area’s Republican dominance. Whereas many conservatives in Dallas and Houston left the cities for suburbs in neighboring counties, Tarrant County has retained many of those voters in smaller suburban cities in its northeast quadrant, an area in which Tea Party groups have moved the Republican Party further to the right in recent years.
“It is an upper-middle-class, professional part of Tarrant County,” Riddlesperger said. “Demographically, they look like the Tea Party does nationally.”
Let’s be clear about why Tarrant County is more Republican than the other major urban counties in Texas. Look at how Tarrant County and Fort Worth stack up against their peers:
County Population City Population City %
El Paso 827,398 El Paso 672,538 81.3%
Bexar 1,785,704 San Antonio 1,382,951 77.4%
Travis 1,095,584 Austin 842,592 76.9%
Harris 4,253,700 Houston 2,160,821 50.8%
Dallas 2,453,843 Dallas 1,241,162 50.6%
Tarrant 1,880,153 Fort Worth 777,992 41.3%
If you assume that the cities are generally more Democratic than the surrounding suburbs, then it’s easy to see why Tarrant lags behind the other big urban counties. There’s a lot of suburb to move into that’s still in Tarrant County if you want to flee from Fort Worth. To say that Tarrant County is Texas politics writ small is to say that Democrats are going to need to do better in the suburbs to be in a position to win.
Another way of looking at it:
County Anglo %
El Paso 13.7%
All figures from the Census webpage. Other than Travis County, which has the largest collection of Anglo Democrats in the state, counties that are majority Anglo tend to be majority Republican. I don’t know what the trend lines look like for Tarrant, but this will be something to keep an eye on.
Political observers have cited Tarrant County as a bellwether, arguing that if Democrats were to ever win the county again, it would be a sign that the state is poised to flip politically as well. But Republicans see nothing that will change Tarrant from red to blue in 2014. And Davis has been careful to frame her run as aimed at increasing Democratic turnout statewide and not specifically in her home county.
Nonetheless, her decision to base her campaign for governor in Fort Worth has energized Tarrant County Democrats. Battleground Texas, a Democratic group trying to make the state politically competitive again, has recently relocated some staff members to Fort Worth to coordinate better with Davis’s campaign.
Democrats do not plan to concede northeast Tarrant County to the Tea Party, Peoples said, though she acknowledged that area is probably the toughest to gain ground.
“Things are changing in northeast Tarrant County,” Peoples said. “They are changing much faster in the rest of the county.”
Dems don’t need to specifically flip Tarrant County to win statewide, but it’s unlikely they can win statewide if they don’t at least make gains in Tarrant County. It would be nice if there were some Democratic countywide candidates in Tarrant to help advance the ball, but that’s not looking so good right now. Be that as it may, in Tarrant and elsewhere Dems need to boost the Latino vote for sure, but they also need to do better among Anglo suburban voters, like the kind you find in Tarrant County. If Tarrant is a microcosm of Texas, it’s because it’s full of the kind of voters Dems need to do a better job of persuading.