Commentary: Reagan Reed
As redistricting maps continue to work their way through the Texas Legislature, Montgomery County is ground zero for GOP leadership’s incumbent protection plan. Over the last couple weeks, Congressman Kevin Brady (R-TX) has been working hard on behalf of House GOP leadership to convince Montgomery County Republicans that it is actually in their best interest to have the county split into different districts.
After the Texas Citizen Journal first broke the story that Brady was privately pushing the maps to local Republican Party leaders, Brady released a public statement endorsing the redistricting plan.
If you look at the proposed redistricting plan to divide Montgomery County between two congressional districts (2nd and 8th) from the standpoint of overall population numbers, Montgomery County stands to lose significant clout in both new districts. The Woodlands and East County would be moved into Congressman Dan Crenshaw’s CD-02 with northeastern Harris County. Montgomery County would comprise 44% of the population of the new CD-02. In the rump CD-08, which would take in a large swath of western Harris County to make up for losing The Woodlands, Montgomery County would comprise only 37% of the population, while the new Harris County part of the district would be the majority of the population, with 51%.
Thus, Montgomery County would not have a majority of the population in either district, and in the words of State Rep. Steve Toth (R-Conroe), they’d be, “left playing second fiddle to Harris County.”
Brady’s talking point has been that instead of just looking at overall population, the more important statistic is the number of Republican primary voters in each district. The majority of GOP primary voters in CD-08, over 50%, would be in Montgomery County, while less than 1/3 of the GOP primary voters in the district would be from Harris County. Montgomery County would comprise almost half of the GOP primary voters in the new CD-02, and may actually be the majority soon due to growth patterns.
This argument has some merit, especially if you are a Republican. After all, both districts will be solidly red, so as in most cases, the primary election matters far more than the general election. Whoever wins the GOP primary will represent CD-02 and CD-08 in Congress, and if even if Montgomery County is the minority of the overall population, if they constitute the majority of primary voters, they will have an out-sized influence on both districts.
However, this argument ignores one key fact: Texas has open primaries. In an open primary state, there is no registration by party. Any eligible voter can vote in either the Republican or Democrat primary.
The fact that the majority of CD-08’s GOP primary voters are in Montgomery County, while a majority of the overall population in CD-08 is in Harris County implies that the Harris County part of the district will contain significant chunks of Democrat voters. Western Harris County was likely joined with Montgomery County to dilute the Democrat voters there. Even though both CD-02 and CD-08 will be solidly Republican in the general election, because Texas is an open primary state, the blocks of Democrats in Harris County could cause some trouble in the Republican Primary.
In fact, Democrats will have even more incentive to vote in the GOP primary due to there being fewer competitive districts under the new map. For example, Crenshaw won re-election in the current CD-02 with approximately 56% of the vote in 2020. Even though he was in a Republican-leaning district, it was still theoretically close enough to make it worthwhile for Democrats to challenge him. Democrats actually had an incentive to vote in their own primary in order to pick the strongest nominee to challenge Crenshaw. The same applied to Democrats in western Harris County in Congressman Michael McCaul’s competitive district.
However, if you’re a Democrat who’s just been drawn into an R+20 district, your incentive structure changes completely. The Democrat nominee has no realistic chance of winning, so Democrat voters can arguably have more impact by voting in the Republican primary for the least conservative candidate. It’s the Joe Straus strategy: If you can’t elect a Democrat, elect a Republican who will vote closer to a Democrat.
Although a lot of the hysteria you hear from the right about Democrats voting in Republican primaries is probably overblown, and in most cases the actual numbers for this happening are quite low, there is some data that suggests it is not an entirely unfounded concern.
Earlier this year there was a special election runoff for Texas’ 6th Congressional District in the Fort Worth area. Democrats failed to even make the runoff, leaving two Republican candidates to facing off in the final round: Trump-endorsed Susan Wright, who was widely considered the frontrunner, and Jake Ellzey, a more moderate Republican state legislator. In a somewhat unexpected upset, Ellzey defeated Wright 53% to 47%. Post election analysis shows that voters with a history of voting in the Democrat primaries comprised 14% of the runoff electorate. Whether those Democrat crossovers were the decisive factor in Ellzey’s upset victory is hard to know with certainty, however, the vast majority of them almost certainly voted for the moderate Ellzey over the more right-wing Wright.
It’s easy to see a similar scenario playing out in CD-08. Even though the new member of congress is certain to be a Republican, in a close Republican primary, if 10-15% of the voters are Democrat crossovers from Harris County, that could be enough to hand the GOP nomination to a less conservative Republican.
As long as we have open primaries, you can’t really blame Democrats for voting in the GOP primary. If I was a Democrat I probably would; it’s just smart political strategy. I’ve long been an advocate of making Texas a closed primary state. In fact, I’m actually becoming more and more convinced that we should just get rid of primaries altogether and go back to the good old days of selecting nominees at the party convention.
Unfortunately, for now we are stuck with open primaries. The new map opens the door to the very plausible scenario in which Harris County Democrats are able to cause some real mischief in the Republican Primary. This may be totally fine for House GOP leadership in D.C. who just care about keeping the district red so Congressman Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) can be speaker, but for the very conservative Republican grassroots in Montgomery County, such a scenario would be unacceptable.
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