Winds of political change in Williamson County?
In 2014, Jimmy Flannigan spent much of his first campaign for an Austin City Council seat marching around its neck of the capital, a section tucked into the southern bend of Williamson County.
“I was saying who I was and why I was running and people were like, ‘Is it safe to knock on my door? ‘” Flannigan told the American Statesman on Thursday. “And I would say, ‘Don’t you know this neighborhood went after Barack Obama (in 2012)?'”
Flannigan, a Democrat and a Williamson County resident, lost that 2014 election to a Republican. But two years later, he ran for council again and won, even though Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump by 10 percentage points in Williamson County.
On Tuesday, Democrat Beto O’Rourke edged Republican incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz by a narrow margin in the county. As Cruz was re-elected in the statewide race, O’Rourke’s success in Williamson County caught the eye. It was the first time since Texas experienced a mass exodus from the Democratic Party in the 1980s and 1990s that a federal candidate won a majority of votes in a county that was for decades the conservative bright red flagship of the midnight blue liberalism in Austin. .
Interactive map: Find out how Travis and Williamson county precincts voted for national and local races.
For some in Williamson County, O’Rourke’s victory is nothing more than a flash in the pan, fueled by popular sentiment for a charismatic candidate. But with Austin’s economic boom driving some residents out of the expensive inner city, sending them to cheaper housing in northern or southern suburbs, the 2018 general election could signal a shift in the political course of the conservative stronghold.
Certainly, voters in Williamson County elected a strong red candidate in Bill Gravell to be their next county judge. There were also at least 11,000 more voters in the county who opted for a direct GOP ticket than for a purely Democratic ticket. And most county voters backed Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick while favoring Republicans in 11 of 13 local partisan races.
Still, the Democrats have achieved notable results.
Democrats James Talarico and John Bucy III won their races at Texas House in Districts 52 and 136, respectively. And, like O’Rourke, Democratic congressional candidate MJ Hegar was leading in Williamson County but lost her race to a Republican incumbent, Round Rock Rep. John Carter.
Locally, Democrat KT Musselman won the race for Precinct 1 Justice of the Peace, and Democrat Stacy Hackenberg edged longtime Precinct 4 Justice of the Peace Judy Hobbs by 57 votes in the race. east of Williamson County.
“When we saw those numbers coming in, don’t get me wrong, we were jumping for joy, but it wasn’t entirely by surprise; it was the culmination of years of work to get to where we were,” said Manny said. Garcia, deputy executive director of the Texas Democratic Party.
This election cycle, the Williamson County Democratic Party has made a concerted effort to reach the southern hump of the county, where many precincts opted for Clinton in the 2016 election.
“We’ve targeted areas where we’ve had big wins,” said Sharon Covey, county Democratic Party campaign coordinator. “It’s in the southern part of the county. We did the usual thing – texting, writing postcards to them. We stayed with that group and went back to them” throughout the campaign.
Kim Gilby, chairman of the Williamson County Democratic Party, said his momentum began to build the month after Trump was elected. Party meetings had rarely attracted more than two dozen attendees until December 2016, when about 200 people showed up, she said.
Although the ripple effect of a highly attractive candidate such as O’Rourke may have played a role in helping Democrats win in Williamson County, Gilby said she believes the party’s success stemmed from a combination of factors.
“When you take it all – the grassroots organization, the amazing slate of candidates we had and all these people who feel they need to speak up, they need to vote and we need to make a change – that’s why we’re looking at Williamson County Blue right now,” Gilby said. “It’s like putting a puzzle together and putting the last piece in, and we’re just getting started.”
Even with a targeted approach, Democrats have made gains in most of Williamson County. An analysis of voter data showed that in all but four of the county’s 89 precincts, leading Democrat O’Rourke performed better than Clinton in 2016.
Winds of Political Change
While punctual campaigns and compelling candidates have played a role in the resurgence of Democrats in Williamson County, outside observers said broad changes in the region’s makeup are generating growing winds at the Democrats’ backs.
Since 2010, Williamson County has seen its population increase by about 125,000 people, according to 2017 US Census Bureau estimates. During this period, Leander’s population nearly doubled to 49,234, Cedar Park saw its population increase by 55%, and around 24,000 new residents came to settle in Round Rock, an increase of 24%. .
“All of South Williamson and parts of Round Rock are changing rapidly,” said Ryan Robinson, city of Austin demographer. “They are no longer suburbs. They are urbanizing.”
Suburbs across the country are growing rapidly, and typically minority groups are at the forefront of that population growth, said Steve Murdock, director of Rice University’s Hobby Center for the Study of Texas. The birthrates of Hispanics in the United States, Murdock said, have exceeded the birthrates of non-Hispanic whites. But in Williamson County, the growth of minority populations is not as apparent.
US Census Bureau figures show that Williamson County’s population explosion is being fueled by internal migration, with 87,065 new residents coming from elsewhere in the United States. The bureau has yet to analyze exactly where these new residents are coming from, but Lloyd Potter, director of the Institute for Demographic and Socioeconomic Development at the University of Texas-San Antonio, predicted that most are coming from California, New York, Illinois or Florida, all states that historically lean more to the left than Texas.
And proximity to liberal Austin might be an attraction for some comers.
“For someone considering moving to Texas with a more progressive orientation, they would probably think Austin isn’t so bad,” he said.
For Potter, this means a shift in the traditional political philosophies of many voters. Those born and raised in an area tend to inherit political leanings and voting habits from their parents, he said, but an influx of new residents means an influx of political ideas.
“If you have a population that’s growing largely because of people moving there, that growth is going to potentially change how the area votes,” Potter said.
While much of Williamson County’s growth has resulted from people moving in from out of state seeking job opportunities, there are also those leaving Austin.
Michael Li, an attorney at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, said the two State House districts that passed to Democrats on Tuesday with the victories of Bucy and Talarico were in districts drawn to benefit the Democrats. republicans.
But those district boundaries have become less Republican-friendly due to explosive growth and the addition of tens of thousands of people to Williamson County’s voter rolls.
“It’s a harbinger that central Texas is more like Austin,” Li said. “Travis County was like a bubble, and now the bubble is expanding outward.”
The Democrats’ gains this year in Williamson County don’t bother Gravell too much. Gravell, the Republican elected to lead the Court of County Commissioners from 2019, said more than a blue wave, what he saw was a “green wave of money”, referring to the large sums collected by the campaigns of O’Rourke and Hegar.
“What I see is tons of money from outside of Texas decided to come into Texas and buy an election,” Gravell said. “And they succeeded in some places, and they failed miserably in others. … There are parts where we lost, but in Williamson County we still won 76% of the races we were in. Those are good numbers.”
Beyond O’Rourke’s fundraising prowess, Gravell said, his ability to galvanize voters has helped the Democratic Party win Williamson, including in some down races, but he predicts it will be a one-off situation unless Democrats can continue to find charismatic candidates. .
Gravell said he also thinks voters aren’t necessarily as concerned about political parties as they are about candidates, noting that about 65,000 people voted for a Republican party in Williamson County, but its total number of votes amounts to more than 103,000.
Still, Gravell said he thinks the GOP will need to assess what it did and didn’t do well this election cycle and determine how that might shape future campaigns. The party might even learn a thing or two from some of the innovations used by O’Rourke’s campaign, such as text messaging and direct digital marketing. And perhaps, he added, he could reflect on his attitude.
“I think Republicans have partly become complacent and maybe arrogant, and I think they’ve been put in their place,” Gravell said. “We all have.”
American-Statesman data journalist Dan Keemahill contributed to this report.