Winds of political change in Williamson County?

In 2014, Jimmy Flannigan spent much of his first campaign for a seat on Austin city council walking his neck of the capital, a section tucked away in the southern bend of Williamson County.

“I was saying who I was and what I was running for and people were like, ‘Is it safe for you to knock on my door?'” Flannigan told the American-Stateman Thursday. “And I would say, ‘Don’t you know this neighborhood chose Barack Obama (in 2012)?'”

Flannigan, a Democrat and resident of Williamson County, lost the 2014 election to a Republican. But two years later, he ran for council again and won, even as Hillary Clinton fell 10 percentage points to Donald Trump in Williamson County.

Democrat Beto O’Rourke narrowly led incumbent Republican Senator Ted Cruz to the county on Tuesday. As Cruz was re-elected in the statewide race, O’Rourke’s success in Williamson County drew attention. This is the first time since Texas saw a mass exodus of the Democratic Party in the 1980s and 1990s that a federal candidate received a majority of the vote in a county that for decades was the conservative bright red of liberalism. midnight blue in Austin. .

Interactive Map: Find out how Travis and Williamson County ridings voted on statewide and local races.

For some in Williamson County, O’Rourke’s victory was just flash in the pan, fueled by popular sentiment for a charismatic candidate. But with Austin’s economic boom pushing out some expensive inner city residents, sending them to cheaper residential pastures in the northern or southern suburbs, the 2018 general election could signal a shift in the political focus of the conservative stronghold.

Granted, Williamson County voters elected a solid red candidate for 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 rather than a purely Democratic ticket. And most of the county’s voters backed Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick while also favoring Republicans in 11 of 13 local partisan races.

Still, Democrats have recorded 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 led in Williamson County but lost his race to a Republican incumbent, Round Rock Rep John Carter.

Locally, Democrat KT Musselman won the race for District 1 justice of the peace, and Democrat Stacy Hackenberg edged out Judy Hobbs, the longtime Justice of the Peace in District 4, by 57 votes in the east. of Williamson County.

“When we saw those numbers come up, don’t get me wrong, we were jumping for joy, but it wasn’t entirely by surprise; it was the culmination of years of working to get to where we were,” said Manny 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 ridings chose Clinton in the 2016 election.

“We have targeted the areas where we have had big wins,” said Sharon Covey, campaign coordinator for the county Democratic Party. “It’s in the southern part of the county. We did the usual thing – texting, writing them postcards. We stayed with this group and we went back to them” throughout the campaign.

Kim Gilby, chairman of the Williamson County Democratic Party, said his momentum started to take shape the month after Trump was elected. Party meetings had rarely drawn more than two dozen attendees until December 2016, when about 200 people turned up, she said.

While the ripple effect of a very attractive candidate like O’Rourke might have played a role in helping Democrats win in Williamson County, Gilby said she believes the party’s success stems from a combination of factors.

“When you take everything – the grassroots organization, the incredible list of candidates we had and all these people who feel like they have to speak up, they have to vote and we have to make a change – That’s why we’re looking at blue Williamson County right now, ”Gilby said. “It’s like putting a puzzle together and putting the last piece in it, and we’re just getting started.”

Even with a focused approach, Democrats have made gains across most of Williamson County. Analysis of voter data showed that in all but four of the county’s 89 ridings, the leading Democrat O’Rourke outperformed Clinton in 2016.

Winds of political change

While targeted campaigns and compelling candidates played a role in the resurgence of Democrats in Williamson County, outside observers said sweeping changes in the region’s makeup were creating a growing wind behind Democrats.

Since 2010, Williamson County has seen its population increase by about 125,000 people, according to 2017 estimates from the US Census Bureau. During this period, Leander’s population nearly doubled to 49,234, Cedar Park saw its population increase by 55% and about 24,000 new residents came to Round Rock, an increase of 24% .

“All of southern Williamson and parts of Round Rock are changing rapidly,” said City of Austin demographer Ryan Robinson. “They are no longer suburbs. They are urbanizing.

Suburbs across the country are growing rapidly and, in general, minority groups are at the forefront of this population growth, said Steve Murdock, director of the Hobby Center for the Study of Texas at Rice University. The birth rates of Hispanics in the United States, Murdock said, have exceeded the birth rates of non-Hispanic whites. But in Williamson County, the growth of minority populations is not as apparent.

Figures from the US Census Bureau show that Williamson County’s population explosion is fueled by internal migration, with 87,065 new residents coming from elsewhere in the United States. The office 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, has predicted that most will come from California. , New York, Illinois or Florida, all states historically more to the left than Texas.

And the proximity to liberal Austin could be an attraction for some newcomers.

“For someone who is considering moving to Texas with a more progressive orientation, he would probably think Austin is not that 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 their parents’ political leanings and voting habits, he said, but an influx of new residents means an influx of political ideas.

“If you have a population that’s growing in large part because of the people moving there, that growth is potentially going to change the way the area votes,” Potter said.

While much of Williamson County’s growth has resulted from people coming from out of state looking for employment opportunities, there are also those who are leaving Austin behind.

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 Bucy and Talarico’s victories were in districts designed to be advantageous to them. republicans.

But those district boundaries have become less favorable to Republicans due to explosive growth and the addition of tens of thousands of people to Williamson County’s voters lists.

“It’s a harbinger of central Texas looking 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 County Commissioners Tribunal from 2019, said more than a blue wave, what he saw was a “green wave of money,” referring to the large sums raised by the campaigns of O’Rourke and Hegar.

“What I’m seeing is tons of money from outside of Texas decided to go into Texas and buy an election,” Gravell said. “And they were successful 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 that we participated in. . These are good numbers. “

Beyond O’Rourke’s fundraising prowess, Gravell said, his ability to galvanize voters helped the Democratic Party win over Williamson, including in some ballot races, but he predicts that this will be a unique situation unless Democrats can continue to find charismatic candidates. .

Gravell said he also believes voters are not necessarily as concerned about political parties as they are about candidates, noting that around 65,000 people voted for a right-wing Republican party in Williamson County, but that its numbers total votes stood at over 103,000.

Still, Gravell said he believes the GOP will need to assess what it did and what it did not do well this electoral cycle and understand how that might shape future campaigns. The party might even learn a thing or two from some of the innovations used by the O’Rourke campaign, such as text messaging and direct digital marketing. And maybe, he added, he could reflect on his attitude.

“I think the 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 reporter Dan Keemahill contributed to this report.

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