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Redistricting is causing political upheaval across Texas, but nowhere has it been more intense than in Central Texas.
Since the hours after the first redistricting map proposal was released last month, political dominoes began falling in the region, with members of both parties scrambling to take advantage of new opportunities — and change course after previous opportunities disappeared.
While few, if any, seats are expected to change party control, it is likely that there will be a considerable number of new faces among the region’s state and federal lawmakers after the 2022 election. And in many cases, they will be representing districts whose boundaries have significantly shifted.
A major reason for the dynamic is that redistricting is done every decade to account for population changes — and Central Texas is the fastest-growing part of the state.
The three Texas counties with the quickest growth rates over the last decades were all in Central Texas, according to the latest census. The No. 1 fastest-growing county, Hays, saw its population grow by more than 50% from 2010 to 2020.
There are, of course, political considerations by the Republican mapmakers as well. As Central Texas has ballooned in population, many Republicans representing the area in Austin and Washington, D.C., have seen increasingly competitive races.
The explosive population growth resulted in the Austin area receiving one of the state’s two new congressional districts, the other going to the Houston area.
On Monday, longtime U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, announced he was running for reelection in the Austin area’s new 37th Congressional District, instead of his current one. It is one of many political storylines in Central Texas that have come out of the redistricting process so far.
Within hours of the release of the first draft of the Senate map, former state Sen. Pete Flores, R-Pleasanton, announced he was running for the new Senate District 24. Flores lost reelection last year in the current Senate District 19, a Democratic-leaning district that he flipped in a 2018 special election upset.
The new SD-24 looked far more hospitable to Flores. For starters, it was an open seat, with its incumbent, Sen. Dawn Buckingham, R-Lakeway, running for land commissioner next year. The district was drawn to conspicuously encompass Flores’ hometown of Pleasanton, before swooping up around the San Antonio area into the Hill Country. And Flores would not have to worry about the general election in the proposed district, which former President Donald Trump carried by double digits last year.
The GOP’s determination to put Flores back in the Senate became only more explicit in the hours and days after he declared his candidacy. Buckingham endorsed him, then Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and then Trump, who remains close with Patrick.
Flores’ rapid rise was a blow to Ellen Troxclair, the former Austin City Council member who had been campaigning for months as effectively the frontrunner for the current version of SD-24. Troxclair initially held out hope that the map proposal could evolve to her benefit, but as it became increasingly clear that would not happen, she announced she was ending her campaign and instead running for a newly proposed seat in the state House.
Still, Flores will not have the SD-24 primary to himself. Six days after Troxclair ended her campaign for SD-24, another Republican, Raul Reyes, jumped in. Reyes ran last year for the battleground 23rd Congressional District, where he battled fellow Republican Tony Gonzales in a primary runoff that went to a recount. Gonzales finished 45 votes ahead and ultimately remained the winner, but the runoff drew national attention because U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz endorsed Reyes and Trump backed Gonzales.
Reyes quickly made clear he would run aggressively against Flores. Speaking on the campaign trail a few days after launching his campaign, Reyes said SD-24 needs “a bulldog — not a lapdog — in the Senate,” suggesting the chamber’s leadership paved the way for Flores’ return because they believe they can control him.
Reyes will not have Cruz on his side this time, though. A couple days after Reyes announced his campaign, the U.S. senator endorsed Flores.
When the initial draft of the state House map came out, there were two major political takeaways for Central Texas: Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, appeared doomed, and a crowd of Republican incumbents and candidates were going to have to make some tough decisions.
First up: Zwiener. Her residence was drawn out of her current district — the battleground 45th — and moved in to the neighboring 73rd District. The 73rd was set to be safely Republican, and Zwiener would stand virtually no chance of reelection there. She said she hoped she could get back her current district as the proposed map developed, but she also said she was unlikely to move if it stayed the same, suggesting she would not be returning to the House.
After days of uncertainty, Zwiener was rescued by an amendment to the map proposal on the House floor that moved her back into District 45. The amendment easily passed and Zwiener confirmed afterward that she will run for reelection there.
Things ended up more complicated for Republicans in the region. The initial draft of the House map placed both Rep. Kyle Biedermann of Fredericksburg and Terry Wilson of Marble Falls in the same district, the 19th.
However, it did not take long for the prospect of an incumbent-versus-incumbent matchup to go away. Wilson announced days later he would move to seek reelection in the newly proposed version of his current district, the 20th.
Biedermann, meanwhile, revealed that he owned a home Comal County, inside another newly redrawn district, the 73rd. That effectively left him with the choice of seeking reelection in the new HD-19 or the new HD-73.
Around the same time, two 2020 Republican candidates who had already launched comeback bids for the state House in Central Texas, Justin Berry and Carrie Isaac, were having to strategize. Not only were the boundaries of the districts they ran for last year shifting, but the districts were also becoming much less competitive.
One factor became Troxclair, who announced Oct. 1 that she was abandoning her state Senate campaign and instead running for the new HD-19.
About two weeks later, another piece of the political puzzle fell in place when Isaac announced her decision: She would run for the new HD-73.
Those decisions meant Biedermann would face a competitive primary in whichever district he chose. On Wednesday, he ruled out one of them, HD-73, saying in a series of tweets that whatever he runs for next “will be close to my home” in Gillespie County, which is inside HD-19. While his tweets did not mention HD-19, he confirmed to the Tribune afterward that he was still contemplating a run for it.
A day earlier, though, arrived the most dramatic news for Central Texas Republicans: Berry would run for HD-19, facing a fellow Republican, Troxclair, with whom he had built a political alliance. In early August, they had teamed up to endorse one another — Berry backing Troxclair for the state Senate, and Troxclair supporting Berry for the state House.
In launching his campaign, Berry said he currently lives “just outside” HD-19 and would move into it. He also took aim at Troxclair, saying it is “unfortunate Ellen switched to running against me instead of keeping her word.”
To be clear, Troxclair made her plans public over two weeks in advance of Berry’s announcement. He said he was waiting to announce his decision until the House map was finalized, which happened in recent days.
While Troxclair made her plans public well in advance of Berry — on Oct. 1 — Berry said he suggested to her the day before that he would run for HD-19 and he thought he was “confiding in a friend and a supporter.” Troxclair said they talked about “a lot of different options he might pursue” and that she called him later that day to let him know she would run for HD-19.
“But the voters in this Hill Country district don’t care who announced for what, when,” Troxclair said. “They want someone who is going to stand up in the face of adversity to protect our rights and freedoms, lower taxes and get politics out of the classroom — all which I have a proven record of doing.”
Despite the turmoil, all these seats are expected to stay under the control of the party that currently holds them. The one exception, however, is House District 52, currently represented by Round Rock Democrat James Talarico. The district was redrawn to be more favorable to Republicans, and Talarico announced last week he would move and seek reelection in House District 50, where Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, is not running again as she prepares for an Austin mayoral bid.
Talarico's decision created an open seat in HD-52, where two Republicans, Caroline Harris and Nelson Jarrin, were already running. And as for HD-50, Talarico announced the district change with a star-studded endorsement list topped by Beto O'Rourke, but it may not keep the primary entirely clear. Hours before Talarico made the announcement, Pflugerville City Councilam Rudy Metayer launched an exploratory committee for the seat.
Most of the political intrigue related to the congressional map in Central Texas centers on the 35th District and the 37th District. The 37th is one of two new districts that Texas is receiving due to population growth, and GOP mapmakers packed it with Democratic voters concentrated in Austin.
One big question was answered Monday when Doggett, who currently represents the 35th District, announced he would seek reelection in the new 37th District. He is the heavy favorite there, with a campaign war chest exceeding $5 million and a long list of endorsements led by some of the top Democratic elected officials from the area.
But Doggett likely will not be unopposed in the primary. Julie Oliver, a Democrat who twice challenged Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin, filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission on Tuesday to form an exploratory committee for the new 37th District. Her campaign website currently teases a 2022 run and says, “Austin deserves a choice.”
In any case, Doggett’s decision creates a vacancy in the 35th District, which is set to remain safely Democratic and stretch from Austin to San Antonio, and the Democratic field began taking shape after Doggett announced his switch. Greg Casar, a member of the Austin City Council, launched an exploratory committee for the seat Tuesday and said he was likely to run. State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez of Austin said he was also exploring running. And state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer of San Antonio confirmed he too was interested in running, telling The Texas Tribune he was giving it “serious consideration with both eyes wide open.”
Martinez Fischer’s interest in the seat became public days earlier when the Texas Senate’s redistricting lead, Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, outed him as having asked her to draw his residence into the district. Martinez Fischer did not deny that but said it “doesn’t take a lot of genius to draw a map” that puts him in the district given how close he already lives to it. He also joked that he understands how Republicans “would say or do anything if they can get me out of the Texas House.”
The latest machinations around the two districts have cast uncertainty over the plans of at least a couple Austin Democrats who were previously seen as potential candidates. One of them is Wendy Davis, the former Fort Worth state senator and 2014 gubernatorial nominee who unsuccessfully challenged U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Austin, last year. She has not commented on her plans since Doggett announced his decision, but she was listed among Casar’s supporters, meaning she probably will not run for the 35th District.
State Rep. Gina Hinojosa of Austin was viewed as a possible contender for the 37th District before Doggett switched over. Hinojosa told the Tribune on Tuesday, hours after the end of the third special session, that she is making “no major decisions for the next 2 weeks” and needs “some time to assess & reflect.”