Updated at 6:20 p.m. on February 17.
The original version of this story misreported the number of House seats Republicans picked up in 2010 and currently hold. They picked up three seats for a total of 23.
Texas is a majority-minority state for the first time in a redistricting period, according to just-released census data, a fact that could complicate Republicans’ hopes for a partisan gerrymander—and make the state competitive for Democrats in future years.
Whites now account for just 45 percent of the state's population, down from 52 percent a decade ago. The Hispanic population is now 38 percent of the total population—growing by 42 percent—while the African-American population grew slightly and is now 12 percent of the total population. The state gained four congressional seats in reapportionment, largely due to minority growth: Almost 90 percent of the state's growth was from minorities.
The census findings complicate Republicans' hopes for a partisan gerrymander during this redistricting process. The Democratic lean of Hispanic voters and Voting Rights Act requirements that protect the group's voting strength from being watered down means that despite Republican control of the redistricting process, the GOP will struggle to make the map much more favorable to their party.
"The numbers will dictate what is possible and what can be done," said state Sen. Kel Seliger, one of the Republicans tapped to run the redistricting process. Seliger predicted there would be at least one more Hispanic opportunity district in the Rio Grande Valley, but said it was too early to predict whether there should be a second, something Hispanic groups have called for, because the redistricting committee has yet to analyze the Citizen Voting Age Population data that they must use to draw the lines.
Republicans under former Rep. Tom DeLay effectively re-redistricted the state in the middle of the decade, tearing apart districts Democrats had carefully drawn to protect their "WD-40s"—white Democrats over 40. The plan was a big success for Republicans: The delegation went from 17-15 Democrat earlier in the decade to 21-11 Republican in 2004. Republicans now hold 23 of the 32 House seats after picking up three districts in the 2010 wave election, and Democrats hold only one House seat where whites make up more than a quarter of the district's population. Forty-two of the 49 Democratic state representatives are minorities.
Democratic State Rep. Garnet Coleman said the mid-decade Republican redistricting had been so successful because the George W. Bush Justice Department had been lax in enforcing the Voting Rights Act, and that this time around the Obama Justice Department will be more vigilant. "I shouldn’t be in an 85 percent Democratic district. Most people would call that packing," he said. "If you look at [Democratic districts] 48 of our 49 members are in packed districts."
Republicans in control of redistricting this time around may struggle to do better than break even. Two Republican freshmen, Reps. Blake Farenthold and Francisco (Quico) Canseco, come from heavily Hispanic districts that voted for President Obama. It will be especially hard to shore up Farenthold, who won by a narrow margin and is surrounded by mostly Democratic territory.
Coleman predicted that Republicans would draw two new Republican districts, one near Dallas and one near Houston, and create heavily minority, Democratic districts in the Rio Grande Valley and Houston. He said that the state has become increasingly racially polarized, and that the growing minority communities would benefit his party unless Republicans found a way to appeal to them.
Seliger said he wants to draw a Republican-friendly map and shore up his incumbents, as Democrats did a decade ago, but his first priority is to draw a map that would pass muster with the Justice Department and the courts.
"Over the last several months people in both parties [have said] a 2-2 split would be pretty good," Seliger said. "That's fine as a theoretical assertion, okay. But if we were to do that it has to be fair to the areas involved, it's got to be legal."
The new data also suggests that Texas Republicans will need to effectively compete for the Hispanic vote in the future to win statewide contests. The Hispanic population is very young, and there are many immigrants. As more Latinos turn 18, become citizens, and register to vote, Texas could become a swing state sooner rather than later if Republicans don't make additional inroads with the Hispanic electorate.
Republicans performed better among Hispanics in Texas in the 2010 elections than they did in several other states with sizable Hispanic populations. Gov. Rick Perry took 38 percent of the Hispanic vote last year, better than other Republicans in recent years, and the GOP picked up two majority-Hispanic House seats. They'll have to replicate—and improve upon—those successes if they want to hold on to control of the state.