How the Decline of Competitive Districts for the TX Legislature Fuels A Disconnect Between Public Policy and Voter Preferences

At Politico, in a story titled Why Texans Can’t Get the Gun Laws They Really Want, Joshua Blank reports on polling data that appears to show that Texans favor stricter gun policies than those the legislature has recently enacted. The piece then turns to an explanation for this disjuncture. With apologies to the political scientists who think it makes no difference whether legislators are elected from safe or competitive districts:

So what leads to this disconnect in Texas? Primarily, an election system that prioritizes the policy positions of a relatively small slice of the state’s most conservative voters who dominate Republican primaries through gerrymandering and low-turnout elections. This pattern is exacerbated by the fact that Texas statewide officials are elected in non-presidential election years, like 2022.

Still, the 2019 legislative session saw a brief respite from some of the most conservative legislation in exchange for a focus on public education financing and property taxes. That’s because a number of Republicans in the 2018 elections had a close shave as a result of Donald Trump’s mobilization of Democrats, O’Rourke’s offering of a quality alternative to Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, and the weakening of the partisan leanings of legislative districts drawn at the beginning of the last decade. But 2021 was a redistricting year, and the process was dominated by Republicans, so the main result has been to reduce the number of competitive districts and place most Republican legislators in more heavily Republican districts and most Democrats in more Democratic districts. The effect is to make compromise less likely, and extremism more likely, as the only real challenge in these newly redrawn districts would come in the form of a primary challenge.

Republicans in the Legislature, knowing that their most important contest would take place in primaries by March and not in general elections November, focused much of last year’s legislative session towards satisfying the desires of activated constituencies within their coalition. That resulted in one of the most conservative legislative sessions in Texas history, where, in addition to passing a majority-opposed permit-less carry bill, the Legislature passed a majority opposed trigger bill that would ban all abortion if/when the Supreme Court invalidates Roe v. Wade, and pushed forward on book bans and limitations on how racism can be discussed in public schools — all issues that activate some Republican voters, but that also face significant opposition in the state.

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