California Expats Are Helping Turn Texas Into A Battleground State

Dr. Myiesha Taylor, left, with her daughters Hana Taylor Schlitz, 12, and Haley Taylor Schlitz, 18. (Photo courtesy of William Schlitz)

By Matt Levin | CalMatters

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When Dr. Myiesha Taylor saw her Biden-Harris lawn sign was missing from the front yard, she did what most parents would do — she blamed her kids.

Taylor and her husband William sat their three children down to scour through the footage from their home security system. It was like family movie night, with the added intrigue that someone in the audience might be guilty of a campaign violation.

"We're watching and we're watching, and then we see the car come up and turn on our street, and then stop," said Taylor. "And we're like 'Wait, why are they stopping in front of our house?'"

It's nighttime and the security camera is pretty far away. But even through the Zapruder filter, you can parse pretty clearly what's happening. The silhouette of a John or Jane Doe gets out of the passenger seat, jumps on the Taylor property's retaining wall, snatches the Biden-Harris sign and smuggles it into the getaway car.

"I'm from California," said Taylor, who was born in Inglewood and went to medical school at the University of Southern California. "Never would I have thought that Trump would have won. I'm thinking, 'Who voted for this guy?' Then I moved here and I realized who voted for this guy."

"Here" for Taylor is Tarrant County, Texas — home to the cities of Fort Worth, Arlington and an endless stretch of freshly subdivided bedroom communities. Over the past decade, those bedrooms have been increasingly filled by a steady stream of Californians like Taylor, lured by lucrative job offers and cheap home prices.

Taylor hasn't solved the case of the lawn sign heist just yet. But one possible motive? Fear that Texas — a state once synonymous with Republican strength — could actually tilt Democratic this year, as recent transplants from California and other blue states help reshape the Lone Star state's electorate.

"Where things look really different in Texas politics right now are in these districts that have seen rapid population growth, and Californians have been a part of that growth," said Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.

A NEW BATTLEGROUND STATE

Recent polls show President Trump with only a narrow advantage — two to five percentage points — over Democratic challenger Joe Biden in Texas. Some polls show the race as essentially tied, and very little polling has been done since Trump's COVID-19 hospitalization upended the campaign.

While the prospect of Texas as a swing state may shock those who associate the state with George W. Bush, it shouldn't surprise anyone paying attention to its politics over the last decade. While Barack Obama lost Texas by 16 points in his 2012 re-election bid, in 2016 Hillary Clinton closed that gap to single-digits. Two years later, Democrat Beto O'Rourke lost to incumbent Republican Senator Ted Cruz by less than three points.

The improving performance of Texas Democrats tracks well with the exodus of Californians into Sun Belt states over the past two decades. Since 2008, more than 700,000 Californians have moved to Texas, at first propelled by the Great Recession and later by their home state's increasingly untenable cost of living.

"The parts of Texas where Californians are most likely to move — the sprawling suburbs of Houston, Dallas and Fort Worth — are now politically competitive in a way that was unfathomable 20 years ago."

Henson warns it's seductively reductionist to attribute Texas' rapid statewide purpling simply to California expats. When you factor in the number of Texans that have moved to California over the last decade, the net political effect on a state with 29 million people is less progressive tidal wave and more trickling blue-ish tributary. With a rising Latino population and growing metropolitan areas, Texas' internal demographic shifts have combined with out-of-state immigration (not just from California) to alter its politics.

It's also a mistake to think everyone from California moving to Texas drove there in a Prius adorned with a "Billionaires can't buy Bernie" bumper sticker. While precise polling on ex-Californians' political persuasions is hard to find, loads of anecdotal evidence suggest a decent chunk of Golden State emigres are fleeing the state precisely because of its progressive culture.

But the parts of Texas where Californians are most likely to move — the sprawling suburbs of Houston, Dallas and Fort Worth — are now politically competitive in a way that was unfathomable 20 years ago. Even if progressive Californians aren't numerous enough to push Texas away from Trump, they can still tilt congressional and state legislative races. In many places, they already have.

"Those areas, particularly the suburban and exurban areas outside of Texas metros, have become ground zero for a much more competitive Texas in which the Republican hegemony that has been so uniform here for the last twenty years has come under siege," said Henson.

TEXAS DEMOCRATS ENLISTING CALIFORNIA EXPATS

You won't find a bigger fan of Californians than Deborah Peoples, chair of the Tarrant County Democratic Party. She says she's gotten so used to running into Californians in her native state, she can spot one just by looking at them.

"There's something about the way they walk or something," said Peoples. "I usually say 'Are you from California?' and 99% of the time I'm right."

"I think we're seeing this level of activism among Californians. When they get here they look at the political landscape, they say this doesn't look like where I came from, and what do I do to change it."

- Deborah People, Tarrant County Democratic Party

Historically, Republicans have dominated the vast majority of 902 square mile county, situated about 30 miles west of Dallas. In the past, Tarrant County's bluish-tinged cities of Fort Worth and Arlington were flanked by an overwhelmingly conservative block of rural voters. Lyndon Johnson was the last Democratic presidential candidate to win it.

But an influx of new arrivals, including thousands from out of state, has made Tarrant County the fifth fastest growing county in the country, swelling its population to over 2 million last year according to Census estimates. That has meant more volunteers for Peoples — especially recent transplants from Southern California and the Bay Area. At $230,000 a pop, you can buy nearly three Tarrant County homes for the price of your average home in L.A. County.

"I think we're seeing this level of activism among Californians," said Peoples. "When they get here they look at the political landscape, they say this doesn't look like where I came from, and what do I do to change it."

The cracks in the Texas GOP's grip on Tarrant County began to show after 2016. O'Rourke carried the county by a little more than 3,000 votes — a shocker to local Republicans. Democrats also flipped a state Senate seat held by a long-term incumbent Republican.

Those gains have not gone unnoticed by national Democratic strategists. The Democratic National Committee is targeting an open congressional seat in Tarrant County, with money pouring in for the first time in decades.

"DON'T CALIFORNIA MY TEXAS"

While Peoples may be elated with her new Californian neighbors, the Texas GOP is not rolling out the welcome mat. Like President Trump, Republicans statewide are using California's problems to mobilize their own voters. Homelessness and California's exorbitant cost of living are rhetorical go-to's.

"Don't California my Texas" was a popular campaign slogan for Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in his successful 2018 re-election. You can buy t-shirts and mugs with the slogan.

"California came to symbolize the kind of political change that Republicans were sure their voters did not want, in the sense that it symbolized a more liberal worldview," said Henson.

In her neighborhood in Keller, an affluent suburb in Tarrant County, Dr. Myiesha Taylor says she doesn't hear anti-California rhetoric all that much. That's partly because she says most of her neighbors are from out-of-state anyway. She's more likely to meet someone from New York or New Jersey or Illinois than someone born and raised in Tarrant County.

Taylor's quick to note that she loves some parts of living in Texas. Cheap real estate meant she could buy a big home with enough space for her growing family. The first Texas home they bought in 2009 was 2,500 square feet — and only $250,000.

Taylor also feels more respected as a physician in Texas than she did in California. Texans seem more inclined to respect authority and titles, and the "kumbaya" ethos of some of the California hospitals she worked in frequently made her job more difficult.

But as a Black woman in a mixed race household, Taylor does say she misses the sense of security she felt when living in California. While she and her family laugh at the lawn sign incident, Taylor says it triggered a part of her that's never been quite so comfortable in her adopted home.

"You start to think 'how far will people go, how crazy are people really?' said Taylor. "And then on those occasions, I think maybe if I were in California, I wouldn't have to worry so much about our safety."

This story was originally published by CalMatters.