Southern Counties Lose Their White Majorities, Threatening GOP

By: - August 26, 2021 12:00 am

Increasing urban diversity in Southern states is complicating Republican efforts to keep the reins of statehouse power and chip away at Democratic control of Congress.

Of the 65 counties that turned majority minority since 2010, meaning more than half the population is made up of people of color, over two-thirds are in the South, a Stateline analysis of new census data shows. Thirty-five of those counties voted Republican in the 2020 presidential election, down from 39 in 2012.

The four that flipped are Tarrant County, Texas (which includes Fort Worth); Duval County, Florida (which includes Jacksonville); and two counties in the Atlanta suburbs that were key to Democratic victories last year, Henry and Cobb.

Although current trends seem promising for Democrats, there is no guarantee that growing Black, Hispanic and Asian populations will erode GOP power, given the redistricting battles now underway to adjust state and congressional districts, as well as doubts about whether some conservative Hispanic voters will remain Democrats.

But diversifying cities will force Southern Republican lawmakers to try harder to create districts that dilute the power of urban liberals by combining them with more conservative rural areas.

“These Southern states are moving in the direction of being majority minority. Republicans can probably hold on to power for now, but this means they’re going to have to work a lot harder at it,” said Charles Bullock, chair of the political science department at the University of Georgia.

Political change has been clearest in the Atlanta suburbs, where Black migration led to a wholesale shift from Republican to Democratic victories in state and national votes. Both Henry and Cobb counties voted Democratic for president in 2016 and 2020 after decades of voting for Republicans.

The White population in Henry County dropped from 52% in 2010 to 36% in 2020, and Cobb’s dropped from 56% to 48%. Henry’s Black population grew from 38% to 52% in that time, while Cobb’s increased from 26% to 29%.

“It shows no sign of stopping,” said Henry County Commissioner Bruce Holmes, an African American Minnesota transplant with Georgia roots. Since taking power in the county, Democrats have promoted multifamily housing and walkable neighborhoods, he said.

“There was a lot of resistance to density before this uptick in minorities,” said Holmes. “But now I think even the old guard is on board with it. We’re trying to make it a more attractive place to move for everyone.”

Political change has been slower in Texas and Florida, where Hispanic residents are driving growth. They include immigrants without voting rights and more conservative voters who could choose either party.

George P. Bush, Texas land commissioner since 2014 and a Republican from a political dynasty that includes two presidents and his father, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, said Hispanic voters are ready to hear a more conservative message.

“Hispanics have conservative values,” Bush said in a statement to Stateline.

“Our last election proved that Hispanics are coming over to the Republican party in droves. We’re more than happy to welcome them in,” added Bush, whose mother Columba Bush was born in Mexico.

Growing Black and Hispanic populations drove political change in Texas’ Tarrant County, where the White population dipped from 52% to 43% in the past 10 years. In that time, the Black population grew from 16% to 19% while the Hispanic population increased from 27% to 29%, with Asian and Native American populations also growing.

President Joe Biden squeaked out a narrow victory there, by fewer than 2,000 votes out of 835,000—the first win by a Democrat there since former President Lyndon Johnson’s victory in 1964.

In Florida’s Duval County, where the county government is merged with that of Jacksonville, the state’s largest city, Hispanic candidates have tried for years to break into local politics.

“It’s been hard for us here. You talk to people and some of them haven’t registered to vote and aren’t sure of the differences between the parties,” said Mario Decunto, a mental health counselor of Mexican and Argentinian descent who is now president of the Duval County Democratic Party’s Hispanic Caucus. The county has attracted many new residents from Puerto Rico who have yet to decide which party to support, Decunto said.

Although comprising 11% of the population in Duval County, up from 8% in 2010, Hispanic residents are only about 6% of registered voters there. Still, Biden was the first Democratic winner in the county since former President Jimmy Carter triumphed in 1976.

But growing minority populations and Democratic votes don’t always go hand in hand for heavily Hispanic areas in Florida, Texas or California. Former President Donald Trump gained Republican votes in counties where many residents have Cuban, Puerto Rican and Mexican roots.

“What this increase in diversity means for politics is anybody’s guess,” said Stefan Rayer, the population program director at the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research.

Rayer noted that the three Florida counties with the largest Republican shifts since 2016 are majority Hispanic: South Florida’s Miami-Dade, where Cuban Americans are concentrated, and Osceola and Hendry counties in Central Florida, where newcomers from Puerto Rico and Mexico have settled.

“There were similar voting shifts in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas and the Imperial Valley in California,” Rayer said, adding that counties with large Hispanic populations generally stayed Democratic in 2020, though the margins shrunk. Miami-Dade, the nation’s largest majority-Hispanic county, gave Biden an unusually slim victory of 53%, the smallest for a Democrat since 2004.

Mexican Americans in Texas tend to vote Democratic, but in 2020 Trump showed surprising appeal in border areas despite his harsh rhetoric about immigration. The former president got 41% of the vote in Hidalgo County, a Rio Grande Valley border area that’s 92% Hispanic, the most for a Republican since Texan and fellow former President George W. Bush in 2004.

Some new majority-minority counties in the South were already Democratic bastions, such as Hillsborough County in Florida’s Tampa Bay region, where Democrats have won close victories since 2008. Hispanic growth in the county is one reason Republican Sheriff Chad Chronister has resisted state calls for more immigration enforcement.

Asian immigrants have driven the change to majority-minority status in Travis County, Texas, which includes Austin. Many of the newcomers are software engineers from India who work at tech companies that relocated from California.

The Austin area, already known as “a blueberry in a plate of red Jell-O,” according to Indian American activist and retired engineer Jayant Sheth, has voted Democratic since making an exception in 2000 for native son George W. Bush.

Since Sheth arrived 13 years ago, the Indian community has grown and started to flex its political muscle, mostly in Democratic politics, Sheth said. Some have said they would like to see an Indian American member of the city council from northeastern Austin, where many have settled.

“They can’t draw the lines, is the only thing. We’re not a majority yet. But that’s where we’re headed,” said Sheth.

Nationally, most of the new majority-minority counties are in cities and suburbs. Sixty percent of urban counties now are majority minority, up from 49% in 2010. Only 12% of rural, suburban and smaller cities are now majority minority, up from 9% of suburban and 10% of rural counties in 2010.

In some newly majority-minority counties in rural areas, more immigrants have arrived to work in meatpacking plants and other factories, such as beef processing facilities in Nebraska’s suburban Dakota County and rural Colfax County. Both remain heavily Republican.

Other counties that became majority minority include Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, and some leafy suburbs such as Westchester County, New York, once the focus of a fierce desegregation fight in the city of Yonkers, and the Washington, D.C., suburbs of Alexandria, Virginia, and Howard County, Maryland.

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Tim Henderson
Tim Henderson

Tim Henderson covers demographics for Stateline. He has been a reporter at the Miami Herald, the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Journal News.