Scrimshaw Spotlight: Southlake, Texas

On What A Suburb Says About 2022 And 2024

(Scrimshaw Spotlight is going to be a weekly, Friday deep dive into a race or a place, where I try to tell the tale of a part of America or somewhere else. Today? A little place called Southlake, Texas.)

Sometimes explaining things out loud makes them sound really, really stupid, but that can be one of the joys of life. Having a joke, a thing, a connection that doesn't need to make sense to everyone else but makes sense to the people who know can be amazing. Or, sometimes, the path that life can take is weird, and glorious.

My memory on this is hazy, but if I remember the course of events correctly, I wrote a column saying Biden would win Texas at some point in September 2020 and then, a few days later, an ex-Texan who had just started following me on Twitter DM'd me asking what I thought of betting Biden in Texas. The question, innocuous enough, caught my attention because of the source of him following me - a fantasy football and golf content creator that I've watched for years, and who gave me the occasional shoutout in time. Because he knew me from Mayo, I bothered engaging in a serious way.

At some point I asked where he was from, and he told me Southlake, Texas, a super rich suburb in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. My buddy is a good check on my terminally online behaviour - a McCain-Romney-Clinton-Biden voter who pays attention to the news but isn't unhealthily following events like the hoards of Elections Twitter. He is the microcosm of the pro-Democratic part of the realignment - a social liberal who doesn't always agree on the economics but can't vote for a party that believes I shouldn't have a right to marry the man I love. And, apparently, so is Southlake.

In the four (of five) precincts where I could get exact matching results from 2012 to 2020, Mitt Romney's margin of victory was between 55% and 61% in all four. The lowest vote share he got in Southlake was 76.5%, and he almost broke 80% in one of them. It was ruby red for Romney, a reflection of his appeal being concentrated amongst the wealthy, white elite, and the way that 2012 in many ways represents a false high. But, even still, the scale of the movement is staggering. The average swing across those four precincts - as the statewide swing in Texas was 10% - was 34%. No precinct had a swing under 25%, and the biggest swing was a 40% whopper. 

Why did Biden do so well here? It's partially the same reason he did well everywhere where people have degrees - well-off white social liberals couldn't pull the lever for Trump, or the GOP more broadly. Gay marriage is an issue that much of the voters of Southlake now have to face in a day to day way, in a way a decade ago it wasn't. Supporting the GOP when gay rights was an abstract debate is easier than doing so when you're buying suits to be a groomsman in your third gay wedding in as many years, and there are a lot of high society, wealthy gays now tying the knot in DFW.

Now, you can look at those swings two ways - a sign of a huge realignment, or as a challenge to hold all those voters as Democrats moving forward. The thing is, we know that these voters weren't willing to go all out on the Democratic Party this year - the average Biden overperformance of Candace Valenzuela in TX-24 was 11.4% across Southlake, and uniform across the board - 3 precincts with an 11% overperformance, 2 precincts with a 12% overperformance. They weren't willing to go so far as to claim to be Democrats, but they voted for Biden. Will they go back? Doubt it.

The math answer to this is that realignments always take longer downballot, Collin Peterson didn't lose in 2016 despite Western Minnesota being redder than Tiger Woods' shirt on Sundays (love ya Tiger, recover well), and if this was an Ancestrally Democratic area holding firm Congressionally and yet running right at the top of the ticket, we'd say it's a matter of time. Hell, we basically all have said it about Tim Ryan, even before his seat gets smashed to smithereens by the GOP, and we were right then. But, for some reason, we pretend that there's some chance that the downballot realignment taking longer is a function of something else when it's the GOP winning downballot. Shocker, I know.

The other reason I'm not worried is that my buddy voted Hillary and didn't vote downballot in 2016, and now he votes blue up and down the ballot. This shit doesn't come in a day, or two days, but when it comes, it comes hard and fast. A man who was convinced of the righteousness of Mitt Romney now votes for Congressional Candidates of the opposite party, and his evolution isn't special or interesting.

Southlake was described to me as a place where people who ate dinner with the Bushes in the era of the second Bush Presidency lived. These are people who never thought of themselves as anything other than Republicans, and now they're sprinting left. Well-off white social liberals are now willing to vote for tax rises on themselves to support a socially liberal worldview, and there is no reason to expect that to change so long as the GOP are invested in making it harder for people like me to exercise full and equal rights under the law. Lawrence v Texas happened this century, and now the state where in my lifetime gay men were convicted of a crime for a consensual blowjob is now running left because of the most old money, rich white suburbs, and their occupants.

Southlake might be the most interesting place, not just in Texas, but in America, in terms of understanding the long term future. If the GOP have any hope of clawing back their lost voters, it starts in Southlake, with Greg Abbott versus Beto O'Rourke. If the GOP see meaningful success in Southlake compared to 2020, then maybe I'm wrong, and maybe the US will skip out on the suburban shift part of the global fucking realignment. But that sentence is why I'm not confident they do. Southlake is sprinting left faster than any of the residents probably realize, and while some of it may be migratory - younger, new money pouring in from Dallas proper - some of it is clearly people changing their minds.

Southlake represents the extreme end of the GOP's problem - that even the prospects of huge tax cuts, or even the actual, lived reality of them - isn't enough to stop well-off white social liberals from running from the toxicity of the GOP and their cultural conservatism. It used to be that the two major parties weren't that far away on gay rights, and Safe, Legal, And Rare was a broadly accepted view of abortion rights. Now that the 90s detente is over, the GOP had to rely on the tax cuts holding these voters in their tent. The problem is, if they can't get Republicans with lots and lots of saving on their tax bills to stay loyal, why should we expect less wealthy social liberals to hang around, when the size of the bribe isn't nearly as large?

Congressional Democrats need to focus on these sorts of areas in 2022 - rich, white suburbs didn't move as much in 2020 as many expected, even as many did move. Figuring out how to get places like David Schweikert's patch of Maricopa or Brian Fitzpatrick's suburban Philly territory to not split their ticket in 2022 has to be a huge priority, and if they have a brain, the Democratic Party should be asking voters like the ones in Southlake why they voted for Biden and didn't vote for Valenzuela. The answers may be specific to that race, or they might be more broadly applicable, but if Democrats want to win in 2022, getting Biden numbers in areas full of well off whites and not Congressional Democratic ones is the beginning and end of the conversation. Flop in Southlake in 2022, and you can kiss Governor O'Rourke goodbye.

Everyone always jokes about how they should do those "I talked to four customers at a diner in western Pennsylvania" stories, and they're mostly dumb, but this is where that story, if it's done, should be set. These are the voters who will decide whether Biden is a President met with electoral ruin or not when his time comes, and these are the voters Democrats need to not lose. Southlake is both a key story of Texas politics, but it is also emblematic of a broader pattern. You want to understand the other side of the realignment better? No better place than Southlake.