The 2016 elections scrambled the U.S. political map, but one trend did not change: Almost every big, urban county voted for Democrats. Not so in Texas’ third biggest county, where Fort Worth is the county seat. Tarrant County became the most conservative metropolitan county in the country, giving Donald Trump the widest margin of victory than any of the 20 largest counties in the U.S.
Tarrant has long been a GOP powerhouse, but it wasn’t always that way.
When Steve Hollern first got involved in politics, it was 1975. He was 35, an accountant in Fort Worth, and he wasn’t especially interested in politics. Then he heard something new on the airwaves: Ronald Reagan.
“I kept listening to Reagan on the radio. He had a little three-minute radio program called Viewpoint at 8:20 every morning just as I was getting to the office, and I thought to myself that we need someone like that in politics not these politicians,” the former Tarrant County GOP chairman said.
Hollern volunteered for Reagan’s first presidential campaign at the end of 1975, and he’s been active ever since.
In the 1970s, Tarrant County, like the rest of Texas, was dominated by Democrats. The county had only one Republican lawmaker. With Reagan’s rise, that began to change.
“When Reagan ran, a lot of conservative democrats crossed over into the Republican primary,” Hollern said. And, he said, with the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion in the US just a few years old, “a lot of pro-life people … had gotten active in politics that hadn’t been there before.”
At the end of Reagan’s presidency in 1988, Hollern took over as the head of the local GOP, and oversaw a period of big gains for the Republican Party. In 1989, nine sitting Democratic judges switched parties on the same day. When Hollern stepped down 10 years later, 89 percent of Tarrant County office holder were Republican.
The strength of the party, he said, was that there was room for moderates and conservatives on a range of issues, “and so in trying to be sure that the party was representative of a broad swath of people, we were able to sustain that at the polling sites,” he said.
Texas Christian University political scientist Jim Riddlesperger said as Republican strength surged in Tarrant County, so did the suburban population.
“As the '80s shifted to the '90s, all of a sudden the growth particularly in that northeastern corridor around D-FW International Airport,” including Hurst, Euless, Bedford, as well as growth in Arlington to the south, Riddlesperger said, “made the county flip to the Republican Party.”
The party has held the county ever since. Eight of the 11 Texas House members are Republicans, so are all four state senators. Four-fifths of the Tarrant County Commissioners Court is Republican, as well as every county-wide elected office. Of the five members of Congress the county sends to Washington, just one is a Democrat.
Today, that stretch of Tarrant County suburbs is home to a new wave of energetic conservative activists. It gave birth to the Northeast Tarrant Tea Party, which has grown from a handful of political novices in 2009 to one of the most powerful organizations in Texas politics. Julie McCarty helped found the group because she was frustrated by the party establishment. She said the Republican Party’s big tent approach captures too many politicians who fail to uphold conservative principals
“We’re the most conservative area of Texas, why are we settling for this?” McCarty said.
In 2012, the Northeast Tarrant Tea Party helped oust four state representatives and replace them with some of Texas’ most conservative lawmakers. More successes followed, their influence grew and now McCarty said the group is increasingly focused on local offices.
“Tarrant County is a mess,” she said. “And it is run by a lot of liberal people. And we’ve got their names written down and we know who we’re going to run against them."
Many of those liberal people McCarty is talking about are Republicans.
While McCarty envisions a much redder Tarrant, the county’s lone Democrat in Congress sees an opportunity for his party. Rep. Marc Veasey said more moderate Republicans in the county are uncomfortable with this right-ward shift.
“I think that it’s going to put Democrats in a good position to finally start making inroads in Tarrant County,” Veasey said. “I’m not saying that we’re going to win Tarrant County yet. But I think we’re going to be in the best position we’ve been in in a long time.”
This story was reported in collaboration with the Texas Tribune.
Lawmaking in Texas is pretty complicated. What do you want to know about it?