“You’ve got every ethnicity,” Oberoi, the son of Indian immigrants, said of the lunchtime rush on Monday. “And that’s standard for Sugar Land.”
He was not overstating the case.
The residents in this county speak at least 118 languages, elected an Indian immigrant as their leader in 2018 and elevated the first Muslim to the Sugar Land City Council this year. Once represented by Tom DeLay, the hard-line House majority leader known as the Hammer for his ability to keep fellow Republicans in line, the county supported a Democrat for president in 2016 for the first time since Lyndon B. Johnson led the ticket.
The much-anticipated future of Texas politics may not have arrived statewide yet, but it is hard to miss in the booming, polyglot metropolitan areas that are changing the face of the state.
The El Paso massacre has brought into devastating relief the clashing ideologies and demographics that have placed a solidly conservative rural Texas in tension with the two forces powering Democratic gains: soaring immigrant populations and affluent white suburbanites who recoil from President Donald Trump’s race-baiting.
In recent days, both before and after the gunman opened fire on summer shoppers and the manifesto spouting hate was published, a handful of Republican lawmakers decided to retire rather than seek reelection to House seats in districts like this one, where the electorate includes both multiethnic voters and the kinds of disaffected moderates — even longtime Republicans — who have drifted from Trump’s party.
Last year, Democrats swept out two incumbent Republicans from similar districts and nearly unseated Sen. Ted Cruz. Now, the party is poised to make additional gains in the House, threaten Republican hegemony in the state Capitol and perhaps even put Texas into play as a presidential state for the first time in over 40 years.
“The 2018 election should have been a wake-up call for a Republican Party in Texas that has become too complacent,” said Karl Rove, the former adviser to George W. Bush, who built a multiracial coalition in his time as Texas governor. Rove urged Republicans to recognize that the state and country “are becoming more diverse and we need to reflect that.”
Texas remains an aspirational goal for Democrats, and few officials in either party believe it is likely to turn blue in next year’s presidential race. But there is a consensus that Trump will not have the typical Republican luxury of effectively ignoring the state, potentially compelling him to divert precious time and money here to ensure victory.
Even the possibility that Texas could become competitive in 2020 and beyond carries enormous implications for the presidential map: Without its 38 electoral votes, Republicans have virtually no path to the White House, so long as they cannot revive their fortunes in other fast-growing, diverse states, like Arizona, in the South and West.
And while voting participation among Latinos still lags their overall population here, the combination of increased migration from Latin America and Asia as well as robust African-American engagement is already transforming Texas. Nearly 40% of last year’s statewide electorate was nonwhite, according to census data.
But the demographic shift is only part of the reason Democrats are surging in a state that now includes half of America’s 10 fastest growing cities. Texas’ population hubs are filled with college-educated, white transplants as well as native-born Anglos, as they are called here; many are political moderates turned off by Trump’s rhetorical rampaging and hard-line policies on immigration.
“Republican women are appalled at what’s coming out of the White House,” said Annise Parker, a Democrat who became Houston’s first openly gay mayor thanks in part to support from centrist Republicans. “It’s not that Texas is going to the left; it’s just that a lot of folks are saying, ‘Enough.’”
The fate of Republicans here, said U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, a Democrat from San Antonio, will be decided by whether they “choose between that old Bush approach of a big-tent party or this new Trump version, which is aimed at getting your base riled up against Hispanics.”
Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican facing reelection next year, has sought the more inclusive style. In 2014 he aired ads in English, Spanish and Vietnamese on his way to winning nearly half the state’s Latino vote against modest opposition.
The senator will be helped by a Republican Party more prepared than it was before Beto O’Rourke’s surprise strength against Cruz last year.
A new group aimed at registering Republican voters has already raised nearly $10 million and, separately, the Texas Republican Party is ramping up a robust field organization.
“My belief is that Republicans’ biggest obstacle is not some demographic wave, it’s the lethargy of being 20 years in power,” said Rep. Chip Roy, a freshman Republican.
Roy noted that many of the most reliable Hispanic voters here were from families that had been in the state stretching back multiple generations and were either loyal Republicans or at least up for grabs.
Still, Cornyn will surely face a tougher race than in 2014.
A handful of Democrats are locked in a primary now to determine Cornyn’s opponent, but O’Rourke’s impassioned, and viral, criticism of Trump in the aftermath of the El Paso massacre is leading to new calls for him to drop out of the presidential race, where his campaign has flagged, and return to Texas to challenge Cornyn.
“He just needs to get home and take care of business,” said Parker, noting that “we wouldn’t have five people running for Senate if Beto came back.”
Gilberto Hinojosa, the chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, said Democrats would be wise to remember that many of the recent defectors to the party here are moderates.
“A lot of people in this state who vote for Democrats now didn’t use to vote for Democrats,” Hinojosa said. “I just don’t want us to mess this thing up.”
But Hinojosa was among many Texas Democrats who suggested that the El Paso shooting — and the Trumpian echoes in the suspect’s manifesto — would only accelerate nonwhite voter engagement and the migration of disaffected white suburban voters from Republicans’ thrall.
In 2018, Reps. Lizzie Fletcher and Colin Allred defeated Republican lawmakers in metropolitan Houston and Dallas, respectively, and six other Republican incumbents won reelection by less than 5 percentage points.
Three of the six — Reps. Will Hurd, Kenny Marchant and Pete Olson — announced in recent weeks that they would not run again. Each of their districts is majority nonwhite.
“I do believe that there is a greater threat to Texas’ Republican majority than there has been in past years,” Cruz said, adding that he hoped it would “create a renewed sense of urgency.”
Some Republican strategists were concerned that Marchant and Olson were ill prepared to defend their once-safe seats, but Hurd’s exit is an undeniable blow to the state and national party — a “kick in the teeth,” as Rove put it.
Hurd won by fewer than 1,000 votes in 2018, and his Democratic opponent, Gina Ortiz Jones, is running another well-funded campaign. But for Hurd, the only black House Republican, the decision to leave rather than run with Trump in a district that stretches along the Mexican border carries even greater symbolism.
“We need more Will Hurds, not fewer,” lamented Joe Straus, a Republican and former speaker of the Texas House.
National Republicans are bracing for additional House retirements from Texas in the weeks to come, opening more seats and further hampering their chances for taking back control of the chamber.
But the contagion is hardly limited to Congress.
Democrats made up ground at the state level last year and, with the addition of nine seats, could gain control of the state House next year. A Democratic majority in the chamber would undo the stranglehold Republicans have had on redistricting, complicating the party’s efforts at gerrymandering.
Some of the Democrats’ most striking gains have come in the kinds of lesser-known offices that often earned little attention from the party. Last year, Lina Hidalgo, at 27, defeated a long-tenured Republican incumbent to become the leader of Harris County, the largest jurisdiction in Texas. She is the first woman and first Latina elected to the office.
“As long as Democrats continue to champion the issues that people care about and continue to connect with the diversity of our state, we stand to gain,” Hidalgo said.
And next door in Fort Bend County, which includes Sugar Land, that diversity spoke for itself at the Pho Ben Noodle House, which shares a strip mall with two Indian restaurants.
Lured by affordable homes and good public schools, immigrants from all over the world have arrived in Sugar Land in recent decades. When Paul Begala, the Democratic strategist, returned here for his high school reunion in 2016, he discovered a community transformed, down to the spirit hijabs in his alma mater’s colors.
The political change came slower. But after Hillary Clinton’s success here in 2016, Sri Preston Kulkarni, a former diplomat who counts Sam Houston as a maternal ancestor, came within 5 percentage points of unseating Olson last year.
K.P. George, who grew up in a thatch hut in India, fared even better. George ousted a long-serving Republican incumbent to become the first executive of Fort Bend County who is not a white man.
Sitting behind his desk this week, a 19th-century map of Fort Bend’s plantations on his wall, George grinned as he reeled off an array of statistics illuminating the changes in a county that is nearly equal parts white, black, Latino and Asian.
And he noted that while 29% of the county’s residents were born overseas, they represent over 36% of the buying power there.
“These guys are contributing, making this place a better place,” George said of his fellow immigrants, dismissing Trump’s portrayals of immigrants as takers-not-makers.
But some in the party said they did have the president to thank for one thing.
Trump, said Oberoi, is “the best thing for Texas Democrats since LBJ.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.