Political and population trends are colliding as the steadily escalating tension between red states and their blue cities across the Sun Belt is reaching a breaking point over the volatile issue of school masking.
For more than a decade, GOP governors and Republican-controlled legislatures in states from Florida and Georgia to Texas and Arizona, reflecting the priorities and preferences of their primarily White and non-urban coalition, have moved with increasing boldness to override decisions made by Democratic-controlled city and county governments in their states’ racially diverse largest population centers on issues from environmental standards to workplace protections and even police funding.
This steady procession of preemptions has provoked howls of outrage from local officials. But none of those previous overrides — not even the actions last year by state Republican leaders in those four states to overturn local limits on business hours or capacity during the first months of the pandemic — has inspired anything like the explicit defiance from local leaders in Florida, Arizona and especially Texas of GOP-crafted state statutes and executive orders that bar public schools from requiring masks for all students and staff.
The effort by statewide GOP leaders in multiple states to strip local Democratic officials of their authority over masking “is very consistent with what we’ve been seeing” for years, says David Damore, a University of Nevada at Las Vegas political scientist and co-author of the recent book “Blue Metros, Red States.” “But now you have a public health issue, so it’s upped the ante compared to a fight over, say, who should regulate Uber. Here it is something that is affecting every community in the country.”
The struggle over school masking rules, which is barreling toward decisive rulings in state courts in Florida, Arizona and Texas possibly within days, is crystallizing the conflict between a Democratic coalition that is improving its position throughout the Sun Belt’s largest metropolitan areas and a Republican coalition that still controls statewide power in these states because of its dominance in less densely populated areas.
The new Census Bureau figures released last week help explain the intensity of this struggle. Those new data, according to several previously unpublished analyses shared with me, show that in the fastest-growing Sun Belt states, the large metropolitan areas facing the most persistent conflicts with state Republican leaders dominated population growth over the past decade. Sun Belt metro areas like those centered on Atlanta, Dallas, Houston and Phoenix, in fact, are generally among the most dynamic areas anywhere in the nation, soaring not only in population but also in jobs and economic output, and pulling further away from the non-metropolitan areas of their states.
“The reality is that over a decade, there’s been considerably more metropolitan and urban growth in increasingly professional, technologically oriented, fast-growing hubs of states while the non-urban heartland loses people and is losing its economic base,” in industries such as manufacturing and energy production, says Mark Muro, policy director at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “So in that sense the disjunction has become much wider.”
Against the backdrop of these population and job gains, the core underlying question raised by the GOP efforts to preempt local mask requirements is: How long can these metro areas be denied political influence commensurate with their economic clout?
“These tensions,” Muro says, “are reaching a crisis stage in the Sun Belt because they pit the claims of the nation’s core metropolitan economic engines against a GOP management based in the rural-small-town hinterland that still controls the redistricting process and is pulling out all the stops in limiting the urban vote.”
Metros driving Sun Belt growth
From any angle, the metro dominance of growth across the Sun Belt leaps from the new census numbers. Jed Kolko, the chief economist for Indeed, the job search site, compared growth in the key Sun Belt states between the very largest metropolitan areas — those with populations of 1 million or more — and all other places: He found that the largest metros over the past decade had added population at least three times faster than everywhere else in Arizona, Georgia, Texas and North Carolina, and slightly faster in Florida.
“The fastest-growing places in the country have been the suburbs of big Sun Belt metros, the outlying portions of [places like] Austin or Phoenix,” Kolko says.
Muro’s team at Brookings took a broader look, comparing the population growth of all the metropolitan areas in the key Sun Belt states with the remainder living in smaller places. In Texas, Florida and Georgia, the analysis found, the metropolitan areas accounted for about 99% of the states’ increased populations since 2010; in North Carolina, South Carolina and Arizona, the metropolitan areas accounted for more than 100% of the states’ growth, meaning that the smaller non-metropolitan places actually lost population over the past decade.
Texas perhaps best crystallizes how much large metros are now driving growth in the Sun Belt. Just the Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin and San Antonio metropolitan areas — all jurisdictions where officials are defying Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on mask mandates — accounted for fully 87% of the new residents the state added since 2010, according to calculations by Steven Pedigo, director of the Urban Lab at the University of Texas at Austin’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. Meanwhile, the non-metropolitan areas that favor Republicans remained stagnant, with virtually no population increase over the past decade, he says. The big four metro areas alone now account for 68% of the state’s population, up from 64% in 2010.
“That’s a pretty significant jump in becoming much more urban,” says Pedigo. “The Austin metro area in 2010 was 1.7 million; now it’s about 2.3 million. It added about 570,000 people, which is about the size of the District of Columbia.” Meanwhile, he adds, “rural Texas is declining: It has 3 million residents, but there is no economic basis there.”
These population shifts come as Democrats have improved their standing across these growing metro areas. In 2020, Joe Biden won all of the largest Sun Belt metropolitan areas — a list that ranges from Charlotte and Raleigh in the East to Phoenix, Denver and Las Vegas in the West — except for three in Florida (Jacksonville, Tampa and Miami), according to calculations by Damore and the late Robert Lang in a Brookings paper. Biden was the first Democratic presidential nominee to carry all four of the largest Texas metro areas since native son Lyndon Johnson in 1964; he was the first Democrat to win Maricopa County, the core of the Phoenix metro area, since Harry Truman in 1948.
If Democrats can sustain those gains, this tilt in the balance of population toward the largest metropolitan centers — and the concurrent shift toward more racial diversity that the census also documented — constitutes a fundamental long threat to the GOP dominance in many of the big Sun Belt states, a dynamic already underscored by the breakthroughs from Biden and Democratic Senate candidates in Arizona and Georgia.
Still, the population changes alone don’t guarantee that these states will follow the Sun Belt battlegrounds of Colorado and Virginia in moving from solidly Republican in the 1990s to closely contested after 2000 to strongly Democratic-leaning today. Democratic gains are coming more slowly in Texas and North Carolina (another state defined by the split between red rural communities and blue-trending metropolitan ones) and the Republican position in Florida is actually improving, amid a steady inward flow of conservative White retirees and GOP gains among voters with Central and South American roots.
And Democrats’ failure last year to win as many US House or especially state legislative seats in Sun Belt suburbs where Biden performed well show that many traditionally Republican-leaning voters in those places haven’t entirely severed their roots. “Remember the urban areas are not monolithic” in moving toward the Democrats, says Bill Miller, a longtime Texas lobbyist and political consultant who has worked for both parties. “It’s a fractured picture, not a unified picture.”
Yet the GOP’s anxieties about the long-term implications of these population shifts are evident in the ferocity of its drive to pass new laws in these states making it more difficult to vote — and its plans, wherever it has the authority to control legislative and congressional map drawing, for aggressive gerrymanders to dilute the political power of urban areas.
“What’s going on with voting rights is clearly linked to all this as well,” says Damore. “If you make it more difficult for your opposition to participate in the election, that’s going to help you in the short run as well.”
The battle is on between local and state governments
Amid these conflicting forces — more urbanization and diversity, consolidating GOP dominance in rural areas and the new wave of voter suppression bills and gerrymanders expected for 2022 — it’s an open question how long it will take for Democrats to consistently win governorships or state legislative majorities in fast-growing Sun Belt states such as North Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Texas and Arizona — or whether the party can do it at all.
But as the struggle over school masking dramatically illustrates, these states already face an endemic internal struggle. On one side are the rapidly growing major metropolitan areas generally electing Democrats pursuing progressive policy priorities; on the other are rural-based GOP state legislatures and governors that have lost almost any inhibition about overriding those decisions.
As Richard Briffault, a Columbia University law professor who studies state preemption, recently told me, “What you don’t see is any sense of constraint. What’s so striking now is as soon as an issue gets hot it gets translated into this debate.”
The battle between liberal local and conservative state governments across the Sun Belt has covered almost every conceivable issue. Lina Hidalgo, the young Democratic county judge (in effect county executive) in Harris County, Texas — which includes Houston and is the state’s largest — spoke for many of her counterparts in large communities when she told me earlier this year that it felt as if GOP state legislators “keep a to-do list of what counties and cities are doing so they can cancel it out at the next session.”
In the modern wave of conflict that traces back roughly to the big GOP statewide gains in the 2010 tea party-fueled election, no issue has been too small for intervention. Over the years, state governments in Texas, Florida and Arizona have blocked cities from banning single-use plastic bags in grocery stores on environmental grounds. North Carolina Republicans, back when they controlled the legislature and the governorship, passed perhaps the most famous of the preemption bills in 2016 when they overturned a city of Charlotte ordinance allowing transgender people to use the bathrooms of the genders they identify with.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis this year signed a law blocking local governments from assessing “impact fees” on developers for the cost of public infrastructure required by their projects; Texas in 2019 capped local governments’ ability to raise property taxes, at a level too low “to maintain existing programs,” as Austin’s Democratic Mayor Steve Adler says. Georgia has blocked local governments concerned about climate change from limiting new natural gas hook-ups.
In the aftermath of the George Floyd racial justice protests, Texas, Florida and Georgia all passed laws making it much more difficult for local governments to cut their police budgets. The Texas state Senate this spring passed legislation (called SB 14) that would eviscerate the authority of local governments to regulate almost any kinds of conditions for workers; among the local statutes that law would overturn are paid leave ordinances in Dallas, Austin and San Antonio (which have already been blocked by state courts) and requirements in Dallas and Austin that construction workers, in a state facing more severe summer heat amid climate change, be given a water break at least every four hours.
“If SB 14 becomes law, then any local ordinance that would deal with employee protections would be a nonstarter,” says Sean Goldhammer, director of employment and legal services for the Workers Defense Action Fund, in Texas.
Delta variant tipped the balance
This instinct of Republican statewide officials to preempt Democratic local officials reached a new peak during the initial stages of the coronavirus outbreak last year. Under pressure from then-President Donald Trump, Republican governors such as Doug Ducey in Arizona, Brian Kemp in Georgia, Abbott and DeSantis all repeatedly blocked efforts from Democratic mayors and county officials in their largest metropolitan areas to extend stay-at-home orders, limit business hours of operation or require masks in various settings as the virus raged; Kemp at one point even sued Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms over a mask mandate that she had ordered last summer. In Arizona, Ducey infuriated local officials like Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego by insisting that golf courses and beauty salons be allowed to stay open even during the worst days of the outbreak.
Yet even those interventions last year didn’t spark anything like the open defiance that has greeted the executive orders in Florida and Texas and the legislation in Arizona barring local governments, including school districts, from requiring masks. (In Georgia, Kemp has avoided full-scale confrontation: He’s rejected calls for statewide mask mandates but also rebuffed demands from conservatives to call a special legislative session to bar any local mask requirements.)
Christian Menefee, the attorney for Texas’ Harris County, says that last year “There wasn’t much of an appetite to go out and file lawsuits” against Abbott’s preemption of local public health rules. But, he says, the heightened level of risk associated with the Delta variant of the coronavirus, which has flooded Texas hospitals with victims, combined with the increased threat it presents to children tipped the balance for many local officials.
Once one jurisdiction resisted, he says, others quickly followed: “One domino fell and then everybody just decided school is about to come in session, the Delta variant is spreading like wildfire, hospitalizations are up, ICU capacity is down … it’s time for the courts to weigh in on this issue,” Menefee told me.
Adds Goldhammer: After years of preemption from state-level Republicans, “what’s happening now is kind of like a breaking point.”
Briffault says the uprisings against the mask-requirement bans by school and local officials in Florida, Texas and other states remind him of the revolt by national security professionals against Trump’s efforts to strong-arm the Ukrainian government into manufacturing dirt on Biden.
“As professionals, they were appalled by the violation of professional norms and the perverting of national security for ideology, and I think that’s what we are seeing here, especially with the local school boards,” he wrote me in an email. “These are professional educators, and/or locally-elected officials, deeply concerned about the welfare of their kids and their ability to run their schools safely and effectively. I think this really [is] about the revolt of the professionals against the ideologues.”
As both Menefee and Goldhammer acknowledge, the local jurisdictions face long odds of success in the Texas Supreme Court, an elected body composed entirely of Republicans who have steadfastly supported the party’s priorities in the past; indeed, this weekend, the court overturned lower court decisions to issue a temporary injunction against mask requirements in San Antonio and Dallas. The courtroom odds may not be much better for the resisting school districts in Arizona and Florida: Every state Supreme Court justice in both of those states was appointed by Republican governors as well.
Given those partisan realities, most expect the GOP governors to ultimately succeed in reversing most of the mask mandates from local Democrats. And at the moment, Republican strategists generally remain confident that they retain the electoral advantage in these states, especially Texas and Florida, where Abbott and DeSantis face reelection next year.
One reason is that however the Covid outbreak plays out, next year could be tough for Democrats since the president’s party almost always suffers losses in his first midterm election. Another is that if congressional Democrats don’t pass federal legislation establishing a nationwide floor of voting rights, Republicans could benefit from the restrictive voting laws that Florida, Georgia and Arizona have passed and Texas is attempting to.
But if Covid caseloads spike further in these states, particularly among school-age children, success in erasing local mask mandates could prove a Pyrrhic victory, both in political and public health terms, for DeSantis, Abbott and other GOP governors. The price could be especially high if these uncompromising stands alienate suburban voters.
With the Republican rural redoubts across the Sun Belt generally losing population and the metropolitan areas burgeoning, experts agree the GOP’s long-term ability to retain power will depend on it holding the line against further Democratic advances in the diversifying and generally well-educated inner suburbs of the big Sun Belt metros, the places Kolko identified as the nation’s fastest growing communities overall.
Those suburbs, as Damore puts it, are “the fault line” in states that are growing more precariously balanced between Democrats dominating center cities and Republicans romping in rural areas. “Once you start losing the suburbs,” he adds, “eventually there is not enough [other people] left in the state to win.”
By aligning so unreservedly with the anti-mask preferences of their conservative and rural base, GOP officials in the burgeoning Sun Belt states may be testing how far they can push even traditionally Republican-leaning suburban voters before too many of them rebel.