Hays County’s Transformation Gives Democrats Hope in Hill Country House District

Erin Zwiener on the campaign trail.
Erin Zwiener on the campaign trail. Erin Zwiener/Facebook
Erin Zwiener on the campaign trail.
Erin Zwiener on the campaign trail. Erin Zwiener/Facebook

Erin Zwiener bobs up and down, soothing her three-month old infant strapped to her chest, as she makes her pitch to voters in a Buda subdivision. “When I was a public school kid, the state paid 60 percent of my education. Now, it’s closer to 38 percent,” she says. “That leaves school districts with two options: Cut services or raise taxes. Here in Hays [Consolidated ISD], they’re doing both.”

A local activist who helped launch an Indivisible chapter in Hays County, Zwiener got fed up with her state representative, Republican Jason Isaac, and decided to challenge him. Running as a common-sense progressive in the primary, Zwiener earned the endorsement of the Bernie Sanders-aligned Our Revolution Texas. She trailed Rebecca Bell-Metereau, a Democratic candidate who has run in several elections, by 15 percentage points in the March primary. But Zwiener pulled off a major upset in the runoff, coming from behind to win by fewer than 200 votes.

Illustration/Sunny Sone

House District 45 encompasses all of Hays and Blanco counties, which have divergent political profiles. Hays is a swelling suburban county that includes Buda, Kyle, San Marcos and Texas State University. Sparkling new subdivisions run up against rolling farmland along I-35. As more and more people move out from Austin, the county is trending Democratic. All told, the district has gained 13,000 new voters since 2016, according to the Texas House Democratic Campaign Committee.

To the west in the Hill Country, Blanco County remains deep red — Trump won with nearly 75 percent of the vote. But Beto O’Rourke has drawn big crowds to campaign stops in the area, giving Democrats hope.

Democratic candidate Erin Zwiener and her child with Congressman Beto O’Rourke.  Erin Zwiener/Facebook

The seat was held by conservative Democrat Patrick Rose before he was swept out by Isaac in the tea-party wave of 2010. When Isaac gave up his state House seat to run unsuccessfully in the GOP primary this year for the 21st Congressional District, Texas Democrats saw a chance to take back a seat that shifted in their favor in recent years.

Zwiener faces Republican Ken Strange, a Wimberley Independent School District board member. Strange casts himself as something of a moderate. While he says he’s staunchly conservative on issues like abortion, he thinks the state ought to restore local school funding to ease the burden on taxpayers — something that puts him at odds with conservative leaders of the state party. “Maybe I’m a new breed of Republican,” Strange told the Observer.

Zwiener faces long odds. Despite its growth, HD 45 has remained stubbornly Republican, especially in midterm years. Strange has taken in large contributions from big Republican donors and PACs like Texans for Lawsuit Reform.

Meanwhile, state and national Democrats are focusing on what they see as more winnable legislative races  in Dallas. Zwiener has struggled to raise money, but she thinks she can beat Strange by outhustling him on the streets — she says she’s knocked on more than 6,000 doors through the course of her campaign. “This district is Democrats’ to lose this year,” she said. “The demographic shift is there.”

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Justin Miller is the politics reporter for the Observer. He previously covered politics and policy for The American Prospect in Washington, D.C., and has also written for The Intercept, The New Republic and In These Times. Follow him on Twitter or email him at [email protected].

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