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Why Is This Happening? Measuring how red Texas has become with Abby Livingston: podcast and transcript

Chris Hayes speaks with Abby Livingston, the Washington bureau chief for The Texas Tribune, about the Republican domination of the Lone Star State.

Are Republicans losing their grip on Texas? Election night saw Democrats largely unable to build on the gains made in 2018 when an insurgent Beto O’Rourke ran a grassroots senate campaign that gained national attention. But despite frustrations from Democrats that they didn’t perform as well as they hoped this November, there’s still cause for concern among Texas Republicans. The population in metro areas is growing rapidly and demographics are moving to the left.

So just how strong is the Republican hold on Texas? Abby Livingston is the Washington bureau chief for The Texas Tribune who just so happens to be a seventh generation Texan. She lays out the origins of the Republican domination of the Lone Star State, what clues she picked up on that things were starting to change, and what to keep an eye on in future elections.

Note: This is a rough transcript — please excuse any typos.

ABBY LIVINGSTON: I honestly thought Democrats were going to have a better night than they did. But when I did see the voter turnout coming in, I was extremely reluctant to say this is for sure good for Democrats, I asked people on the ground, "What do you see? What do you hear?" Everyone just tells me how the rural areas were blanketed with Trump enthusiasm, Barnes painted signs everywhere. You get past those cities, and it just drops really quickly into Republican territory.

CHRIS HAYES: Hello, welcome to "Why Is This Happening" with me, your host, Chris Hayes. I'm back in the podcast closet, because why am I here? I don't know. It may be because all of us are starting to feel a little March, April vibes right now. By vibes, I mean, like terror and anxiety as the COVID cases shoot up around the country. That's not the topic of today's podcast. If you want to take your mind off that, then keep your ear holes plugged right here.

Instead, we're going to talk about another sort of depressing topic ... you know how I do ... which is the great state of Texas. Now, Texas is not depressing, because Texas is an amazing, amazing place. It's so interesting. It's so unlike any other state in the union. It's so big. It's so diverse and varied. It has such fascinating and bizarre politics, fascinating and bizarre history, a ton of like micro-cultures. There are places that are in the state of Texas that are really unlike anywhere else in the entire United States, the Rio Grande Valley being a great example of that.

The metro areas around Texas have seen incredible growth in population. They've also seen incredible transformation politically. Of course, for years, I mean, the Democrats have not won a statewide election. Oh, God, I think it's like 1994, if I'm not mistaken, basically back since Ann Richards. It's been a shockingly long period of time. There's always this idea that like, "Well, actually, if you squint at it, and you look at the growth of suburban, metro areas, and the fact that it's a low turnout state with a high Latino population, there should be universe in which can turn blue and will this be the time and it's Lucy in the football over and over and over and again. The closest actually was the Beto O'Rourke-Ted Cruz race in 2018, which really did come quite close.

I think two points, maybe a little less than two points, statewide, which an incredible results given how moribund statewide candidates in Texas have been. This election there was pulling down the stretch that showed the race tied. But basically, all the polling, it was systematically off by about four or five points. I think when all the votes are counted, Donald Trump will beat Joe Biden in Texas by about five points. Also down-ballot, there was a lot of hope about flipping one of the houses of the state legislature. That didn't happen as well. All in all a terrible night for Texas Democrats.

With that said, I have to note that between 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, the state still shifted about three points to the left. That's a huge deal. To give you a sense, that's way more than Wisconsin, which went from a narrow Trump win to a narrow Trump loss. I think it only flipped about less than 1 percent in one direction. It's better than North Carolina, which again, North Carolina, moved to the left, but by not enough to split the state. It's less than Georgia, which went about five points to the left. Moving a state three points to the left is a huge deal. That is a little bit obscured by the fact that we have an Electoral College system that only really gives you the points if you get over the hump.

I've long been obsessed with Texas politics. My brother worked down there for a while. I have a lot of friends down there. I spent a lot of time down there. I've done reporting on there. I tend to think about it a lot and be in contact with a lot of Texans about what's going on down there. One of the best political reporters in the entire state right now is Abby Livingston. She's the Washington bureau chief for the Texas Tribune. She's a seventh generation Texan, and it's great to have her on "Why Is This Happening."

ABBY LIVINGSTON: Thanks for having me. I'm so excited.

CHRIS HAYES: We should note up front that this is our third attempt to have you on the program. There was one attempt which went awry technically, which was like so embarrassing. I was sweating like a stuck animal as we've wasted your time. Then I had to get back to do the show. Then you're going to come on the Friday after ... Thursday after Election Day. But it was during a stretch for I was doing anchoring five hours of programming in a 20-hour stretch. But now you're here and we can both hear each other. This is huge progress.

ABBY LIVINGSTON: I almost sabotage the technical side on my end. I was sweating this time. I'm glad we're connected.

CHRIS HAYES: Before we get to ... I want to set some context in history before we get to looking at 2020. Let's first talk about the rise of total Republican domination in the state of Texas. I mean, obviously, Texas was at one point back in the day a Democratic stronghold, and that's where LBJ comes from. It's a vestige of the solid south that it moves away from that. When do the Republicans really started to come to dominate the state's politics?

ABBY LIVINGSTON: I would say probably 1990, 1994. In the '80s, there was a governor, Bill Clements, who was a Republican. I believe he was the first Republican in a long time. I could be mistaken on that fact. 1990 was when future Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison became the state treasurer, and future Governor Rick Perry won races ... who had previously been a Democrat, switched parties and ran for, I believe, agriculture commissioner. They broke through on lower levels in the same year Ann Richards won the governor's race. That was the breakthrough.

Then 1994 when George W. Bush challenged Ann Richards, that's when it really started. There were a couple of statewide Democrats underneath him that lasted until 1998. Then the executive branch was effectively Republican. Bush goes to the presidency. Perry becomes governor. Then in 2002, Republicans take the last outstanding arm of the government, which I believe was the State House of Representatives on the strength of Bush and the 2002 midterms that I was in college at the time. I remember even though they were state government races, almost all of them were about terrorism.

That was when things changed. That was when you had Tom DeLay become the Supreme House person. Hutchison was rising through the ranks, and then they redistricted. There were more Republicans in the Texas federal delegation. It's been homeostasis since then with some ebbs and flows in both directions.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. We should say that what happened in Texas as part of a larger regional trend right around that time, I mean, it's crazy to imagine. It's really wild when you think about American history, which is that the Democratic Party is the party of treasonous secession. Then it's around the time of the Civil War, it then becomes the party of white supremacy, and Jim Crow and redemption, and a battling of reconstruction. It becomes the dominant party throughout the south, including the state of Texas, which has a complicated relationship to the confederacy for a bunch of reasons.

Even though that that's set in the 1870s, it persists for, basically, 90 years. I mean, it starts to break apart at the presidential level in the 1960s. Even before that, it starts to break apart with Strom Thurmond's 1948 presidential runners as a Dixiecrat. Then Wallace runs in '68. We see it breaking apart, breaking apart. But at the local level, it really comes apart in the Gingrich Revolution in those early '90s. It was when the thing breaks. When you get DeLay and you get Gingrich and get all these people. That's what happened in Texas. Then you basically get Republican total domination of the state starting that, right?

ABBY LIVINGSTON: Absolutely. My dad grew up in West Austin, in the '50s, and '60s, and that was an era when Lyndon Johnson lived there, John Connally. He was surrounded by all of these children of politicians who were all Democrats. There was a real fight between the conservative faction and the liberal faction of the state Democratic Party with the Republicans largely irrelevant. There's a really great book by the former lieutenant governor, from the '60s named Ben Barnes. Through 1972 details the decline of the Democratic Party in the state. I actually had a Republican source who encouraged me to read it because he is so worried about his own party. This was before the last election. But the fear of what one-party rule can eventually destroy the party, if that makes sense.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. No. That's interesting. I mean, I think one-party rule ... Look, I think democracies need to be competitive to be healthy in some ways. One-party rule tends to get pretty bad and moribund. I think there's ... One-party rule in Texas, one of the things that makes covering Texas politics "fun" is that one-party rule doesn't mean there's not conflict. Basically, different factions of the Republican Party absolutely go to town on each other session after session.

ABBY LIVINGSTON: Absolutely. There is definitely a libertarian/Tea Party/evangelical strain. Clearly the Bushes are the drivers of the push toward the Republican Party. What is fascinating right now is there's so many Bush operatives who maybe are a little older than me, but who I grew up with, who are looking at this and saying, "This isn't my Republican Party." There is a real division. Our State House Speaker are likely next one in the past to ... have come about through a coalition of Democrats and Republicans, with the very far right wing of the Republican Party sometimes being the odd man out.

Actually our new state chairman, GOP chairman is a former congressman from Florida named Allen West. He's actually come out saying that it's traitorous to join with Democrats and to build a coalition for speaker. It is extremely messy and extremely complicated and extremely fun.

CHRIS HAYES: What has Republican rule for the last, say, since George W. Bush, he's the governor. He leaves to become president. You got Tom DeLay who's this incredibly powerful federal figure, and then Rick Perry, and then Greg Abbott. What has been the status quo or the equilibrium achieved by this long period of Republican rule in Texas?

ABBY LIVINGSTON: Well, I mean, it's been keeping taxes low. The perennial debate in state politics is how to fund schooling. I think my clarifying moment as a political professional in journalism. I went to the state GOP Convention a few years ago. In between speeches, they run commercials from each of the statewide officials. Literally, every single official ran an ad on how they were the most anti-abortion person in the state. I mean, this would be the Railroad Commission or which is a misnomer. It oversees oil and gas regulation. My parents get direct mail, and I would look at their direct mail and it would be, again, like anti-abortion for offices that had nothing to do with it. I think that's a key driver.

Within the Texas delegation in Congress, they used to be very, very lockstep. Once Senator Hutchison retired and once Tom DeLay removed himself, it's become more splintered. That is goes back to the old Lyndon Johnson days of it's this huge delegation. They can work as a unit. They worked as a unit somewhat in Hurricane Harvey relief. But it is definitely much more scattered now. I don't know what this new delegation is going to be like. But it is definitely not the unit it used to be.

CHRIS HAYES: What is one of the big trends in Texas over the last 10 to 20 years? Again, aligns with other trends. We've seen this happen in Arizona, Georgia, Florida. People don't really like cold weather, which is a huge thing. In a world in which people don't like cold weather and air conditioning is plentiful, and relatively cheap, we've seen huge migration from cold areas of the country to warm areas of the country. That means that there's a huge population shift from the Northeast and the Midwest, down to states like Georgia, the Carolinas, Florida, Texas, Arizona, California, although California is now losing population. This is meant a lot of growth. Where has the growth, the population, economic growth in Texas been centered?

ABBY LIVINGSTON: In the cities and then the suburbs. They call it the triangle, and there's Dallas Fort Worth. You take Interstate 35 down to Austin, and you go further on San Antonio, and then east of there's Houston, and that whole triangle there. The suburbs have absolutely exploded. Every time I go home, there's just new ... the rural areas are just slowly taking up in the suburbs. The companies also want to go to Texas, and it's something Republicans are very proud of, lower taxes, Toyota, places like that.

There's been a real conscious shift since the oil bust of the 1980s to diversify the economy, has a good public university system. But I think, at least, Republicans will tell you, it's probably more taxes than the weather than anything, because our summers can be pretty hot. But it's a huge point of pride to steal economic jobs and businesses from California.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. I mean, the conservative and Republican case for why people move to Texas is because they keep taxes low. It's a good business friendly environment with low regulation. I don't think I would have just missed that out of hand. I think that the triumvirate that you've seen beyond Texas is relatively low taxes, cheap housing, and no cold weather, all 10 key things that people seek out. I think those three things have really driven people because there's more space in those parts of the country, and there is like in the Northeast and the Midwest. Space means it's easier and cheaper to build homes. Easier and cheaper to build homes means you could buy homes for less. That means you can have a middle class life with a nice three- or four-bedroom house for $200,000, which is totally impossible in ...

ABBY LIVINGSTON: Absolutely.

CHRIS HAYES: ... huge swaths of the more populated parts of the country.

ABBY LIVINGSTON: A one bedroom apartment where I live Washington, DC is what a three bedroom, two baths in my hometown of Fort Worth easily goes for. It blows my parents minds to think about real estate on the east coast.

CHRIS HAYES: So you’ve got all these people moving there, and big population growth, and it's centered around the cities and the suburbs and that triangle. I mean, I don't know what the percentage is, but like a shocking percentage of the population of Texas is actually in that triangle.

ABBY LIVINGSTON: Absolutely. That's what we're watching with the political shake up that's happening in the state. The biggest explainer of this was in 2018, I was at Congressman O’Rourke’s "victory party." I was watching the results come in. It looked like he was going to win. That Ted Cruz was in a lot of trouble, and a lot of congress people who we weren't watching were in trouble. I went and did a TV hit, and I came back. Well, all of a sudden, the numbers flipped. What it was was the cities count their votes faster than the rural areas. We saw in real time, the divide between rural and city, but city came in first.

I was expecting that this past election night, and it was even more dramatic of a swing. It looked like Wendy Davis was going to beat Chip Roy in the congressional seat by 10 points. She ended up losing by seven. That is the most dramatic illustration of just how much that divide is growing. That is basically I think, more than anything. Assuming the suburbs that Trump is in realignment, I mean that he has a realignment, it's just a matter of time before the cities take over the rural area and the vote count statewide.

CHRIS HAYES: There's a guy named Derek Ryan who I follow on Twitter; he's like a Republican campaign guy, operative numbers guy. I remember watching him that night with Beto. He was like, "Oh, Beto was going to win because he had preconceived notions of what numbers you need to hit in what suburbs."

ABBY LIVINGSTON:Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: Cruz was not hitting them. He was like, "Oh, he's toast." But he did not account for and this is the trend we've seen all over the country, but it's been supercharged in Texas that those rural margins are just insane. I mean, Texas is a microcosm for the bigger trends in the country. But they're supercharged there. Things are moving very quickly in the metro areas. They're polarizing even more in a Republican direction in the rural areas.

ABBY LIVINGSTON: Absolutely. That, I honestly thought Democrats were going to have a better night than they did. But when I did see the voter turnout coming in, I was extremely reluctant to say this is for sure good for Democrats — because I haven’t actually been in the state I’m going home tomorrow, but I haven’t been home because of the pandemic — I’ll let you know, I asked people on the ground, "What do you see? What do you hear?" Everyone just tells me how the rural areas were blanketed with Trump enthusiasm, barns painted, signs everywhere. You get past those cities, and it just drops really quickly into Republican territory.

It is an absolutely fascinating dynamic. One of the things that I think through Democrats was I kept being told like they'd never seen groups move faster than the suburbs in Texas toward any party. I think they probably just got a little bit of over out in front of their seats this year.

CHRIS HAYES: What is driving what's happening in the suburbs? I mean, it's one thing like Harris County, which is where Houston is and is fairly diverse. It moved to the left first. But Dallas-Fort Worth, that area, that used to be ala San Diego, which also just by the way, swung to the Democrats. Dallas-Fort Worth and San Diego were like two of the big cities in America that were Republican, the last few basically. The idea that the Dallas ... I mean, we all grew up, right, in the '80s with Dallas.

ABBY LIVINGSTON: Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: It was oil money, and rich Republicans, and then people that worked for rich Republicans who also were Republicans, basically what it was. The idea that Dallas would be moving into the Democratic Party is just insane.

ABBY LIVINGSTON: Dallas, I mean, there's a book called "Dallas 1963." It's just about how crazy right-wing it was when President Kennedy came in before the assassination. It was just this cultural examination. The only liberal in town was Stanley Marcus, who owns Neiman Marcus. He was just so outgunned by everyone around him in Dallas society. I'm from Fort Worth, which was the last urban county in Texas and maybe in America to be Republican. It flipped for Beto. It just narrowly stayed that way for Biden. Fort Worth is ... you couldn't have driven into my high school with an Al Gore sticker in high school when that election was happening. I mean, George Bush was the only acceptable person to support.

Absolutely, then Harris County, to me, is the most fascinating part of the state. It used to be Republican. I mean, Kay Bailey Hutchison and George W. Bush used to carry it by 30 points, almost two to one margins. It's so much of this is Donald Trump. The numbers just turn upside down when you start looking at 2016. Donald Trump plays extremely well in the rural areas, but he has not done well in the cities and the suburbs. There were two early warnings to me in the Trump administration. The first was the Women's March. I was in D.C. But I was seeing photos of my friends at the Fort Worth Women's March. There were 10,000 people downtown, something like that. I just had never even heard of a protest like that in my hometown.

The other thing was, all of my friends who I went to high school with and their moms and some of their dads, in March of 2017, all went to a sold out Planned Parenthood luncheon, featuring a headliner speaker, little Barbara Bush, the granddaughter. I mean, I had 15 people in there recording for me so I could get what she said. But I've never even really heard of people going to Planned Parenthood events. It was just this huge social thing. The idea was you bring someone new and it was a startling ... I don't think this is the same thing anymore. In my personal awareness, I think there are a lot of very unhappy college educated white women.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. Yes. I mean, I think the college-educated folks polarization around that, particularly combined with polarization on gender and personal distaste for Donald Trump has moved things. But then I guess one of the things that happened in 2020, and we can ... we'll talk about more. But one of the things happened is that there's also ... it seems like a fair amount of ticket splitting. If you look at those, there's a bunch of suburban seats that Dems have their eyes on the Wendy Davis, Chip Roy is one of the ones that you mentioned. There are a number of others. None of which Democrats were able to flip.

It seems there was a fair amount of ticket splitting there that it really was for a lot easier about Trump, more than a larger effect from the Democratic Party. The degree to which that holds or doesn't hold is going to be massively determinative of I think of the future Texas politics.

ABBY LIVINGSTON: First of all, this was our first election. I don't know how long where there was no straight ticket voting. That probably saved some down-ballot Republicans.

CHRIS HAYES: By the way, that was a huge push by Republicans for there not to be straight-ticket voting.

ABBY LIVINGSTON: Correct. That is the central question of 2022 in the midterms. I am extremely reluctant to make predictions. I think, part of my analysis of 2020, and the down-ballot is Donald Trump scrambles things in ways I don't have the intellect or imagination to understand. I don't know how this is going to shake out. I think that there were a lot of people who went to vote against Donald Trump, and who happily voted for John Cornyn and down-ballot Republicans. They just were not keen on Donald Trump.

The thing that happened though with O'Rourke that there's a mantra in politics that his yard signs don't vote. I understand that and there was a poli sci study that Rick Perry used and there became this cultural thing of yard signs are a waste of money, don't spend money on them. That hasn't really been a yard sign war in Texas. Well, O'Rourke used yard signs. What happened was people in Republican sides of town and whether it was River Oaks in Houston and other cities had Beto O'Rourke signs in their yards. It was a coming out process of people put who lived in Republican in areas saying, "You know what? I'm actually a Democrat."

They would go to meetings and clubs, and see people they knew, and didn't know, "Oh, you're a Democrat, too." I think what has changed that can't go back is there's now a social acceptance of being a Democrat in a way that did not exist before 2018.

CHRIS HAYES: This raises, I think that, obviously, Trump, and there's a bunch of things that are driving this. Trump, urbanization increase, growth in metro areas, and the fact that metro areas and formerly bedrock Republican constituencies in the south, for instance, suburban college, educated white people that used to be a huge Republican constituency are now moving towards Democrats in the Trump era. But also it strikes me that Beto is a ... become a polarizing figure and almost, I think, there was a lot of dumping on him and his presidential campaign. But I think it obscures just how incredible race that guy ran in 2018.

ABBY LIVINGSTON: I agree. I think, the presidential race did not work out. I think what polarized him more than anything was his comment about taking away the AR-15. That's just kryptonite in Texas.

CHRIS HAYES: Right.

ABBY LIVINGSTON: The idea was to tie every Democrat to that. But I think one of the reasons Democrats came up short, and I didn't really know what to think of it at the time, but they did not door knock. That was how it was nationally. But all these Democrats, and they were raising a ton of money because they could do fundraisers from their living room on Zoom all over America. They're raising tons of money, but they weren't out campaigning the way Republicans were. My metaphor for O'Rourke in 2018 was ... and this is the frustrating as a national political reporter, I'll go to Iowa and New Hampshire and be around these people who are very smug about not getting, “I won't make up my mind until I need all the candidates.” It's this very like ... It is an expectation and I'm from a state of 30 million people, and it's been virtually ignored for 20, 30 years in the presidential contest.

Before 2018, there was only one competitive U.S. congressional seat. John Cornyn faced nominal competition in 2014. What O'Rourke did was he showed up and he ...

CHRIS HAYES: He showed up.

ABBY LIVINGSTON: My metaphor was like, so the best ice cream in the world is from Texas, and it's called Blue Bell. That's just indisputable. But as a kid, I lived in a neighborhood with mostly older people. The ice cream truck never really came around. But if I heard the chimes of the truck, I’d get really excited and it would not matter if there was ice cream in the freezer that it mattered that the ice cream truck remembered to come by. That meant something to me. That was what was happening with O'Rourke. He was showing up to these towns that nobody bothered to come to, that may not have had Democratic advertising.

I mean by the nature of the 254-county tour, but he was also just everywhere. If you wanted a photo with Beto O'Rourke, you could get one and people would put it on Facebook. That was more how he built traction than anything else was "Who is this guy that keeps showing up in my Facebook feed?" He was such a backbencher congressman before that race. Instead of having a direct mail or television ad campaign, O'Rourke really did the retail politicking. That is part of why I was surprised he didn't have a better run given that that is how New Hampshire and Iowa politics go. I think there was just a lot going on there.

That is how O'Rourke changed it and just person by person, and he has an extraordinary memory. He briefly met my mother at a Texas Tribune event and I forgot they even met, and then he saw her on the trail and he recognized her, and it was just ... I mean, that's like Bill Clinton level type of politicking there.

CHRIS HAYES: This is the thing that people ... he really is an exceptional retail politician. I think the post-2018 trajectory of him that got lost a little bit and I think partly because it made no sense that he would run for president, really. I think that campaign, that point you make about what it means to be able when he said like, "You couldn't drive into my high school parking lot with Al Gore sticker back in the day." What it means in places to be able to say what your beliefs are, and find that there are other people who have those beliefs. That's the first step to actually building some political power.

ABBY LIVINGSTON: I mean, literally, there were meet-ups and they had to keep moving venues because they kept growing. I grew up on the west side of Fort Worth, which is very Republican. It was almost a secret society. People would see folks they knew and then say "Don't tell my dad. Don't tell my husband I'm here." I would see women voting at one of the voting places near where I grew up. I would interview them and they told me they voted against Cruz and they voted for Beto. But they wouldn't give me their name because they didn't want their husbands to know. There was almost a mischievous aspect to that campaign.

But I mean, it didn't really ... I think the thing to remember about 2020 is it was a status quo election. It felt much worse for Democrats because they spent so much money but they actually didn't lose ground. Some of the margins did grow for Republican and their benefit in a lot of these districts. But it really was a status quo situation. But they were not able to build upon with that on the O'Rourke factor.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, right. Right. There was a mismatch between expectations and reality, but it was a ... They did badly in absolute terms. But it's not the state moved to the right dramatically in 2020.

ABBY LIVINGSTON: Yeah. In 2010, that was just ... Democrats were on the march in the post-Obama boom. They almost capture the State House. They almost had a Democratic speaker, and then everything washed out in 2010. I mean, the delegation that is when Blake Farenthold became the congress and the State House got wiped out. Harris County was Republican. People lost who weren't even expecting it. That was not this year for Democrats. But it was devastating in the sense of there was so much optimism. They were going to capture the State House. They needed nine seats. I think they're coming out with a net zero or plus one. I can't remember this tally at this point.

There was hope that they could start with redistricting and just get a map that's a little bit better. That is the bigger devastation rather than Democrats, actually, incumbents losing.

CHRIS HAYES: We’ll be back, after this quick break.

All right. You've got the metro areas and the triangle. You've got the Gulf in East Texas, right? You've got the massive expanse of West Texas, which is deep, deep, deep red. Not that populated. Tons of small counties. Tons of oil and gas, right? Then you've got the Rio Grande Valley. That's, I think, one of the other big stories of 2020.

ABBY LIVINGSTON: Absolutely.

CHRIS HAYES: It's not a national story. I mean, when you look at maps, that breakout swing towards one direction, or the other, and their magnitude, basically, the two biggest places on the entire map that jump out are Miami-Dade, which had an enormous swing towards Donald Trump, and the Rio Grande Valley, which had some counties that swung 40, 50 points in his favor. What's your understanding of what happened in the Valley?

ABBY LIVINGSTON: I think there's going to be legions of academic studies on this. I think it's something we're still trying to figure out. I think the basic, early blush, first blush analysis is Republicans showed up and asked for their votes. It was extremely clever. It was something I did not detect at all. I was on the phone every day trying to figure out what was going on in the state. I think additionally, this is the rural urban divide again. This is why the Texas 23rd District, which was the only district that was drawn to be competitive, and it is bigger than most states. It runs from San Antonio to El Paso and takes eight hours to drive across. It's why it's so unpredictable.

There's things sort of a sudden discovery that the Latino vote is not monolithic. I think most people who follow Texas politics could have told you that already.

CHRIS HAYES: Absolutely.

ABBY LIVINGSTON: There are Latinos who had been in Texas longer than ... their families longer than many Anglos. They may not have the same position on immigration as a lot of other Hispanics. This is what I think the crux of 2020 in Texas was. If you lived in a remote area and rural, you could not understand why people were freaking out about the pandemic. You couldn't understand why businesses had to be shut down if nobody around you had this virus. Now, the risks of rural Texas getting hit are much worse if it does happen, because the hospital system is much more difficult to access. I mean, I would hear frustration among Democrats. If your livelihood was tied to a business that had to be shut down, you are going to be mad.

CHRIS HAYES: Wait. I totally agree with that as a general analysis. But the valley got hit really hard. I mean ...

ABBY LIVINGSTON: Yeah. Fair point.

CHRIS HAYES: It really did. I think that's a really true and important analysis for huge swaths of the country.

ABBY LIVINGSTON: That's right.

CHRIS HAYES: I find so striking, actually, about the valley is that the valley is one of the few rural places in America that got nailed in the first two waves. If you look at those first two waves you have ... April, March, you have New York metro area, Detroit metro area, and New Orleans. Then you've got the summer wave. It hits parts of South Florida. It hits Harris County very badly. It hits Maricopa County very badly. But it hits the Valley really hard. There is a period of time where all this stuff that we've seen, Hidalgo County's medical system melting down, nurses in from Mississippi and Louisiana, the whole nine. It didn't seem to matter politically. In fact, it was ...

ABBY LIVINGSTON: You're right. You're right.

CHRIS HAYES: I just think that's a fact. To me, I don't mean to say that to correct you...

ABBY LIVINGSTON: Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: I just think that actually ...

ABBY LIVINGSTON: Yeah. It's a good point.

CHRIS HAYES: It's part of what's so complex about it to me, because I think your analysis about how large swaths of rural America understood the lockdowns is 100 percent on point. It's true in Texas. It's true in huge parts of the country. But the valley got hit pretty hard. It still swung to the right. I think that your point about this is not a monolithic population. I also think generally like ... and I'm curious what you think of is. One of the big divides in American life is like metro area versus rural. What ends up happening is that, because of the ways in which different populations are spread in different ways, metro areas tend to be the places with the heaviest concentrations of non-white folks.

But the Rio Grande Valley is an example of a place that's predominantly non-white and also super rural. I wonder to the degree of which the rural polarization, those are our people, we’re Trump people supersedes anything else, because those are rural folks. That's country folks. Those are ranches that's ... that's not metro area stuff. I wonder how much that also was part of this as well.

ABBY LIVINGSTON: I mean it could be. Filemon Vela, the congressman from Brownsville, which is just at the very tip, there's a cluster of cities in that area. I believe it was he who said, and I apologize to him if I misquoting him, but he said to one of my colleagues, that part of it was they just didn't show up, the Democrats. The national party didn't. There were no competitive congressional seats outside of the 23rd, which is a little bit west of there, where Democrats were really making the case. On top of that, Hillary Clinton actually has really good relationships down there. She campaigned down there in 1972.

If you had told me after the fact that Biden wouldn't hit her numbers, that wouldn't have surprised me. But just the dramatic swing, I think, is something we're going to have to figure out. I think it's going to be a lot of reporters going down there. I think there's also abortion is an issue. It's just very complex. But I can tell you, a lot of folks down there who are Democrats were as blindsided as anyone.

CHRIS HAYES: That's interesting. One other thing, one other thought I haven't again, this is a sort of ... we're throwing out hypotheses here.

ABBY LIVINGSTON: Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: Because I think I agree with you that we just don't have enough data to make definitive claims about what happened or the reporting. One thing that has struck me in my trips down to the Valley, and I've done a number of them, is the central role that CBP plays as an employer, like ...

ABBY LIVINGSTON: Oh.

CHRIS HAYES: There's huge parts of the RGV where that's the best job you can get. It's a pretty poor area of the country. If you're talking about around McAllen and Hidalgo County, and all the way as you move west towards El Paso, there's not a ton of industry. There's big ranches. But you can go get a job for the CBP and make a pretty good living and get a house. Someone once said to me, "You can get a house with a pool."

ABBY LIVINGSTON: Wow. Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: Have a decent job for 20 years, and then get a pension. The amount of funding increase that we've had towards the border over the last 10 years is insane, and particularly in the last four years. I just wonder how much it's a little bit of ... it's a little like the Chicago machine used to work. I wonder how much there's just a patronage and job situation where the Republican Party is the party of more money on ... more border funding. That's jobs for people.

ABBY LIVINGSTON: I can't speak to that. I'm not fluent enough in that. But what I can say this is you are going to see Democrats down in that district or down in the valley next cycle, because one of the congressmen almost lost, Congressman Vicente Gonzalez. That was my thunderstruck moment. I felt things were so volatile that there might be an incumbent who gets into trouble. I just was not expecting it to be there. He is going to have to run a really robust ... I mean, he's a sophomore, I think, a robust campaign and we're going to see the DCCC down there, because their first priority is not going to be on offense. It's going to be to defend him.

There may be a reverse coattails effect there in the future. But I also had a theory on first coattails for the larger cycle and it didn't pan out. But I think we'll see more Democratic activity down there because of that. One of the things, Biden was not ... he did not seriously come after Texas. He spent some money. But he didn't come down there. Harris did. It made sense to me at 2:00 in the morning on election night, when we weren't sure of Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin were going to hold, or got flip for the Democrats.

I imagine his campaign manager, Jen O'Malley Dillon would have been ... every Democrat in the world would have been screaming at her if there have been any doubt, and she'd been playing for Texas at the same time. I do think if the party is serious about Texas, just like young Hillary Clinton in 1972, we may see young Democrats come to that area and organize.

CHRIS HAYES: What do you think about how is the Republican Party thinking about? I mean, we know the Democrats, I think have a fairly clear ... there's a lot of frustration about the shortcomings, a lot of frustration about falling short, a lot of hope that feels like it's not repaid. Read Beto's memo, where he said that the lack of canvassing was a problem. There's obviously going to be a lot of autopsies of what happened in the Rio Grande Valley. Republicans, I mean, Ted Cruz, other people have been very much sounding an alarm about Texas. Part of that is always a little bit of a cynical like, "Please, donors give money."

You're talking your book when you're telling people that a race is close. But I think there's also some genuine worry. How genuine do you think it is? Will there be a relief now. Republicans will be like, "Well, we have this on lock?"

ABBY LIVINGSTON: I think they bought themselves time. That's first going to pan out in redistricting. I think redistricting is going to tell us what Republicans think about the next decade. Texas is probably going to get two to three seats. I'm using the word conservative and strategy, not ideology. Do they take a conservative approach in the map, or do they take out an aggressive one? Are they looking to pack as many Republicans as possible into the Texas delegation, which is what they've done in the past? Also, the civil rights or the Voting Rights Act has been gutted so they don't have to meet the same standards that they used to and they have a lot freer hand in the drawing.

Do they go super aggressive, or do they maybe just try to protect the incumbents who are in office and be much more conservative and give the incumbents more room in the event a wave hits in the next decade? Those lines start to a race where it's not as ... they don't lose seven incumbents in 2026, if that makes sense?

CHRIS HAYES: Right. This is such a key point about gerrymandering, which is that you face a choice in your gerrymandering, which itself is messed up, because you have the ... the elected officials are shifting their voters, which is like the old Bertolt Brecht joke about dissolving the people and electing another. But you always have the choice. If there's a certain pool of votes, you can say, "Let's create three Republican districts that are R+7, or four that are R+2.

ABBY LIVINGSTON: Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: I mean, I'm inventing the math here. But you can do fewer Republican districts that have bigger padding, or more Republican districts that are a little thinner. The question is, if they're a little thinner, how thin is too thin that you set yourself up to lose them? What I'm hearing from you is it'll be an interesting indicator of how confident they're feeling when they make those choices about how aggressive to be with those gerrymanders.

ABBY LIVINGSTON: Absolutely. I think that's the debate that's happening right now. It feels it's a ticking time bomb, but it's just how long does this take? The other indicator is ... it looks most of the statewide officials are ... there may be a little bit of a shake up here and there. But I think the other signal and on the Democratic side of confidence is, "Do people step up and run in 2022? Do Democrats field a viable gubernatorial candidate? Is a member of the delegation willing to give up their US house seat and take that jump?" There is a little bit of a farm team. That is what came out of 2018. Was there some up and comers, more polished, more sophisticated campaigns? I think those are the two main indicators of where things are headed.

CHRIS HAYES: Well, when you talk about up and comers, we got to talk for a second about a person who I think is one of the most interesting politicians in America and that's the Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo. She's just so ... I mean, she's like 29, 30 years old. She went to Stanford. She was going to get a dual degree, I think, at NYU and law school and a policy degree at Kennedy School of Government and she dropped out of that to come back and run in 2018 for this county judge position, which is the county executive. Every county has a judge. She won it. It was a big surprise upset and she was the driving force behind this incredible voter turnout. I've had her on the show a bunch and she just has a preternatural presence. She's really a striking figure.

ABBY LIVINGSTON: I was not that mature when I was 29. I can say that. That is the implication. It will completely blindsided Republicans to have this Democrat they never heard of take that position, which is has proven to be extremely powerful. That she was able ... and the county clerk able to loosen up the voting requirements. We saw this turnout. There are repercussions to Democrats winning positions no one even really thinks about. There are implications. When I first took this job in late 2014, there just wasn't even a farm team. I mean, there was nothing. The cupboard was bare. Now, they're starting to build school board members. She's the perfect example of how much more Democrats can push forward when they get a toehold in.

CHRIS HAYES: One thing that's striking to me about her, too, is that such a big difference between being a young legislator and a young executive. If someone elected me to congress tomorrow, I'm not that young. I'm not young as Lina Hidalgo. But someone literally said, "You have to show up and be a congressman tomorrow." I would be nervous and scared. But I'd also be like, "Okay, well, I'll get an orientation. I'll get some staff around me." Mostly you'll be voting the way leadership tells you and you can try to burrow in on a few issues in your district.

But if someone told me tomorrow like, "Go be the executive of a county of four million people," I would be straight up terrified.

ABBY LIVINGSTON: That getd hit by hurricanes?

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. Get hits by hurricanes and had a COVID. It's just a very different thing to be an executive where you are making operational decisions about basic things in people's lives day to day, and you have to manage and run that. To be that age and do that is, to me, it's just really impressive and challenging.

ABBY LIVINGSTON: Exactly. I mean, I think we're seeing some of this in congress, where sometimes the job is as much about live streaming and being connected, but not necessarily passing laws. I mean, she's been under pressure for most of her tenure in this role in ways that are pretty staggering.

CHRIS HAYES: Let me ask about the broadest ... this is almost not a political conversation, but a cultural one of people talk about the Californication of Texas. Anyone who's been to Austin recently, it's really striking how much that city has changed, how much is a boomtown, how it's gone from this "Keep Austin weird, quirky place" that had the state capitol?

ABBY LIVINGSTON: That's my Austin.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. Right. Austin was interesting place because between the state capitol, and the university, you have stable, you don't have a boom-bust cycle.

ABBY LIVINGSTON: Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: You have stable employment unlike other cities in Texas that were much more dependent on oil and gas, which is constantly going through boom-bust. It had this totally independent workforce, business base, employment base that was completely independent of these other Texas cities in many ways. That made it so distinct and strange and amazing and this Mecca for artists and by music in South by Southwest. It's become almost this Silicon Valley of the South town now. I think there's ... I just wonder what that means for the state the more that that happens.

ABBY LIVINGSTON: Well, it is fascinating. I did a story on the oil bust of '86, once oil prices dropped just in the real time in May looking back, and it is a much more stable place. But Texas as a whole is more stable. I mean, in this story, people were trying to pawn off their helicopters in Houston because they were using those to avoid traffic. Once that happened, the state leaders really wanted to diversify the economy. Yeah. I mean in Austin in itself is fascinating. With redistricting just no Republican wants anything to ... First they carved up Austin. They wanted to dilute the liberal vote there and now no Republican wants to touch Austin in their districts because it's so potent of a voting bloc.

But absolutely. My dad and I one time we're driving into Austin from the west side, and we just looked at the skyline and he grew up there. We both just looked at each other. I'm like, "None of these skyscrapers were here when I lived here in school." He said, "Not even when I was here." He was like, "It's really different." I think it's a really diversifying economy. I mean, the lack of unions has ... is an attraction for car companies. I guess, unions do apply there. American Airlines is in Texas. It's becoming a very different state from its roots, but we still keep our Mexican heritage, our cowboy heritage. It's still very much a part of daily life.

CHRIS HAYES: Then I guess the final question is like, is about the fossil fuel industry, because it's not long for this world. I'm sure that people in Texas don't want to hear that, and I understand a lot of people in Texas don't want to hear that. I'm sure some people in Texas are happy to hear that. But the writing's on the wall, the natural gas is already ... I mean, coal is underwater everywhere.

ABBY LIVINGSTON: Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: Natural gas is already starting to have huge exits by private equity dollars that see the writing on the wall. Price competitiveness is declining as other forms of clean energy get cheaper. I think there's a rep in the State House of Texas who now wants to tax all non-natural gas energy.

ABBY LIVINGSTON: I'm not up enough on the state ledge, but that wouldn't shock me.

CHRIS HAYES: It's totally amazing. But it just is going to be a huge deal and transformation in Texas. I wonder just what that will look like.

ABBY LIVINGSTON: I mean, when I graduated from college, most of my hometown friends had a job called land man. It didn't matter if you were female or male, you were a land man. That is the person, the detective who figures out who owns the rights to minerals underneath his property. That was the big boom of natural gas. It is a daily ... My problem was at a place called the Petroleum Club. Every town has a petroleum club. But like I said, they are diversifying the economy. That is a conscious thought because of the bust in the '80s.

ABBY LIVINGSTON: But I think this is again why I think Harris County is the most interesting part of the state, because this is a city that the economy is based in fossil fuels. But at the same time, they've gotten the worst hurricane, and 500 years that is a part of global warming. There is an awareness of that this needs to be dealt with for survival. But also, that's how people make a living. But I can tell you, when Joe Biden in that last debate said, I can't remember the wording of it. But when he said we need to get off fossil fuels, or whatever it was, it was a thunder strike in Texas politics for a few days. It may have saved a couple of Republican incumbents.

I mean, nothing makes Texas Democrats shutter more than the words "Green New Deal." If Democrats want to be on offense in Texas, it's not that you don't have to be pro-environment. But it's how are you going to message us in a way that doesn't freak people out and scare the Texas economy

CHRIS HAYES: I mean, it really is ... To me, it's basically unsolvable problem, because we have to get rid of fossil fuel. Fossil fuel just is actually a huge industry in Texas.

ABBY LIVINGSTON: Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: There's no messaging the problem away. You know what I mean? I'm speaking for myself now.

ABBY LIVINGSTON: Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: Fossil fuels will have to go. Lots of people work for fossil fuel companies. You can say, "We're going to take care of you and blah, blah." It's not crazy for them not to trust you. But you can't message that problem away. The only answer is that the market is going to start to do a lot of this work.

ABBY LIVINGSTON: Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: To the extent you start to see declining employment in natural gas as the industry shrinks. That will also shrink its power. But I don't think there's a messaging solution to it.

ABBY LIVINGSTON: I mean, before I did Texas, I covered some West Virginia politics at Roll Call, and I saw the same thing with coal. There was no alternative. The good thing in Texas is, is that they've been thinking about this for a long time. But it's not going to be an easy transition. I can assure you of that.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, in any direction. It's not going to be easy transition, basically, for anyone. I do have this dream of like, can we just do for oilfield workers what Trump did for the farmers, and he screwed with the tariffs and write $31 billion worth of checks, which actually strikes me as like a pretty good idea. But I'm not sure that's going to fly out there.

ABBY LIVINGSTON: Texans don't like taking money from the government.

CHRIS HAYES: Exactly. No. Yeah.

ABBY LIVINGSTON: That just wouldn’t play well.

CHRIS HAYES: I know. That's a problem. Abby Livingston is the Washington bureau chief for the Texas Tribune. She is a seventh generation Texan. She's a great follow on Twitter, and a great person to read about Texas politics. Thank you so much Abby.

Abby Livingston: Thank you so much for having me.

CHRIS HAYES: Once again my great thanks to Abby Livingston at the Texas Tribune for that fantastic conversation. Texas politics really are fascinating. The Tribune is a great publication that you should check out and if you are so inclined, support. They’re one of, sort of the few vibrant, reader-supported, local nonprofit regional print outlets that have kind of pioneered a model of how to work in the sort of post-newspaper age as depressing as that is, so check out the Texas Tribune. You can always tweet us, use the hashtag #WITHpod, email us WITHpod@gmail.com.

"Why Is This Happening" is presented by MSNBC and NBC news, produced by the "All In" team and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mention here by going to nbcnews.com/WhyIsThisHappening.