PART ONE: Can Texas Republicans hold America’s reddest large urban county?

By Brandon Formby, Christopher Connelly, and Alexa Ura

FORT WORTH — Even though he can openly carry a handgun in Texas with the right permit, Jonathan Grummer thinks that still doesn’t allow him enough freedom in a country where firearms rights are enshrined in the Constitution.  

“Within reason, I want to be able to open carry everywhere in the United States because I’m a law-abiding citizen,” he said.

While his stance plays into a stereotype of Texas being a rural, gun-loving bastion of conservative politics, Grummer lives in the third-largest county in the state. Sprawling out from Fort Worth, Tarrant County helps co-anchor the nation’s fourth-largest metropolitan area along with Dallas.

But unlike other population centers in Texas, Tarrant’s urban status hasn't flipped the county's conservative leanings.

Among the state’s five biggest counties, Tarrant is the only one that hasn’t backed a Democratic presidential candidate in the past decade. The 2016 presidential election heightened Tarrant’s status as an outlier. Even as the rest of the state’s big-city territories moved deeper into the Democratic column, Tarrant steadfastly emerged as America’s most conservative large urban county.

President-elect Donald Trump, who takes office this week, won the county by an 8.6-point margin. It was the narrowest win for a GOP presidential nominee in decades in Tarrant. But among the country's 20 largest counties, Tarrant was only one of two that swung Trump's way in November — and it had the wider margin.

Across Tarrant County, Democratic pockets are fewer and less powerful than their Republican counterparts. All four of the state senate districts that fall in Tarrant County are represented by Republicans. The GOP also holds eight of the county’s 11 state House seats. Four of the five county commissioner court seats are held by Republicans.

Residents, elected officials and experts here point to a nuanced union of demographic, cultural and political forces to explain why.

"There’s just all kinds of interesting numbers out there that make Tarrant County a lot different,” said U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey of Fort Worth, the only Democrat holding one of the county’s five congressional seats.

Tarrant’s minority population, which tends to lean Democratic, hasn’t caught up to the state’s other big urban counties. At the same time, many Tarrant voters have a storied history of preferring practical governance to partisanship, according to officials and political observers. They say that helps support the moderate faction of the GOP, especially in Fort Worth, the nation's 16th-largest city.

Then there’s the county’s development pattern. A lot of Tarrant remains rural. And, unlike Harris, Dallas and Travis counties, many of Tarrant’s affluent suburbs and conservative bedroom communities lie within its borders, not outside them. That’s helped give rise to the NE Tarrant Tea Party, a passionate and organized group that simultaneously supports far-right local candidates and serves as a powerful base for statewide Republicans.

“We get a lot of credit for doing a lot of things, but I think it’s because everything fell into place for us,” said Julie McCarty, the group’s president. “It’s not because we had some grand strategy and this was our goal, was to take over Texas, you know, as the conservative wing of the party. It’s just happened.”


Fringes of urban America

Tarrant's 1.9 million residents are spread out across Fort Worth, its bevy of suburbs and large stretches of rural land even farther out from the city center. Tarrant is also home to Arlington, the state's seventh-largest city and the place where the Dallas Cowboys and the Texas Rangers play. Like many precincts in Fort Worth's urban core, large parts of that town also went for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

To Tarrant's east is Dallas, a bustling county of 2.6 million people that went Democratic more than a decade ago. But on the other side is Parker, a county of 126,000 whose voters supported President-elect Donald Trump with a margin more than 7 times larger than what he received in Tarrant.

“I think Tarrant County is at the very fringes of urban America,” said Jim Riddlesperger, a professor of political science at Fort Worth’s Texas Christian University. “Obviously, if you go 30 miles west of here, you’re in rural country.”

Fort Worth locals say the county seat is the “biggest little town” in America. For tourists, its most well-known attraction is the Stockyards, a living throwback to the area’s Western heritage. Cattle are herded through the historic district twice a day. The area also hosts the weeks-long Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo, a livestock and cowboy extravaganza that kicked off this month.

“It really is a city where everyone knows everyone else, and so it has less of an urban feel than you would find in other urban areas in the country,” said Riddlesperger.

This article originally appeared at The Texas Tribune. 

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