November 30, 2022 619 PM
JEFF DAVIS COUNTY — When newly-elected members of the Jeff Davis County Commissioners Court are sworn in at the start of the new year, it will signal a notable shift in the local political landscape — for the first time, the governing entity will be made up entirely of Republicans.
While rumors of a “red wave” across the state of Texas and nationwide may have been exaggerated, it is no exaggeration in the politically-split rural county. In the November midterms, two longtime Democratic incumbents — the only Democrats out of the four commissioners — were ousted by Republican challengers, by slim margins. Fort Davis Fire Marshall Roy Hurley won against Todd Jagger by eight votes in the race to represent Precinct 2; rancher Royce Laskoskie beat out Albert Miller, who has held the position since 2007, by a mere five votes.
“I’m sitting here wondering: my god, we have a clean sweep in this county,” marveled Bob Gray, chair of the Jeff Davis County Republican Party as of last year. In addition to the county’s few contested races going to Republicans, Republican incumbents faced uncontested races in this year’s election. County Judge Curtis Evans, Justice of the Peace Mary Ann Luedecke, County Treasurer Dawn Kitts, County Clerk Jennifer Wright, and the remaining commissioners will all keep their seats.
It is the culmination of a gradual rightward shift — at least in party affiliation, if not in ideology — that party leaders have witnessed over the last few years. When the late Bob Rose took on the role of the county’s Republican Party chair about a decade ago, the party didn’t have much of a presence to speak of in the county, recalled his wife, Linda Rose. Bob Rose sought to change that — he knew that in Jeff Davis County, as with other Far West Texas counties, many Democrats by name held conservative politics. Running as a Republican, at the time, simply seemed out of the question.
“Once he got elected, he started talking to people and found out that there were a lot of conservative people, and some of them weren’t running [as Republicans] because they thought, ‘If I run on the Republican Party, I won’t get elected,’” said Linda Rose. “So he says, ‘Well, you gotta run on the Republican Party, you are definitely conservative in your beliefs.’ He convinced a lot of people to do just that, and lo and behold, they started getting elected, and we started winning the county over.”
Democrat Todd Jagger said the move towards electing Republicans to local office was a departure from the Jeff Davis County he first moved to in the early 90s. “Politically, when I moved out here over three decades ago, there was not a Republican primary, everybody ran as a Democrat — I don’t think anybody ran as a Republican,” he said. “I recall everybody running as a Democrat, no matter what their political philosophy may be.”
And in rural, Far West Texas, the Democratic Party affiliation does not signal progressive politics. Jagger himself identified as a conservative, and said he believes his record on the court “reflects a conservativism in the way old school Democrats would be.”
The real shift seemed to occur sometime between 2016 and 2018, said Linda Rose — she attributes an increased identification with the Republican Party to the popularity of Donald Trump, who handily won the majority of votes in Jeff Davis County both in 2016 and 2020. (The numbers do not necessarily indicate Trump enjoyed unprecedented local popularity, however — a higher percentage of voters in the county cast their ballots for Republican candidates between 2000 and 2012. When it comes to presidential elections, Jeff Davis County has been reliably red since 1980).
Numbers aside, local Republicans pointed to a shift in attitude that is more difficult to quantify. Rose said she saw an unprecedented enthusiasm for Trump among county residents that she believes “snowballed” into state and local politics, recalling a well-attended Trump rally in Fort Davis in 2020. “Trump was the first time the party spelled out exactly what they were for,” she said. “Before, it was kind of wishy-washy, and in fact when I was growing up there was very little difference between the parties, but he really kind of spelled it out.”
Hurley agreed. His own mother, a lifelong Democrat, had voted for Trump, even going so far as to say she would never again cast her ballot for a Democratic candidate. “I think that made a big change on everybody, seeing that we don’t have a politician, we have a working person that’s willing to make a change in our country. That’s what made my mom change, who was a Democrat for 65 years,” said Hurley.
Miller, for his part — having lost his position of 16 years to a Republican newcomer — echoed this exact sentiment when asked what he thought was behind the local red wave. “Our former president has a lot to do with it,” he said. “And I think it is happening — there are more and more Republicans, and they’re more active.”
Though it does not necessarily follow that a preference for Republican candidates in national elections — which Jeff Davis County has maintained for over 40 years — would bleed into local politics, which tend to be more purple on the county level, the local Republicans were making an argument that had also been put forth by statewide operatives. Governor Greg Abbott himself has insisted that former Democrats running for local office are defecting due to a frustration with the broader party line (in Presidio County, County Judge Cinderela Guevara served as a case study in this defection — she said the Democratic Party did not reflect her values, pointing specifically to the issue of abortion).
Cat Parks of Project Red Texas, a political action committee devoted to flipping blue counties at the local level, had previously told The Big Bend Sentinel that she believed Texans were leaving the Democratic party over a frustration with an “increasingly leftist” platform. Gray said that he believes this is the case.
“This last year and a half, I think there’s been actions taken by the party in power in Washington that are contrary to the values of the people that live in this area,” said Gray. When asked which issues specifically he thinks embody this, he pointed to the perceived inaction by the Biden administration at the border. The question of the Texas-Mexico border’s security is one of great concern to Jeff Davis County voters, said Gray. Laskoskie agreed — it was a concern he had heard from voters in his precinct.
Jagger said he did believe the Democratic Party had failed to effectively reach rural voters – and in a two-party system, which doesn’t offer abundant alternatives, that could lead one to vote for the opposing party. “I honestly believe it has hurt us in rural Texas, the fact they have not articulated a message that makes many people feel included out here,” he said. “I’m not blaming the Democratic Party for my loss. At the end of the day, our campaigns are up to us.”
Laskoskie and Hurley both say they ran intentional, on-the-ground campaigns in an effort to sway voters. Hurley is already a known public figure, both as fire marshall and proprietor of the Harvard Hotel, but he also went door-to-door, and spoke to voters at community hubs like the supermarket and the post office. Laskoskie and his wife Susan went door-to-door in remote Valentine, which falls in his precinct, to connect with residents. He also benefited from the help of Project Red Texas, which gave him several dozen yard signs that were spread across the county; the PAC also paid for his candidate filing fee (Hurley’s campaign was already underway by the time they reached out).
Whether or not ideological divisions are driving a rightward shift, ultimately, many issues that matter to the local county voter are divorced from party affiliation or ideology — those issues could be as small as a stop sign in need of repair, said Hurley, or they could be as life-and-death as emergency response times in the vast region. The work before the commissioners is that of listening to each constituent, they said, and finding solutions that will make a material difference.
“This is a huge rural county, and our sheriff’s department is small,” said Laskoskie. “We’ve got one guy on patrol during the day and he may be an hour or more away from town and something happens here. We need help,” he said.
“It’s just a matter of trying to help give people something back for the taxes they’ve been paying.”