Your place or mine? Texas liberals and California conservatives swap states

The widening partisan divide in America’s two most populous states lies behind a small but significant population shift between the two

Paul Chabot is a native Californian who stood for Congress last year as a Republican, in a district near Los Angeles. After his defeat, he decided the only option was to move to Texas.

“California’s become a lost cause,” he said. “I was born and raised there when it was a Republican state. Ronald Reagan was from there, Nixon was from there, we had great schools back in the 70s and 80s, low crime, great paying jobs. Now it’s a 180, it’s a complete opposite of that.

“I lost to a very liberal Democrat that the people elected and I came to the conclusion that you can’t help people who don’t want to help themselves. That really was the end of it for us in California. We realised then that the majority of the people around us no longer shared the same values that my wife and I believe in.”

Chabot, his wife Brenda and their four young children relocated to Collin County, which covers some of the most affluent and manicured suburbs of Dallas and where a four-bed home can be yours for under $350,000. And all 38 elected officials, from the sheriff to the district attorney to the tax assessor-collector, are Republicans.

“In California we always jokingly said, ‘If this state goes to hell we’ll end up moving to Texas.’ And a lot of people say it and some people actually do it,” Chabot said.

He is now a player in a long-running and freshly escalated ideological and economic battle between America’s most populous liberal and conservative states.

A new adoption law that critics describe as anti-LGBTQ has prompted California to ban state-funded trips to Texas. Chabot’s strategy is quite the opposite. In May he launched Conservative Move – slogan: Helping Families Move Right – a company to help fellow sufferers flee their liberal hellscapes and find asylum in the warm, red glow of suburban north Texas.

The 43-year-old said the response “has been fast and furious”: about a thousand expressions of interest, three-quarters of them from Californians.

“The people who are contacting us are very upset with state politics,” he said. “They might have been a lifelong Californian like I was, but they’re saying the state doesn’t represent me any more, it’s not the same state it was 30, 40, 50 years ago. So you have a base of people who are just frustrated with California and want out.”

A couple of years ago, he said, he saw a news article that declared the fast-growing county seat of McKinney to be the finest place to live in the US.

“As a Californian what I love here is that there’s no state income tax, the politics here supports the second amendment, they don’t support sanctuary cities or any of that stuff that we’ve dealt with in California and Texas is very tough on crime. They also have excellent schools where we are,” Chabot said.

He is surrounded by Californian ex-pats, he said: “My neighbour across the street, my mail man, the guy at Home Depot in the plumbing department, the police officer I met in a coffee shop.”

‘Barely a fart’

According to a Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) analysis of American Community Survey data, 502,978 people older than 25 moved from California to Texas between 2005 and 2015. Some 290,214 people went the other way. Texas was the top destination for Californians, and vice-versa.

Governor Jerry Brown treated attempts by Rick Perry of Texas to woo businesses from California with disdain.
Governor Jerry Brown treated attempts by Rick Perry of Texas to woo businesses from California with disdain. Photograph: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

With 27 million Texas residents and 39 million in California, the figures suggest that roughly 1.1% of Texans over 25 moved to California and 1.3% of Californians moved to Texas over that decade. That hardly depicts a flood, or a clear winner in a rivalry that has come to symbolise the growing divide between right and left in the country as a whole. But it is a philosophical gulf that will become even more entrenched geographically if Chabot’s business flourishes.

There is scant evidence that politics is a main migration factor. Hans Johnson, of the PPIC, said the data indicates economic and family reasons are key drivers.

“Housing prices in California have escalated quite rapidly over the last five years and that of course will push more people out of the state,” he said.

As a Sacramento Bee headline put it in March: “California exports its poor to Texas, other states, while wealthier people move in.”

When he was governor of Texas, as the oil and gas boom helped the state prosper despite the recession of the late 2000s, Rick Perry voiced radio advertisements seeking to woo Californian businesses – an effort that the Democratic governor, Jerry Brown, termed “barely a fart”.

With a Republican in the White House, California now makes an appealing scapegoat for Texas politicians who fired up their base by disparaging Barack Obama.

“It’s funny how the very state that is so adamantly against keeping terrorists out of our country – they oppose the president’s travel ban – now wants to keep Californians out of Texas,” a spokesman for Texas attorney general Ken Paxton told the Houston Chronicle. “I guess that’s California logic.”

But an energy industry downturn has hurt Texas’ economy, and though Arizona and North Carolina endured boycotts in recent years for legislation perceived as discriminatory, Texas is likely to pass a “bathroom bill” this summer to limit restroom access for transgender people. In protest at a new immigration law, the American Immigration Lawyers Association has switched its 2018 conference from the Dallas area to San Francisco.

“They can laugh at California’s travel ban to Texas but it’ll be more than a travel ban from one state,” said Sylvia Garcia, a Democratic state senator from Houston. “It’ll be more states and it will be more companies who do not want to relocate here and it will be more conferences and more visitors who won’t want to come here.”

While Texas lawmakers fulminate against liberal values with the rallying cry, “Don’t California our Texas!”, the state’s biggest cities have turned bluer, most obviously Austin, where Silicon Valley giants such as Google and Facebook have a significant presence. Last November, Hillary Clinton secured more than 54% of the vote in Dallas, Houston, Austin and San Antonio, even though Donald Trump won Texas easily.

‘This is where you get most for your money’

Houston has a smog problem, but it also attracts progressives with its surprising levels of diversity.
Houston may have a smog problem, but it also attracts progressives with its surprising levels of diversity. Photograph: David J. Phillip/AP

Tanya Santillan, a 30-year-old attorney originally from northern California, moved to Houston last year from Washington DC. Especially as a Mexican American in the current environment, she said, she is cautious about discussing politics in her adopted state, but Houston has been “a pleasant surprise”.

“You always come in with a preconceived notion that it’s going to be super-conservative, maybe more racism, a lot more backward-thinking, more religious. You don’t necessarily expect for there to be as much diversity as there is, and I think Houston, it’s a bubble inside of Texas, people are a lot more progressive. I think maybe if I lived in a smaller town than Houston my experience would be completely different.”

Santillan has a pragmatic attitude. “This is where you get the most for your money,” she said, and the political climate is “not enough to disincentivise you to move there”.

Kyle Loftis has a similar view. The 34-year-old grew up in southern California and lived in San Francisco before moving to Houston four years ago. He works for a parking company and said the transition was smooth.

“When I first mentioned to some of my friends that I was moving to Houston, they just kind of asked, like, ‘Why? Why would you move to Texas?’” he said.

“There were a few jokes about Texas being gun country and all that kind of stuff, but nothing too bad, really. I would say it was just more of a little bit of confusion, like, ‘Why are you moving out there? You can get a job here.’”

But the Bay Area is notoriously expensive. “My biggest thing was just the affordability. The cost of living is just far lower in Texas,” Loftis said.

Another transplant from the Bay Area to Houston, Chris Pedersen, a 34-year-old who works in the oil and gas industry said the cost of living in California was “getting ridiculous. It’s become very problematic.

“My grandma lives in a two-bedroom, two-bath townhouse [20 miles south of San Francisco] which just got appraised for a million dollars. It’s crazy. We just closed on a house actually a week ago, we’re moving in as we speak, and it’s half of that, and it’s a great neighborhood, great house. There’s no way we would have been able to afford it in California.

“Do I agree with all the Texas politics, no. But do I agree with all the Californian politics, not at all. You’ll have your challenges wherever.”

  • This article was amended on 3 July 2017. A previous version of the standfirst incorrectly identified Dallas as a rock-solid Republican city; it backed Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.


Tom Dart in Houston

The GuardianTramp

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