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Turning Texas from Blue to Red

Major political change tends to be gradual. The bland title of Wayne Thorburn’s latest book, The Republican Party of Texas: A Political History, is thus somewhat appropriate. The glacially-paced growth of Republican dominance in Texas was nationally important, since the state is large enough to significantly affect which party controls Congress or wins a close presidential race. The history of the once-minuscule, now-mighty Texas GOP is worth knowing as one of the Republican Party’s great success stories. And the possible loss of its majority due to demographic trends, should that occur, would be a political earthquake. Without Texas, it would be much harder to elect a Republican president.

Thorburn’s book is most useful as a tightly organized, semi-official record of the party’s growth in Texas, written with apparent evenhandedness by a major participant in the state GOP. More significantly for non-Texans, it’s useful as a stimulus to reflection on the nature of partisan dominance and its potential decay or reversal. It reminds us of the sheer weight of institutions in what we may mistakenly view as America’s freewheeling political marketplace—or its dynamic “battle of ideas.” Reading this detailed account from the Reconstruction years to the present, one is likely to conclude that the shifting currents of public opinion which supposedly shape democratic politics have been a secondary factor in the rise of Texas Republicanism.

Texans have always been at least vaguely conservative, although subject to occasional populist appeals. They remained mostly Democrats for a remarkably long time because the Democrats ruled—and didn’t veer leftward with the national party in the New Deal and early postwar eras. Unless you were a Yankee newcomer like George H.W. Bush, or preferred cleaner politics and a two-party system, there was no great reason to vote Republican. And sometimes you couldn’t. For local offices and the legislature and even Congress, year after year, there often were no Republican candidates.

The GOP did have a growing number of volunteers and small donors in the early postwar decades, due partly to Dwight Eisenhower’s popularity and the excitement of the Goldwater presidential campaign. But Thorburn notes that women were often far more willing to associate with the party than their husbands, who felt they must stay on good terms with the Democrats, especially if they were in business. Republicans’ weak position in Texas also set a dilemma for the party’s decisionmakers. In the 1960s, a dedicated state chairman, independently wealthy businessman Peter O’Donnell, stressed strong organization and managed it effectively. He must have been a refreshing contrast to some previous party “leaders,” who as Thorburn shows, seemed less interested in building the GOP than in controlling it—especially controlling federal patronage during Republican presidencies. Thorburn seems to implicitly criticize O’Donnell, though, for continuing for many years (as chairman, and later in other major roles) to emphasize campaigns in the Houston and Dallas areas, then the only large pockets of GOP strength, while de-emphasizing other parts of the vast state. But few party chairmen can be expected to choose a long-term strategy in resource allocation if it might detract from races that are winnable or could be lost to the other party’s challenger in the here and now. Like the inexperienced job seeker who couldn’t gain experience because he couldn’t get hired, the Republicans were stuck in their statewide minority status largely because they were, by most measures, a feeble minority.

“I had to choose between Tip O’Neill and y’all,” congressman (later Senator) Phil Gramm would tell Texas conservatives, “and I chose y’all.”

One weakness in Democratic hegemony was, of course, conservative Democrats who might take an interest in voting for a viable Republican candidate, and another was the liberals. Overwhelmingly dominant parties can factionalize due to their wide range of support; their candidates may sometimes lose if enough majority-party adherents reject them. Frustration grew among liberals during the administrations of pro-business Democratic governors Allan Shivers and Price Daniel in the 1950s and John Connally in the 1960s. As early as 1961, a Democrat—the relatively conservative William Blakley, running in a special election for Lyndon Johnson’s former Senate seat—lost a statewide race amid party disunity, giving the Republicans their first Southern senator of the 20th century. Then, in 1966, John Tower won a comfortable re-election partly because liberals, including Senator Ralph Yarborough, weren’t keen on his Democratic opponent.

There were a sizeable number of such defections in the race, plus defections by conservative Democrats including a former state attorney general—and by Hispanics: “Tower was also supported by the Committee for a Two-Party Texas, organized by a group of Mexican-American Democrats in San Antonio. Meanwhile, the leader of the Amigocrats for Tower defended his endorsement of a Republican by saying if Democratic governor Shivers could rally support for Eisenhower in 1952,” he could do the same for the senator.

William Clements’s election as governor in 1978 is less prominent in political lore than Tower’s 1961 upset but may well have mattered even more in growing the party. Thorburn notes that Clements shrewdly did extensive campaigning in rural areas that summer before the media and others paid major attention to the race. In addition, he writes, many observers thought the Democratic candidate “gave away the ball game by acting as if he were governor after winning the primary, appearing arrogant and overconfident while the Democratic organization became complacent.”   

Although Clements lost in 1982 due to recession-induced pocketbook voting and his own political clumsiness, his administration, according to Thorburn, had shown potentially supportive Democrats that Republicans could govern. He had also given many Republicans governmental experience by appointing them to executive-branch positions. In what economists sometimes call a “virtuous cycle,” one favorable development led to another, continued and slowly accelerated. Republican voting for Congress, the legislature, and local office spread beyond the Houston and Dallas areas—although not enough to break Democratic control in the lesser metro areas, small cities, and rural regions. In a 1986 poll, despite Ronald Reagan’s two landslides in the state, far more lifelong Texans still identified as Democrats (41 percent) than as Republicans (27 percent). Clements nonetheless ousted incumbent governor Mark White in their rematch that year. At least as significant was the fact that more of Texas’s huge conservative Democratic population had voted in the GOP primary than in their own. Meanwhile, a more obvious abandonment of the party had begun among officeholders and even local Democratic committees. It would continue for the next quarter-century. In addition to ex-governor Connally in 1973 (when President Nixon apparently thought of him as his worthiest successor), several congressmen and several state legislators became Republicans, as did a great many local elected officials. “I had to choose between Tip O’Neill and y’all,” congressman (later Senator) Phil Gramm would tell Texas conservatives, “and I chose y’all.”

Texas has long had among its higher officeholders some zealous liberals comparable in substance, though not accent, to the bluntly partisan House speaker from Massachusetts. Senator Yarborough, for example, easily held off a challenge from George H.W. Bush in 1964, and the caustically partisan Ann Richards defeated the rough-edged Republican nominee for governor, Clayton Williams, in 1990. The younger Bush’s serious political career began when, despite his thin resume, he beat her for re-election with a skillful campaign in the Republican-friendly year of 1994. With Richards as perhaps the most prominent example of a Texas Democrat who lost due partly to a shrill, in-your-face partisanship, there’s also an unhelpful equivalent at the grassroots level that sounds more like New York or California than Texas. “Democratic primaries in Austin,” a political consultant lamented in 2011, “can be as humorless and judgmental as telling a bride that she doesn’t deserve to wear white. We inflict purity tests on one another’s partisan fidelity that Barack Obama couldn’t pass.”

In the legislature, arguably the truest indicator of a state party’s fundamental strength, the Democrats held large albeit shrinking majorities until the early 1990s. But more and more non-liberal Texans voted in GOP primaries, better-qualified  Republicans chose to run, and the state’s economy flourished under a long succession of Republican governors, still unbroken since the mid-1990s. And then, in the early 2000s, the new Republican legislative majorities got to draw the district lines, winning a court battle and thwarting a determined walkout by Democratic legislators that temporarily denied them a quorum. For all of these reasons, the Democratic Party gradually melted into pathetic weakness in much of Texas. Roles have reversed:  today, there often isn’t a Democratic candidate in many races.

But what of the future? Republican senator and ex-solicitor general Ted Cruz won a surprisingly close re-election over his unimpressively credentialed liberal opponent “Beto” O’Rourke in 2018. The Democrats made major gains that year in metro Houston and Dallas-area offices, including congressional seats, and it seemed possible (although it didn’t happen) that they might even retake the legislature in 2020 after nearly two decades in the minority. But the state’s white—or, as they say in Texas, Anglo—residents have long been a declining share of the electorate. In addition to Hispanics, Texas has many African American and more recently Asian voters, especially in its urban areas. Furthermore, white suburbanites’ support for the GOP has recently declined, as it has elsewhere in the country.

But anyone who follows politics closely knows that Donald Trump and other Republican candidates did surprisingly well with Hispanics last year, and a leading example of this was in South Texas. Of course, one election with such an unusual candidate at the top of the ticket proves nothing. But Texas Republicans have a relatively favorable history on which to build: both Governor (and later President) Bush and, before him, Senator Tower did quite well with Hispanic voters. More important, probably, is the strong integration of many Hispanics—many of whom also have very long family histories in Texas—into the general population. In one of the book’s most interesting details, Thorburn quotes a presumably knowledgeable source as saying (presumably with slight exaggeration) that every Anglo in Texas has at least one Hispanic member of their extended family, often by marriage.

Thorburn’s book is, in general, a highly formalistic narrative in which major figures come to life only spottily and major events are noted, not richly described. It is admirably systematic, but perhaps too consistently systematic. The wonderful “Tip O’Neill and y’all” quotation is not here, and the telling comment about Austin’s left-liberal purists is in a previous book on the topic. Thorburn has actually told most of the same story before at less length—and with, advantageously, many invitingly simple tables of statistics—in Red State: An Insider’s Story of How the GOP Came to Dominate Texas Politics (2014). But readers interested in even more detailand the story right up to the present—will certainly benefit from his latest work.

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