Monday, January 10, 2011

The Rise of Two-Party Texas

A lot has changed since John Knaggs wrote about the growth of the Republican Party in Texas [1]. Today there are 101 Republicans in the Texas House of Representatives (2 of them being Democrats who switched in December). Back in 1986, this would have seemed implausible, and in 1961, it would have seemed impossible, but now it's reality.

Part of this change has been due to the legacy of the party switchers. Beginning with John Tower's special election victory in 1961, the liberal Democrats in Texas sought to develop a viable two party system to get conservative Democrats out of the party and leave party control in liberal hands [2]. Over time, we have seen numerous Democrats from the national, state and local levels becoming Republicans; perhaps the most prominent being John Connally (LBJ protege and former Democratic governor of Texas). Nor is this process complete. Since 2009, three Democratic legislators have switched to the Republican Party: Chuck Hopson (HD 11), Allan Ritter (HD 21) and Aaron Pena (HD 40). This goal may have been too successful, as Republicans have controlled all of the executive offices (the Democrats have not won a statewide race since 1994) and both house of the Legislature since 2003 [3].

However, party switching would not have been an alternative for conservative Democrats had there not been a strong grassroots effort by Republicans throughout the state to grow the party despite numerous setbacks and adversity. The potential for Republican success was there with conservative Democrats, such as former Gov. Alan Shivers, leading the charge for Eisenhower for President, but the Republican Party worked hard to recruit strong candidates, and during the early years, focused on a limited number of races [4]. Once John Tower and others, such as George H. W. Bush, demonstrated that Republicans could win in Democrat dominated Texas, the ranks began to grow. And as the ranks grew, the ability to raise funds also grew. The real breakthrough came when Bill Clements won the race for governor in 1978 (the first Republican governor in 100 years). Republicans had been able to pick up an occasional seat in the Texas House and Senate, but Clements' victory demonstrated that Republicans were a force to reckoned within Texas politics and could no longer be taken for granted [5].

This advance of the Texas Republican Party was not an easy road, nor was everyone always in lock step. Just as there are divisions in the Texas Republican Party today, there were divisions throughout the 60's, 70's and 80's, which Mr Knaggs notes. Some of these divisions are remarkably like what we see today: grassroots vs "establishment," moderate vs conservative, etc. One struggle which encapsulates these divisions is the Ford-Reagan primary fight in 1976. Senator Tower and other long-time members of the party establishment backed the nomination of Ford, but Reagan eventually won the Texas primary and its group of delegates (Ford would ultimately be nominated, but lose Texas in the general election to Jimmy Carter) [6].

Strains within the party came about in part due to efforts to bring more people into the party; as the party grows in numbers, it also sees an influx on differing opinions and directions. Early on, the Republican Party, and more specifically, the Tower campaign, made a concerted effort to reach out to Hispanic voters in Texas [7]. With each new election year, there are reports about Republican efforts to seek out Hispanic support, but this is nothing new. Some efforts have been more successful than others (Tower regularly saw Hispanic support in the mid to high 30 percent [8]; Perry has seen similar support). Efforts in which the pols have been involved in the community for a long time or have become involved in the community are more successful than those which do not. You cannot just come calling during an election; you must have a constant presence in that community and respond to that community's concerns (you may respond in the negative, but you need to respond and explain your decision). And these efforts have seen some payoff, as on Election Day 2010, Texas voters elected 5 Hispanic Republicans to the Texas Legislature.

The Texas Republican Party has come far from its lean years, and we haven't seen the end of its evolution, as the election of Hispanic Republicans suggest. Can the party make further inroads among this community? What will the party look like in another 2 decades? We're living in interesting times, and hopefully someone will write a book on this era of the Republican Party.   

1. John R. Knaggs, Two Party Texas: the John Tower Era 1961-1984.
2. Ibid., 10
3. The Texas Legislative Reference Library has the member statistics going back to the 74th Legislature (1995). In the 74th Legislature, there were 63 Republicans in the House and 14 in the Senate. The Republicans gained control of the Senate in 1997 (with 16 members). They took control of the House in 2003 (with 88 members). Since that time the Republican majority has fluxated; the low point for Republicans being in 2009 with a 2 seat majority (a 76-74 split).
4. John R. Knaggs, Two Party Texas, 57
5. Ibid., 230-31
6. Ibid.,  194-95
7. Ibid., 81, 90-1, 112-13, 189
8. Ibid., 104, 210

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