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Houston Matters

Red State: The Story of How Republicans Seized Control of Texas

The GOP has had such a stranglehold on statewide offices here in Texas for so many years now that it’s hard to imagine a time when it was any different. Sure, Ann Richards was Governor of Texas for a while there, but she seems very much like the Democratic exception to the Republican rule. How […]


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Red State Wayne Thorburn Book CoverThe GOP has had such a stranglehold on statewide offices here in Texas for so many years now that it's hard to imagine a time when it was any different. Sure, Ann Richards was Governor of Texas for a while there, but she seems very much like the Democratic exception to the Republican rule.

How did it happen? How has Texas remained so "red" for so long? It's a topic political scientist and former Texas Republican party executive director Dr. Wayne Thorburn explores in his new book Red State: An Insider's Story of How the GOP Came to Dominate Texas Politics.

We talk with Thorburn about his book, and about the past, present, and future of the GOP in Texas.


Craig Cohen: This is Houston Matters, I'm Craig Cohen. The GOP has had such a stranglehold on statewide offices here in Texas for so many years now, it's hard to imagine a time when it was any different. Sure, Ann Richards was Governor of Texas for a while there, but she seems very much like the Democratic exception to the Republican rule. How did it happen? How is Texas remained so red, politically, for so long? It's a topic Political Scientist and former Texas Republican Party executive director, Dr. Wayne Thorburn explores in his new book: Red State. An insider's story of how the GOP came to dominate Texas politics. Wayne Thorburn, Welcome to Houston Matters.

Wayne Thorburn: Thank you Craig, It's a pleasure to be here.

CC: Now, The conventional wisdom is that southern Democrats in the 60's were slow to embrace civil rights and the Republican Party exploited that opportunity to firm up control of southern states, including Texas. That was 50 years ago though. In the 80's and into the 90's there was still, within the state, some genuine two-party competition, at least occasionally. It's in the last 20 years though that the GOP has managed to maintain such dominate control in politics statewide. How has the party done that?

WT: Well, I think there's a number of reasons that has come about, and you're absolutely right. One of the key years in the transformation of Texas politics was 1996. You had mentioned the election of Ann Richards in 1990 that was the last democratic governor to be elected, and along came George W Bush in 1994 and defeated the incumbent Ann Richards. Two years later in 1996 three basically important things happened that showed the transition to really, a period of 20 years of Republican dominance. The first signal was in the primary that year. For the first time in the state's history, more people voted in the republican primary then voted in the democratic primary. And those who remember their Texas history will recall that really up until at least the 1960's all the action was in the democratic primary, if you won the democratic primary, you were in effect elected. A factor that lead up until 1960 more Texans voted actually in the primary then bothered to showed up in November for the general election, because the contest was in effect over. Well in 1996 more people voted in the republican primary and that was kind of a precursor of what would happen in November. For the first time again all 10 statewide contests on the ballot from president down were carried by Republican candidates. The Democrats were, for the first time, shut out and from that point on they have been shut out in statewide elections. And the final thing that happened that year was shortly after the November election, there was a special election because of a vacancy in the Texas state senate district centered on Lubbock, and that went to a Republican by the name Robert Duncan and that was the swing vote that gave the Republicans a 16 -15 majority in the state senate. So from that point on you really start seeing, politically speaking, a transition to republican dominance.

CC: What do people tend to misunderstand in your view about Texas politics?

WT: Well, I think a couple things. Number one, the emphasis on race, which in Texas was much less so then in other southern states. If you look at the old confederacy, Texas has the smallest, even today, percentage of the population that's African American. Roughly, it's very back-and-forth, the point or two around 12% since the 1960's is been African American and that's much less than the factors in other southern states, and so I think race was, even despite Johnson's comment that by signing the civil rights law of 1964 he had just written off the south, that probably applied to a lot of other states much more so than Texas. What really impacted the Republican growth here was a couple of things. It was the individuals of John Tower the breaking through as the first republican elected official in 1961, the appeal of Ronald Reagan and that was a factor particularly from the 1970's on and attracting more people to the Republican side, and of course breaking the glass ceiling was Bill Clements in 1978, showing that a Republican could govern, could appoint people to office, building credibility for others who in the future ran as republicans. This came about I think mainly or considerably not because of people changing party but because of young voters in the 60's and the 70's, and newcomers to Texas. And the influx of people moving in to the state was a major factor in building a republican constituency.

CC: Aside from demographic shifts and individual personalities is there something about our political culture here in Texas that's different from the political culture in other states?

WT: Definitely. Texas is definitely a conservative state. It has always been, in terms of ideology or political philosophy, a conservative state and it remains so. And so, you've raised another factor that lead to the growth of the Republican Party and that is the identification of conservatism and the conservative point of view with the Republican Party. Remember from our Texas history courses, for many years there were battles in the Democratic Party between liberals and conservatives. And the conservative democrats tended to be dominate particularly during the periods with governors like Alan Shivers and Price Daniel in the 1950's and even continuing on with John Conley in the 1960's. By the 1980's by the time Reagan is in office as president we are seeing a clear cut shift in identification with the Democrats becoming much more identified as the clearly liberal party, and the Republicans being seen as the conservative alternative.

CC: Now in some ways Texas isn't so dramatically so different from other states, geographically for instance. Our 6 biggest metro areas, our most highly populated areas in the state, tend to lean more to the political left then rural areas of Texas. Why do you think it's not enough for democrats to tilt elections in their favor more often here?

WT: Well, for one, thing surprisingly to perhaps your listeners, the percentage of the vote cast in those 6 big cities, or big counties actually, has declined somewhat. The real growth, and so too has the rural areas because the rural population has been declining. The major growth area is been the suburbs. And those are the 29 counties that surround Dallas, Ft. Worth, San Antonio, Austin and Houston. And that's their becoming a much more significant factor in state politics in terms of their numbers and they are an overwhelmingly republican territory.

CC: Do you think there are lessons we could take away from the rise of the Republicans in Texas starting in the 1960's, something that can tell us about when and how political winds may shift again in the future?

WT: Well, yes. There's a couple lessons. I think one is, any one break through statewide office for the Democrats is not necessarily gonna swing the entire state. When if we learn a lesson from the Republicans, John Tower was elected in 1961, it took 17 more years before Bill Clements was elected as governor of the state and during all that time with the one exception of the Nixon reelection of 72, the democrats continued to carry the state in the presidential elections. Johnson in 64, Humphry in 68, and then you had Carter in 76. All that time before you finally get a second republican statewide official getting elected and that's Bill Clements in 78. So lesson #1 for the democrats is even if somehow Wendy Davis were to win the governorship this time around that doesn't mean that all the political winds have changed in the state. It may take a long time before they are able to win another race. A second factor is the division within the majority party. And what we saw during the 60's and the 70's is there was an element within the Democratic Party a very liberal ideologically committed element that wanted to do everything they could to drive the conservatives out of the Democratic Party so that they were in control of the party machinery, the party nominations. And what they ended up doing is endorsing conservative Republicans against conservative Democrats to try to swing more conservatives out of the Democratic Party. They realized they had to build up a viable competition if they were going to get the conservatives out of the primary and they could control it. Perhaps that's a lesson that we have to be concerned about now if you're Republican because there's some element within the Republican Party that talks about RINO's: Republicans in Name Only. That call themselves the Republican wing of the Republican Party and that sounds in many ways similar to what these liberal Democrats were doing in the 60's and 70's.The lesson from that of course is be careful what you wish for, because they the liberal democrats were indeed successful in driving the conservatives out of the Democratic primary, getting control of the party, and then as we see from 96 on, losing every election.

CC: Is it the RINO's that are a threat? Or is it actually the other end of the spectrum if we look back to liberals from the far left of the Democratic Party maybe forcing conservative Democrats out. Couldn't we say maybe the same thing is happening just a mirror image? That there may be some folks that maybe will take conservatism too far and take some more moderate elements out of their party? Out of the GOP?

WT: I think that's very much a concern. So far that has not happened, and I think so far there's been a pretty balanced effort of some very tea party oriented nominees and some that aren't tea party nominees within the Republican Party working together in the general election, but I think that is somewhat of an concern that if the party gets perceived as too far off then losing some of the moderate element in the state electorate to the Democrats would help boost up the Democratic Party.

CC: Or is as I mean conventional wisdom suggest that what we really see here in the state of Texas within the Republican ranks is people who are very conservative, or people who are very very conservative that that's the distinction, that there really isn't much in the terms of moderate. What do you think?

WT: There's a good deal of truth to that. Although I think there are some people who very few people if you look at public opinion surveys and you ask people how do you identify yourself? Close to 50% of the state would say "Well, I'm a conservative", I might be very conservative, very very conservative, or I'm just a little conservative. Moderates run around close to 30% liberals around 20% right now conservative is kind of a positive label. Not only in Texas, but I think in a lot of this country. Whereas liberal is, people who are running for office who would describe themselves in private as liberals probable are now calling themselves progressives. Because somehow the label liberal is not as popular as it was say during the times of say, JFK and in the 1960's.

CC: But I guess again that maybe the lesson in that is that these things are cyclical and a term that maybe may have some negative connotations for some today may have positive connotations tomorrow.

WT: Right. Absolutely. That's true. That is very true.

CC: There's a lot of hand wringing these days over how districts are gerrymandered to such a degree that both republican and democratic office holders rarely face serious challenges, particularly in congress. Do you think Texas has become so gerrymandered that even if there was a shift politically among the electorate in the state, it might be a slower moving shift when it comes to elected office?

WT: When it comes to district offices you have a couple problems and part of the difficulty may go away with the revisions to the voting rights act in the preclearance but you have to remember that one of the first requirements in drawing districts is you have to protect minority districts which is to say if there out of 150 state house districts if there are 35 now and I don't know the exact number so we will use that hypothetically if there are 35 where the minority consisting of African Americans and Hispanics make up a majority of the population when redistricting comes around you have to make sure first of all that you have at least 35 districts like that again, or you run into trouble with the voting rights act, so you got certain parameters and limits on it. Second one in this state is that you can't divide county lines unless it's an overlap into another district. Which is to say, take a small county like Waller County. Which probably doesn't have would have to be all encompassed in one district with part of another county but you couldn't divide Waller County. So you have those kind of structural limitations on the drawing of districts and then of course you have the third factor, which is obviously the party that is in control attempts to magnify the number of districts they have. I'll give you one example though and I don't want to draw too much of this but let's take the redistricting that occurred in 2002 it was a republican redistricting in the state house. As of the 82 election 88 the 150 were republicans well, you might say that was somewhat of a gerrymander but what happened in time? By the time you get down to 3 elections later in 2008 what are the numbers? 76 to 74. Then comes the election of 2010 the last one under that plan and you go from 76 to 99. So you had some major changes from 88 republicans down to 76 up to 99 all under the same districts that were drawn for republican majority back in 2002.

CC: Here in Houston we have what some refer to as a majority minority population, there many more Latinos and African Americans combined then there are white Houstonians and that diversity is a point of pride for many here in Houston. But the notion is that as Hispanic, African American, Asian American and other traditionally populations continue to rise, the politics in our state will change with them. Do you think that's the case?

WT: Well yes, I think it will but in terms of the makeup of the individuals that who elected to office. I don't think it's going to change either too much in partisan or in philosophical or ideological positions. You're absolutely right I think the whole Houston area probably is one of the most significant growths of the Asian population, and that's a very diverse classification, from Chinese Americans to Pakistani's to what, you know. The discerption is pretty general. I think there's a lot of emphasis on the growth of the Hispanic population because in 10 to 20 years we are probably going to be majority Hispanic. Its a couple things you need to keep in mind there. Number one, when we talk about census counts we are talking about not only citizens but also non-citizens, not only those who are here perhaps without any papers but those who are here with student visas those who are here with work permits, their counted in that Hispanic element. A second factor is the number also counted in the census is all the children under 18 who are not even eligible to vote, and as we know in the Hispanic population in Texas at least, there's a large population of under 18's. Second largest group are those who are 18 to 29. And if there's anything we also know about voting behavior, 18 – 29 year olds are probably going to be changing jobs and residences, they don't have, most of them don't have children in school so there's less a concern about education issues. All of which factors tend to decrease the interest in voting. And so even though Hispanics maybe a majority of the population in 10 to 20 years they are not going to be a majority of the electorate for various and sundry reasons.

CC: well we have seen younger voters turn out in greater numbers though in some elections in the last decade, and those who are under 18 will eventually be over 18. So maybe in time is there will that be a greater factor?

WT: It could be. I'm going to throw you a couple more factors here.

CC: Ok.

WT: Number one is intermarriage. I mean let's look at the statewide ticket. Who are the two leading Hispanic candidates running statewide? Van de Putte or Van de Putt-EE? I still don't know which way, but it's certainly not a Hispanic name. And, Bush. Now what's going to happen two or three generations down the road they continuing to Hispanics going to continue to intermarry more and if they do are they going to be more like todays German Americans and Italian Americans who really, you can't say have any partisan loyalties one way or the other. So second thing you have is assimilation and that's kind of related to the intermarriage, and the third thing is suburbanization. Take Montgomery County. A number of Hispanics who are successful moving out of Harris County into Montgomery County. The Woodlands, Conroe, what have you. What's the politics of Montgomery County? This year, there's not a single democratic candidate for any county office in Montgomery County. It's not that they are losing the elections; they didn't even file for the elections. And so if the only choice for people in areas like that is within the republican primary, where most of their neighbors are republican, where all the yard signs are for republicans, and in a republican primary. I think you can see a decrease in the interest in the democratic voting behavior of even Hispanics who move into suburban areas. Williamson County just north of Austin has one of its state reps Larry Gonzalez, a republican. And more and more. Bastrop County to the south has a republican Hispanic county commissioner. So as you see these suburbs grow and as you see more and more Hispanics move out there the question becomes are they still going to be a definite identifiable bloc that the democrats can count on?

CC: To that end you know that there is a challenge for republicans. You write: "The challenge for republicans is to overcome the negative perceptions of their party held by many Hispanics." How can the GOP do that, particularly here in Texas?

WT: A number of things. Number one is elevating more candidates who are Hispanic to show that there are role models; there are individuals within the Republican Party who do represent the kinds of values and interests of that community. Certainly I think one in the future is going to be George P. Bush who is running for land commissioner this year and as I mentioned, Larry Gonzalez, Jason Villalba from the Dallas area and representative Alonzo from Kingsville. There are a number of Hispanics who I think are on the way up. It's a growing area, it's very small but it is a growing segment of the party. The second is to speak more carefully and consciously so that you are not sending off negative vibes with your language and the way you approach different questions. Certainly I think some of our candidates have not been using the best of language in some instances.

CC: You've been a political operative in one form or another for a long time if you were asked to firm up a strategy for democrats in Texas, over the long haul, what advice would offer? Generally speaking.

WT: A couple of things. Work more on infrastructure, start building up at the local level, rebuilding I should say, the democratic structure. You know behind that screen as the Wizard of Oz story gives the analogy the democrats have a lot of organizational issues. This time around out of the 254 counties 165 county judges. No democratic opponent. Before the vote is even cast we know at a minimum 165 counties the republicans going to be the county judge for the next 4 years. And that's not counting places like Harris County with Ed Emmitt who I think is still regarded very much as the favorite to get reelected in November, it's not counting the places where there is a democratic candidate. The 42% of the house districts, no democratic candidate. So you know the old story, if you don't field a team, you can't win the game and until the democrats start looking at the grassroots and building out a base of candidates and future candidates that would be my first advice to them. The second one is don't over emphasize one ethnic group. I just think the democrats are playing too many cards or putting too much emphasis on the growing Hispanic vote when over 70... Number one, because of the age differentiation and the turnout for many years we are still going to have an Anglo majority of the electorate and when over 70% of Anglos are voting republican it looks to me like the democrats have at least if not more of a problem with the Anglo vote then republicans do with the Hispanic vote.

CC: Dr. Wayne Thorburn is political scientist and former executive director of Texas Republican Party and the author of: Red State, an insider's story of how the GOP came to dominate Texas politics. Wayne Thorburn, thanks for talking to me

WT: Thanks very much Craig.