By Richard Gambitta
Over the past twenty-five years, Texas has moved dramatically from a one party Democratic state to one dominated by Republican officeholders at the statewide level. In 1975, Republican U.S. Senator John Tower, first elected in 1961, was still the only Republican that Texans had elected statewide. Voters had not elected a Republican to a statewide, state government office since Reconstruction. Today, however, Democrats hold no statewide elective office. Texas has two Republican U.S. Senators, a Republican Governor, and twenty-six other statewide elected offices. Republicans 29 - Democrats 0.
Although the Democrats maintain a majority among Texas' Congressional delegation (17-13), the Republicans now control the Texas Senate (16-15) and draw closer to taking the Texas House which moved from 92D-58R after 1992 to 78D-72R presently.
How did this happen? In the 1970s, conservative Democrats switched to the Republican Party as former Democratic Governor John Connally had done earlier. In 1978, Texans elected a Republican governor, Bill Clements. After Clements' defeat in 1982, Texans elected Republican Phil Gramm to the Senate in 1984, after he switched parties when serving as a Democratic Congressman. Clements returned as Governor in 1986 and George Bush's presidential candidacy in 1988 elevated Republican primary participation. The Reagan 80s "outed" a lot of closet Republicans. In 1990, Texans re-elected Gramm to the U.S. Senate, and elected Kay Bailey Hutchison and Rick Perry to the Treaurer and Agriculture Commissioner positions. These three had staying power. Hutchison moved to the U.S. Senate in a 1993 special election, then won re-election in 1994 by a margin of 61%-38%. In 1998, Texans elected Perry Lt. Governor.
Add George W. Bush to this calculus starting in 1994 when he beat incumbent Governor Ann Richards (53%-46%), then shellacked his 1998 Democratic opponent 68%-31%, getting the endorsement of Texas' highest ranking Democrat, Lt. Governor Bob Bullock. His coattails dragged in an exclusively Republican statewide regime.
As an indicator of the degree of Republican dominance statewide, no Democratic candidate for the 1998 statewide judicial seats earned more than 46% of the vote. None came even close to winning.
The Democrats had blown it. They had underestimated George Bush's popularity and coattails, or proved incapable of limiting them. The Democrats appear disoriented. Their 1998 statewide ticket did not contain a single Latino surname or Black candidate. It failed to include a woman candidate for any of the eight statewide executive races. Alternatively, the Republicans celebrated victories by a Latino and two women for three of those eight posts. The Republican ticket incorporated more diversity than did the Democratic one in 1998-in a state where diversity means votes.
Now the Democrats find themselves without a single incumbent statewide, George W. Bush heading for the 2000 Republican nomination for President, and Kay Bailey Hutchinson running for re-election to the Senate. She has no credible Democratic opponent surfacing presently. Bush and Hutchinson, who garnered 68% and 61% in their last races, would hold the first two lines on the ballot. Their margins of victory could alter several Texas Congressional races that immediately follow them on the ballot, and could carry through the Texas Senate and House races and beyond.
The 2000 avalanche seems imminent-- and at what a time! This election will determine control of reapportionment, the redrawing of congressional and state legislative districts. Republicans could control or, at the least, have a veto over the redrawing of legislative lines, which in turn will determine the outcomes of federal and state legislative seats for a decade. In the last Presidential race, for example, Democrats lost the popular Congressional vote in Texas 54% to 44%, but still won 17 of the state's 30 seats because of the districts' shapes. After the 2000 census, Texas will get at least two additional congressional seats. How the Texas legislature reconfigures the state and federal lines will determine which party controls the majority of legislative seats.
The number of Republican Party regulars has grown, not just the number of its officeholders. Between presidential election years 1972 and 1996, Republican Primary voters rose from 114k to over a million (1.02), while Democratic Primary voters dropped from 2.2 million to below a million (.92). In 1996, for the first time, Republicans outnumbered Democrats in the state's primary elections. In 1972, participants in the Democratic and Republican primaries constituted 57% and 3% of all registered voters, respectively. In 1996, they became 10% and 11%, respectively. The largest increase occurred in the number of voters who chose not to participate in either primary, climbing from 40% to 79% of the registered voters during that time period. With general-election participation rates remaining somewhat stable and within the 40 percentiles of the voting age population, the non-aligned voters have become all important. And they have voted disproportionately Republican in recent statewide elections.
To win, Democrats have to do things very differently than previously. The Democrats have less money in a state where the airwave, mailing, and travel costs are huge. The National Democratic Committee is unlikely to spend money in Texas when its presidential nominee has not won in decades, when Bob Dole got his largest big state victory here, and George W. Bush carried 239 of Texas' 254 counties when running for governor in 1998. If incumbent Clinton couldn't beat Dole, how can Gore or Bradley beat Bush, whose father even beat Clinton? How could they beat McCain, for that matter.
It is hard to find a Democratic bright spot in the 2000 campaign. Even traditional strongholds appear troublesome. In the border counties, for example, with heavy concentrations of pro-Democrat Mexican Americans, Clinton carried 65% in his three way 1996 race. But in 1998, Bush carried them 51%-49%. Moreover, the 23rd Congressional District sprawling across the border from Laredo to El Paso, is held by Republican Henry Bonilla, running for his 5th term and earning 64% in 1998. Hence, it is unlikely that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee will pump money even into that predominately Latino District that otherwise votes Democratic. And money counts in Texas.
Beyond money, Democrats need strong grassroots infrastructure to win. Since Lloyd Benson's departure, however, there has been no permanent, effective Democratic grassroots organization in place, even in key geographical regions. There are no signs presently of grassroots regenerating.
"Webroots," however, are growing and organizing, but they are predominantly independent issue-clustering alliances, eschewing political parties. Independents, essential to electoral victory, have begun the rudiments of large Internet communication associations, one spawned by political writer and populist guru Ronnie Dugger.
Overall, the shift in Texas' economy has affected the Democratic base. Texas is no longer a commodity-driven economy disproportionately dependent upon oil, cattle, and agriculture, all rural based industries. Now, Texas contains high-tech enterprises like Dell, Compaq, Texas Instruments, Perot Systems; NASA and its spinoffs; telecommunications giants; and proliferating biotech firms. Republicans have dealt better with the new diversity and sophistication of these economic movers and shakers, as well as the new entrepreneurs and small businesses. This new labor is more difficult to formally organize especially in a right-to-work state where organized labor was never what it was elsewhere. Meanwhile, NAFTA has boomed and broadened Texas's economy with about 70% of U.S. exports to Mexico passing through Texas. Democrats have failed to capitalize politically, however, because labor, the traditional supporters and bankrollers of Democrats, opposed it nationally.
The Mexican American community is increasingly essential to victory statewide and the Republicans have made inroads. Bush's coraz\n conservatism, his personality, and outreach sold in the governor's race and will in the presidential one, should he get nominated. While the Democrats will continue to carry the Mexican American vote, it is no where near as solidly Democratic.
Democrats need to shift gears, if not directions. To win, they must broaden participation. They cannot go after the consistent voters only and expect to win. They must stimulate the infrequent and non-voters, starting with the young and extending deeply into working class Latino, Black and Anglo households. The Democrats need to build a new permanent, year-round, network infrastructure. Moreover, Texans love personalities; the Democrats need to get some. And, they need to create new issues while re-forging old ones that will convince independents that Democrats will make their lives better in specific ways. Texas' major cities, however, have become one-newspaper towns, thereby making it more difficult to get free press to get the new issues out. This makes candidates more dependent on either paid media and mailouts, which require big money, which Republicans have more of lately, or strong grassroots, which have atrophied. The Democrats have their rebuilding work cut out for them.
Of course, the Reform Party ticket could raise participation, as it did in 1992, when vote totals peaked at 48% of the voting age population, or 73% of the registered voters. Perot, however, earned only 22% running against the senior Bush in 1992, then dipped to a humbling 7% in 1996. Both Republican nominees still beat popular Democrat Clinton by 4% and 5%, respectively. It is highly unlikely that any of the present Reform Party candidates would have any disruptive effect on an impending Republican victory in Texas.