Interviews: Texas Politics: The Myth vs. the Reality

Karl Rove

Paul Stekler: Describe the rise of the Republican Party in Texas.

Karl Rove: Well, when I first arrived in Texas in January of 1977 in Austin, I went to work in the Texas legislature. Out of the hundred eighty-one members of the legislature, I think there were maybe 15 or so Republicans. There were, I think, 12 Republicans in the House and 3 Republicans in the state Senate. And it really was a one-party state. I mean, virtually every county courthouse except for a few suburban Republican strongholds and a couple of the old German Republican counties and a few of the West Texas conservative counties, all the county courthouses, all the local elected officials, were Democrats. In 1977, of the 30 statewide elected officials, there was one Republican. U.S. Senator John Tower. Every other statewide office was occupied by a Democrat. And the Democrats had an overwhelming majority of the states' congressional delegation, which was, you know, in the high 20s, I think, at that point. So it was a Democrat state. And politics was settled with Democratic primaries.

Well, back then I never saw that the change would happen as rapidly as it did. I thought I'd, you know, spend the rest of my adult life in a state where I'd be, hopefully, a growing minority, but a minority nonetheless. But political change came rather rapidly to the state. The state is today a very strong Republican state.

The potential was that Texas was a moderately conservative state and that we were going through a series of demographic changes -- immigration, increasing urbanization, an increasing level of education -- all of which created the potential for a more diverse political culture, in a more vibrant two-party state. But there are other states that have gone through the same process and not seen political change like Texas has done. Texas was blessed by sort of the appearance of a succession of political leaders who by the conduct of their campaigns and their conduct in office, were able to successively build on each others' successes and create the modern Republican Party of Texas. The first, obviously, was, John Tower, who was elected in a fluke in a special election for the United States Senate in 1961 and reelected in 66, reelected in 72, and reelected in 78. And he made it possible for people to identify with a Texas Republican and be credible. And he was followed in 1978 by Bill Clements, who was the first Republican governor elected in 114 years. His last Republican predecessor was Edmund J. Davis, who, when he lost the election of 1874 barricaded himself in the state Capitol and wired Grant for Union Troops to keep him in office. And on inauguration day, no federal troops had arrived and a disorganized and probably drunk mob came up Congress Avenue, heavily armed and forced him out of the governor's office at the point of a gun. And there ensued 114 years of Democratic rule in Texas. But Clements got elected by a very thin margin, literally just over 10,000, I think it was some, 11,000 or 17,000 votes in 1978. And by doing so, he began to take the historically Republican areas of the Hill Country, and a Midland and an Odessa and Tyler, and the big urban counties that had shown a propensity to vote Republican, Dallas and Houston, and matched them with two other really important forces that were to change Texas politics during the 70s and 80s and 90s.

First were the suburban counties. The area, the growing suburbs north of Dallas and Fort Worth and north and west of Houston, in particular. And he really energized these suburbanites to come out and vote for him. He also began to take a swatch of rural Texas. No Republican could win simply on the cities and suburbs alone. They had to grab something of rural Texas. And he did particularly well in East Texas, and even better in far West Texas, the panhandle and the south plains. And this was enough to give him a narrow victory. And he built on it, and had a very successful first administration. 1984, Phil Gramm came along, who was able to win statewide, and he not only had the suburban base and the urban base that Clements had had, and the far West Texas and East Texas strength, but he also added a whole series of counties in Central Texas, which had never voted Republican before. Then in 1990, Rick Perry, the agriculture commissioner candidate, and Kay Bailey Hutchinson. Kay began to strengthen, add strength among suburban moderates, particularly women. Rick added strength in sort of the big country, near Abilene. Out of the sort of, west-central Texas and West Texas. And then in 1994, Governor Bush was elected with those strengths, plus even more in Central Texas, and beginning to creep south into South Texas. So each one of them has benefited from a growing suburbanization of the state, plus they've added successive levels of strength in various areas of the state where before you could think of voting for a Republican, but having once voted for one and felt good about it, you could feel comfortable voting for another.

Well, I think it looks like a strategy in retrospect, but in reality it was the incident of these very strong leaders. It also helped that Ronald Reagan came along in 1980. You know, we think of Texas as a predictably Republican presidential state, and it has been since 1980. But if you look before that point, it had voted for Carter in 76, it had gone for Nixon in 72, but had gone for Humphrey in 68. Gone for Johnson, obviously, in 64. It went for Kennedy in 60. It went for Eisenhower in 56 and in 52, but only because Democrats led by governor Shivers came across and endorsed him as a popular war hero. And before that, the history of the state is virtually Democrat except for the overwhelming Republican sweeps like in 1928 and so forth. So it's a state that has been helped, though, by this, you know, this coincidence, if you will. But that, a joyful coincidence of Tower, Clements, Reagan, Bush Senior, Phil Gramm, Bush forty, forty-three, Kay Bailey Hutchinson, and then a talented group of candidates who came as sort of the farm team to run for lesser offices. The Democratic Party looks weak, but it looks weak by comparison to this very strong ticket of Republican candidates who emerged for lesser offices. Now, in part, this is because of something unique about the structure of Texas government.

Texas government prizes non-political candidates. We have a legislature that meets a hundred forty days every two years, they're expected to have a real life besides being a legislator. They get paid seventy-two hundred dollars a year, 600 dollars a month. So that, you know, they're supposed to have a real livelihood besides being a legislator. So if you look at Rick Perry: started as a Democrat legislator, was elected as a Republican as agriculture commissioner, was elected as Republican lieutenant governor, succeeded when Bush became president, ran for and won reelection as a Republican on his own. But he began as a citizen legislator. Susan Combs, our agriculture commissioner. Jerry Patterson, our land commissioner. Many of our candidates over the years have begun in sort of, at this very non-political you know, or non-full-time political, ah, background in the legislature. Or begun in the judiciary. We've also been benefited from having our current attorney general and his predecessor, the first two Republican attorneys general since Reconstruction. Both served on the Supreme Court of Texas as Republicans. Before that, both of them were district court judges. Ironically enough, one of them, Abbot, was appointed to the Supreme Court by Governor Bush, and appointed to the district court branch in Houston previously by a Republican governor, and John Cornyn had run for the district court bench in Bexar County but as part of a Republican reform movement of the, of the courthouse there.

Stekler: What would be a good Democratic strategy in Texas, and what went wrong in 2002

Rove: First you got to get good candidates who can articulate a message that makes sense to the people of Texas. I mean, that's what the Republican advantage was. They had candidates, Tower and Clements, Reagan, Bush, Phil Gramm, Kay Hutchinson, Rick Perry, George W. Bush, all of whom got elected. Sometimes, in the early days, almost by accident. Their election depended on electoral confusion as in 61, or a bitter Democratic primary as in 78. Or the selection of the most liberal candidate as in 84 in the Senate primary or the failed policies of the Carter administration as Reagan-Bush in 80. But once in office they performed in such a way that people of Texas said, "I identify with that. I applaud it. And it makes me feel more comfortable voting for Republicans in the future." If the Democrats have a hope in Texas, it is to do that in reverse. To be able to identify opportunities where a good candidate with a strong and powerful message gets elected, albeit perhaps by accident, perhaps as an upset, perhaps being very opportunistic and looking for openings that might not otherwise be seen. And hope that once in office they perform in such a way that it makes their party more attractive to the people of Texas. Politics is ultimately about ideas. It's about results. It's about enacting policies that will have an effect for good or for ill on the people of the state and country. And it's those results. It's the performance in office that ultimately determines whether or not the party has the durability to maintain its primacy in a state over time.

The Democrats did have a clear strategy in 2002 in Texas. But I thought from the outset it was flawed. And it basically said process will trump policy. They said, we will have a rich Latino for governor, we'll have a popular African-American for the Senate, who has got bipartisan support when he was running for mayor. And then we will have a sharp, technocratic, moderate to liberal Democrat for lieutenant governor and somehow or another because we've touched all of these bases, profiles, got all these different profiles, we'll win. But when you had a gubernatorial candidate who was not an appealing personality and could not convincingly talk about his vision, and when you had a bipartisan mayor who suddenly became a hyper-partisan and again could not talk about his vision, and then you had a lieutenant governor candidate whose rationale didn't seem to be anything other than, "I'm the guy that you ought to vote for when you vote for the other two." You know, it became a very unappealing mish-mash. It reminded me of that Churchill phrase. He was presented a dessert, a pudding. And he said, "Take it away, it has no theme." Well, to say "We have the Dream Team" which carried with it the belief that if we simply have the Latino and the African American and the white male that somehow or another that's an adequate platform on which to base an appeal to the people of Texas, Texas is a far more sophisticated place than that. And they wanted to know, what are you going to do as my governor? How are you going to vote as my senator? And what makes you the person who ought to preside over the state Senate as our lieutenant governor. And the answer to those questions were never forthcoming from the Democratic ticket. Not in a satisfactory way.

Stekler: What's the deal with the Hispanic vote

Rove: Well, I think that's yet to be determined. And that's the point, is that the Hispanic vote in Texas is a vote that is up for grabs. Because it is, first of all, Democratic in leanings. But by values and outlook, conservative and Republican. And the tension between those two -- our historical antecedents -- have been that the Hispanics have voted Democrat in Texas, but we are small business, entrepreneurs and rising middle class and emphasis on faith and family and community and conservative values. That tension means they're up for grabs. And it's why, for example, Rick Perry, running against the first Latino ever nominated by a major political party for governor, nonetheless gets 35 percent of the Latino vote. Which is pretty extraordinary. It's why George W. Bush running for reelection in 1998 got 49 percent of the Latino vote in Texas. It is a vote that is up for grabs. And to the degree that more middle class and more people go to college and become better educated, it becomes increasingly an even more conservative vote, and the tension between its historical leanings and its current orientation becomes more palpable and more beneficial to the Republican Party.

Karl Rove is currently the Senior Advisor to President George W. Bush. Rove also played a major role in Bush Sr.'s road to Presidency.