Executive editor, Texas Monthly
What did Karl Rove do to be the Karl Rove that we all talk about?
… His Texas career per se started in '79 when he went to work for then-Gov. Bill Clements. This is an interesting moment, because Texas, if you look at Texas history, this place has been Democratic since the Civil War. The party of Lincoln was not the party that was popular anywhere in the South, including Texas. And so for all these years, you had Democratic dominance in the state of Texas.
In fact, when Karl first came to the state, and in 1977 or '78, of the statewide offices held, I think one of 29 was held by a Republican. Of the entire 181-member Texas House and Senate, only 21 seats were held by Republicans. You basically had a complete domination of the state by Democrats forever.
… Complete, almost 100 percent needle swing to the Republicans. In the House and the Senate, from 21 out of 181 to now in the 110 range, something like that -- a complete shift. Eventually the congressional delegations, the senatorial, everything switched.
And this happened on Karl's shift, and he was involved in an enormous amount of it. If you look at the statewide races -- being the Senate race, governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, land commissioner, Supreme Court justices, all those folks -- he was involved in almost every single one of them. So in a way, you can see this great tectonic shift in American politics, and maybe the greatest of an age, because, taken as a region anyway, Texas with all of its electoral votes in effect swings entirely Republican over a period of 22 years, and one man is really at the core of it.
What did he do?
It's interesting. It's sort of like if you look at the '60s, and you say, "Did the Beatles cause the '60s, or did the '60s cause the Beatles?" … Karl, I think, happened at the right time. In other words, the Republican switch was going to happen in some way, but Karl happened to be right there at the beginning. He sort of midwifed it. He helped it begin. He got it going. He sustained it.
It's unclear exactly to me why it happens just when it happens. I mean, there are different things that are going on in the '70s and in the '80s that begin to change the Texas electorate. I think the biggest thing you can see is Reaganism. … Certain values have now become in vogue nationally. Among them are small government, low taxes, relatively low services -- all the things that Reagan is pilloried for by liberals. These things were always true in Texas. So I think what was happening is you had a confluence of various factors that began to unmask Texas as a place that was, yes, Democratic, but fundamentally conservative. ...
In a lot of ways, the difference between a conservative Democrat and a Republican was very small, particularly in Texas, where there's a strong religious strain here. There is small government. "Don't tax me. I don't want big government. Get out of my face" -- that's [the attitude]. And so those conservative Democrats would suddenly start to look very much like mainstream Republicans. So what Karl did is Karl saw that you could, by picking certain issues, drive a wedge in here. You could run conservative Republicans and win. ...
1988 is in many ways a watershed for Rove. It shows you how an issue can … help Republicans kind of accelerate help Republicans accelerate this trend towards Republicanism, and this was the issue of tort reform. I think that the country's about to get a big dose of this, but we've been having big doses of this for a long time, in fact, since Karl Rove started to run Supreme Court justices back in the late '80s. The Supreme Court basically swung 100 percent, too. Rove ran almost every single one of them.
Former political director, Republican Party of Texas
… From my perspective, Karl Rove is a great consultant, but he didn't make Texas a Republican state. George Bush didn't make Texas a Republican state. It is just the numbers were there. … It's a very inherently conservative state. Memories of the Civil War disappeared, where they hated Republicans for over 100 years. E. J. Davis was the last Republican governor after Reconstruction. He didn't want to leave office, so had to be thrown out by force of arms. And basically, it would be 104 years after he left before we would have another Republican governor. But once that memory started fading … once those people were dying out and the memory was gone, then you could just see, just a mathematical, absolute increase in Republican base vote come along.
I have the impression that a lot of what in Texas would be called a Democrat … was really what someone in Massachusetts, say, would call a Republican.
Right. That's it. Exactly. Our whole history has been conservative. In fact, believe it or not … you could actually correlate the results of 1986 with how people voted against secession in 1861. The German Hill Country out here was the only part of Texas to vote against secession. They used to all call themselves Independents but they have several counties that are 100 percent Republican now.
Areas such as East Texas voted 99 percent for secession. They still vote Democrat even though they are more conservative than we are. And Dallas, it turned out was the first Republican city largely because they were settled by Midwesterners who came down and they could give a hoot about the South. So that whole area of the state was settled by people that were kind of neutral about secession. But as a result, that was our first Republican city. …
You're a close observer of what Rove did here. What do you see him doing?
Well, I would say three things. … Karl certainly understood all of our number theories. So he understood the importance of targeting, using resources. Now we all have PCs. I think everyone can do this easily. But we really originated that in Texas. They weren't doing that nationally. …
But I think [there were] two other things that Karl learned. First, Karl understands politics. He understands policy in a way that you really wouldn't unless you were close to a governor. I think to him and to all of us, being governor isn't that different from being president. You're the top executive. You have a certain PR relationship to the people. You have a political relationship. You have to figure out the state party. You have to figure out all the media. So all of the skills you need to be governor of Texas, where you have no inherent power in the constitution, you have to earn it. …
And then I think the third thing, which I think is probably unique to Karl in Texas: We are just hyper-competitors in this state. There is something about the long march, the 20, 30-year thing. It builds up stamina. … There's a tremendous optimism that comes from a 30-year rising star. … It gives you a sense that you can't lose, that if the tide of history is going in the right direction, keep fighting and you will prevail.
There is nobody on earth that works harder than Karl. … Karl just night and day works. This is what he lives for. This is what he did in Texas, was [work] night and day. …
Texas Republican political consultant; former gubernatorial aide to George W. Bush
A Texas conservative is someone who believes in limited government, in lower taxes, and local control. And the conservatives, the Republicans, are a mix of that business economic conservative, plus the social conservatives. And in more recent years, rural Texas has started to vote consistently Republican. And that was evidenced in the '98 Bush reelection for governor, and then in the '02 elections with Governor Perry and the entire statewide ticket as well as the Republican House. …
How much of the transformation do you lay at Karl Rove's feet?
I think Karl has to get a lot of the credit. He, for many years, was kind of a lone voice in trying to organize the Republicans, trying to identify candidates, trying to hone the message. And his energy, his enthusiasm, his commitment were absolutely critical, I think, at the beginning of the process.
Now, I think there are a lot of other factors involved as well that helped him lead the way. The demographic changes in the state of a lot of the in-migration from the Midwest and the West of Republican voters that came into the Texas economy and populated the suburbs of Texas where a lot of the Republican vote is today had a lot to do with it.
I think national politics, and the perception that the national Democratic Party was out of step with the mainstream voter, particularly in the South, had something to do with the conservative Democrats, the Lloyd Benson Democrats, if you will, moving to the Republican Party and being comfortable in the Republican Party. Ronald Reagan, I think, had a lot to do with it, making the Republican Party a viable alternative, a viable option for conservative voters who were believing that the Democratic Party was too liberal for them. …
Was the Bush re-election in '98 the first time that all the down ticket races went Republican?
That was the first time that the Republicans won all statewide elections. The Republicans won the Texas Senate in the early '90s … right around the emergence of George W. Bush as governor in '94. And then he brought in all the statewides in '98. And then subsequently the Republicans won the House for the first time in '02. Today, the people of Texas have elected Republicans to every statewide office, and that includes the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court is entirely Republicans.
And for people who don't understand the implications of that, what does it mean for a state to be basically exclusively Republican.
Well, of course, Texas is the second-largest state in the nation. The population is approximately 22 million people. And it's politically very significant that the Republican Party has such a strong base of support right smack in the middle of the country. And it generates a lot of candidates at the congressional level, and future candidates nationally, as well, of course, as a very strong financial base.
And in policy terms?
Well, I think Texas is on the cutting edge in a lot of reform of the conservative agenda. Certainly … tort reform is a major factor. The legislature in the 2003 session faced a $10 billion dollar budget shortfall, and it was balanced without a tax increase. Certainly, from a conservative perspective, it's quite an achievement. …