Karl Rove -- The Architect [home]
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how texas became a "red" state
When Karl Rove arrived in Texas in the late 1970s, state politics had been dominated by the Democrats for over 100 years. By the late '90s it had swung in the opposite direction, with Republicans holding all the popularly elected statewide offices. Here, discussing the political realignment in Texas, and why much of the nation has followed its lead, are: Matthew Dowd, chief strategist for Bush's 2004 campaign, and a former consultant for Texas Democrats; Thomas Edsall, a Washington Post reporter; Sam Gwynne, executive editor of Texas Monthly; Royal Masset, a political consultant and former political director of Republican Party of Texas; and Reggie Bashur, a Republican political consultant and former gubernatorial adviser to George W. Bush.

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matthew dowd
Chief campaign strategist, Bush-Cheney 2004

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... Take me back, in Texas politics, when Texas was Democratic and now is Republican. What happened?

A few things came to bear: one, sort of the natural growth of Texas in the late '70s and early '80s, because of the influx [of] people from other states who had a tendency to be Republican, have a little bit of money, more conservative. That in-migration changed the dynamics. It's when the suburbs around the major cities started to grow tremendously…

But the other thing that happened, which is a national phenomenon, I think, too, is that there was beginning to be the loss of conservative Democrats around the country, especially in the South and in the West. And so you no longer had white candidates that were fairly conservative that ran in Democratic primaries that won. It became harder and harder and harder for conservative Democratic candidates to win Democratic primaries. And when more liberal candidates won, it became harder for them to win general elections. …

And I think that began, or really started to be seen, in the late '70s and early '80s. And then, as incumbent Democratic officeholders no longer sought re-election or got beat, Texas sort of in that process of 15 to 20 years, by the end of that, became basically a Republican state. Can a Democrat win in this state? They can, but it's extremely difficult, and you basically have to be a pretty dominant presence, like [Lt. Gov. Bob] Bullock was. Bullock won a fairly big margin in 1994, but he basically didn't really have an opponent. Lloyd Bentsen could win because he was a conservative Democrat that never had primary opposition. But other statewide officials now, it's very difficult for them to win. Even moderates now in this state, moderate Democrats, it's very hard for them to win. …

Is it a case study, in effect, for what has happened across America?

I think Texas is an early sign of what was happening in the South. I mean, it happened in South Carolina. South Carolina was a dominant Democratic state, became a Republican state. But South Carolina didn't have the sort of influx of a lot of suburban growth that Texas did. It's what's happening in the Midwest now and in some other areas. It's why Wisconsin is now becoming less a Democratic stronghold and more of a swing, because of the suburban growth. Exurban growth now is a huge phenomenon that's going on -- Minnesota. So it's happening.

I think it's a sign of the conservative nature of this country politically, and I think as you have larger populations of conservative peoples in individual states, those states become much easier for Republicans to win, just like as you have larger populations of more liberal or liberal moderate voters, it becomes much harder for Republicans to win. The growth of more liberal moderate voters in New York and in California makes it harder for Republicans to win those states, which used to be Republican states by and large. If you won the presidency, you usually won California. You now win the presidency, and you don't carry California. So yeah, it's a study in that it has a few differences, as I said. But it's what's happened in the South and what's happening in the Midwest now.

How much of the shift was driven by somebody like Karl Rove? …

I think there was a combination of things. Karl was very smart, knew how to organize campaigns, knew what to do; and at the same time, this natural, or this emerging state was happening. You couldn't have a bright, very smart strategist that made a state into something it's not. ... The state didn't change because of Karl. The state was changing, and then Karl was able to take advantage of those changing dynamics.

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thomas edsall
Reporter, Washington Post

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… What's the state of play in Texas when Karl Rove [arrives in Texas in the late '70s]?

The Democratic Party is still the dominant party, and it controls both branches of the legislature, has most of the congressional delegation. It struggles the higher up the ticket you go, especially at the governorship level. And in 1978, I think, Republicans won the governorship with Bill Clements, and Karl was involved in that race. It's also the time period when [Sen.] Phil Gramm, in the early '80s, has switched from the Democratic to Republican Party and becomes a very sort of powerful, quintessential Reagan Democrat in a sense, leading the charge of white, middle- and working-class Democrats out of the party into the GOP, especially in the rural areas, where he has strong appeal. ...

Rove was the person who really saw how to drive the Republican shift in Texas from the top down. He would latch on, often to a good top-of-the-ticket candidate, George W. Bush being probably the quintessential candidate for him. But then he worked very hard to get all the other statewide offices there.

There are 32 statewide offices in Texas: the Supreme Court, the Railroad Commission, and then I don't know what the exact title is, but, like, state auditor, state treasurer, those kinds of people. Those were the hardest ones for the Republican Party to break ... but he really wanted to push down at that point. He also would work very hard in the state legislative races for the State Senate and the statehouses. … Races that you would think for this guy would be nickel-and-dime, but for the long-range strategy were crucial towards this whole movement to make Texas into a securely Republican state. And I think no one else can take as much credit as Karl for really helping to be the engineer of that, pushing, prodding, figuring every possible angle to get that whole movement accelerated, and infiltrating sort of at every level of politics, not just at the top. …

It's over that period from 1964 to 2004, 40 years, it's been a long, slow but rolling Republican realignment. And Karl was really fortunate to be positioned in a state that sort of went into this whole process at two or three times the rate of the rest of the country. And he saw it happening, and not just saw it, but he pushed and shoved it in a state where this was happening. …

Tell me a little bit about the politics of the South, and the evolution of the South.

I think there's no question that the shift of the South away from its Democratic roots was driven by race. And if you look at the whole process, the South after Truman sought to integrate the armed forces and some other pro-black policies. In 1948, [South Carolina Sen.] Strom Thurmond ran, and he won the seven Southern states on a basically anti-integration, progressively "anti-" plank. This accelerates when Lyndon Johnson becomes president after Kennedy's death. He decides to endorse the '64 Civil Rights Act and make it into a very central part of his whole policy and program, and wins approval of it. The only places Goldwater wins are Arizona and almost the exact same Southern states as carried by Strom Thurmond. This is the hard core Black Belt South, where the opposition to civil rights was most intense.

And you get a shift in the South of the white electorate. It starts at the top with the bankers and the downtown businessmen, but it moves very fast, so that's where it is basically in the Eisenhower years. But come Lyndon Johnson, it moves right down to white rural and working-class voters who are heavily driven by race as an issue. And so you get -- in the 1980s, it was commonplace to go to a Republican Party in a state like South Carolina or Mississippi, and all their calculations, when they would look at "What can we win in the legislature?," it was all based on "What is the percentage of the black vote in that district?" …

You also have in the South -- it's not just race; you have a much more kind of anti-government, anti-authoritarian tradition. It's a Scotch-Irish-rooted part of the country where people don't like to be told what to do, where men take pride in being tough, and it is a different culture. And that was something also that the Republicans captured over time, and that George Bush, for example, strikes a nerve on.

And Rove, who by all accounts is a student of the South, … learns what from looking at the South that he applies to Texas?

Texas is a little more complex than a place like Mississippi or South Carolina, because you have a predominantly white East Texas with strong roots in the Democratic Party, a populist Democratic Party. You have German communities in a lot of Texas that had roots with socialism, basically, back in Germany, so their liberal ties are very strong. I think in Texas, race clearly played a factor, but the values issues began to play much stronger, and the values issues became a factor.

And a lot of these values issues are overlain with race a lot. For example, welfare was a strong issue in his 1994 campaign. The whole idea of welfare reform, there became a lot of resentment. If you talked to white Texans, many of them Democrats, they would say that the Democrats had allowed a system to grow up where people were being paid not to work, where the system basically provided incentives to have children out of wedlock, subsidized by the state. They were very angry at that. At the same time, a lot of the beneficiaries in these programs were, in Texas, black or Hispanic. So it cut all kinds of different ways. Karl knew that. ...

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sam gwynne
Executive editor, Texas Monthly

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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.

royal masset
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. …

reggie bashur
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. …

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posted april 12, 2005

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