Whether Biden wins or loses, Texas is now a political battleground

How Republicans came to dominate Texas politics and Democrats fought back.

by James Henson

For the first time in 18 years, Democrats are seriously challenging Republicans’ political monopoly over Texas. A Democratic win in Texas would set off shock waves in the political world — the party hasn’t won a presidential race in the state since 1976, a U.S. Senate race since 1988 or a gubernatorial race since 1990 — and without Texas, Republicans don’t have a pathway to the presidency.

Republicans seized monopoly control of Texas in 2002, culminating a four-decade rise to power that capitalized on deep fissures in the Democratic Party and newfound appeal in burgeoning suburbs as a result of rising activism. This history highlights how Democrats are actually emerging from a relatively short time in the political wilderness. It also reveals why Texas is likely to remain competitive in the coming years for only the second period in its modern history.

Reconstruction discredited the Republican Party in the conservative world of Texas politics, tarring it as the party of African Americans and reviled carpetbaggers — those from out of state who had gained political power during that period. With White voters unwilling to consider Republicans, and with the threat of violence compromising their ability to organize, the party infrastructure languished in most counties.

Democrats regained power in 1874, and Republicans would be an afterthought for most of the next century. In seven of the 11 presidential elections between 1908 and 1948, the GOP presidential candidate received less than 20 percent of the vote in Texas, with no GOP nominee exceeding 24.6 percent. Amazingly, it took almost a century — until 1969 — before the number of Republicans in the state legislature again reached double digits; between 1931 and 1961, only one Republican total was elected to the legislature (and he served one term).

In short, Texas was a one-party state, with the political drama happening between the conservative wing of the Democratic Party and the liberal and moderate wing.

Things began to change in the middle of the 20th century. Conservative Texas Democrats disliked Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and the growing liberalism of the national Democratic Party. Channeling this discontent as well as business anger about the Truman administration’s claim of federal control of submerged, oil-rich land in the Gulf of Mexico (known as the Tidelands controversy), conservative Gov. Allen Shivers endorsed Republican Dwight Eisenhower in 1952.

The support of Shivers and his followers — “Shivercrats” — for Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956 delivered the state to the GOP in both years and established a pattern in which conservative Democrats would vote for national Republicans, but continued to support one-party rule in state government. Even as Eisenhower won Texas, between 1950 and 1958, Republican candidates for governor and U.S. senator still were unable to top a paltry 23.6 percent.

But as the two parties became more ideologically sorted at the national level, many liberal Texas Democrats grew tired of the conservative wing of their party, encouraging conservatives to leave their fold. As former governor Ann Richards told me in a 2003 interview, “The Republicans were in the Democratic Party, because there was only one party.” Liberals activists like Richards in the 1960s and 1970s “did everything in the world to help the Republican Party grow in Texas, because we thought there should be a two-party system. … We wanted them out of the Democratic Party, and they got out in spades.”

As former Republican consultant Wayne Thorburn recounts, the formative moment for the modern Republican Party in Texas came in 1961, when John Tower captured the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Lyndon Johnson when he was elected vice president. Liberal Democrats, bitter after conservative William Blakely received the nomination in a multicandidate primary, and assuming they could more easily beat a Republican in the next election, urged Texans to vote for Tower. His victory revealed that Texas Democrats were straining to contain the ideological conflict within their party as the national party became more liberal, particularly in regard to civil rights.

As the Democrats were fracturing, Republicans also began slowly rebuilding a viable political organization starting in the most populous areas of the state, particularly in Dallas and North Texas. They began by contesting local and state races in the rapidly growing suburbs and medium-size cities. Demographic changes and the influx of outsiders helped provide a more receptive audience, one that was less habitually Democratic and less reflexively hostile to the Republican label than previous generations of conservative Democrats.

This activism began to bear fruit at the statewide level in 1968. Even as the liberal Hubert Humphrey was narrowly winning Texas, the Republican gubernatorial candidate received more than 1 million votes for the first time, good enough for 43 percent of the two-party vote — more than three times the share the party’s nominee had received in 1966. And this wasn’t a fluke. By 1978, Bill Clements became the first Republican governor since Reconstruction.

Texas’s conversion to rock-ribbed Republicanism started earlier than the other states of the Confederacy, especially the Deep South, but also took longer to complete as Democrats used some of the advantages of incumbency, especially leverage in redistricting, to maintain majorities in the legislature.

Clements’s election therefore marked the beginning of a brief period of competition between the two parties that culminated with George W. Bush’s stunning defeat of Gov. Ann Richards in 1994 — the last time Democrats were truly competitive in a gubernatorial election — and Republicans completed their takeover of both houses of the legislature in 2002. In a nod toward the Democrats’ hardball tactics, Republicans then carried out a highly unusual mid-decade redistricting in 2003 to cement their gains.

And yet, despite the Republican takeover of every statewide elected office and their legislative majorities, the Democrats never faced the near-extinction that the Republican Party had experienced after Reconstruction. Democrats never dipped below 49 members in the Texas House, nor did they have to start from scratch in rebuilding the party’s organizational capacity and popular base.

Ironically, the return of real competition to Texas politics stems from the very thing that originally opened the door for Republicans: the political and cultural changes tied to the growing diversity that fractured the old Texas Democratic Party. Republicans exploited Democrats’ embrace of civil rights, as economic development and urban growth fueled White flight to booming suburbs — and to the GOP. Former aide Bill Moyers famously recalled Johnson ruefully reflecting that he had “delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time” after he signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Johnson was right.

Their decision to champion racial equality made Democrats the party of people of color and the shrinking share of liberal voters. But with time their tolerance has found new appeal with better educated White voters and proved beneficial as the United States, and Texas, grow more diverse. This coalition is now driving Democrats’ newfound relevance in Texas as Democratically inclined voters spread out from the cities into suburban areas, and a large population of younger voters of color ages into cohorts where they are more likely to vote.

Republicans, while far from finished in Texas, face the same challenge as their national counterparts. They will eventually need to expand their appeal beyond a base of older, White and rural voters — all declining demographics in Texas. But even if the GOP doesn’t figure this out in the short run — and it won’t be easy, given President Trump’s effect on the party’s orientation — they probably can use incumbency to fend off Democrats just as the Democrats of the 1970s and 1980s did to them. The result will be something relatively novel in Texas history: a state with genuinely competitive elections that could go either way.


James Henson is the director of the Texas Politics Project and teaches in the department of government at The University of Texas as Austin. Follow James

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