"Battleground Texas": Can the Democrats put the Lone Star State Back into Play?

February 23, 2013 5:22:07 AM PST
A couple of weeks ago, Politico, a national website, broke the story that the Democratic Party was planning a multi-million dollar effort to move Texas from its solid red partisan status to purple and, maybe even blue, in a decade or so. The plan was labeled "Battleground Texas."

This week, Texas media quoted Texas GOP chairman Steve Munisteri's warning that if Hillary Clinton were the Democratic nominee in 2016, he would have to move his state from "Solid Republican" to "Lean Republican" on the Electoral College map. Given the troubles his party has had lately with the electoral arithmetic nationally, (Barack Obama got 332 votes in the Electoral College to Mitt Romney's 206) if Republicans have to fight to keep Texas' 38 votes, a winning White House strategy three years from now would be much harder. Given the national importance of our electoral votes, plus the fact that we live here, it is important to address the question of whether Texas will become a two-party state in the foreseeable future.

A good place to start is a quick review of how we became a one-party Republican state in the 1990s. From 1952 to 1988, Texas was one of the more competitive presidential states, with Republicans carrying the vote six times and to the Democrats four. This GOP edge did not extend to state and local offices, as most statewide, congressional, and county offices were held by Democrats. All that changed in the early 1990s, and we have not had a statewide Democrat elected since 1994, Republicans have both U.S. Senate seats, 24 of 36 congressional offices, and large majorities in the Texas Senate and House of Representatives.

This "red shift" of the state in the 1990s was based on three fundamental factors that unfolded in the 1970s and 1980s. First, the national Democratic Party was increasing viewed by Anglo Texans as too liberal on a range of economic and racial issues for a traditional conservative state. Second, the national alliance that Ronald Reagan forged between the religious right and the Republican Party paid big dividends in Texas with its high percentage of evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, and relatively few liberal Protestants and Catholics, Jews, and secular voters who might be repelled by this new coalition. Third, rapid economic growth attracted sizeable numbers of white middle and upper middle class voters to the booming suburbs around Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio. Unlike other new immigrants, these folks almost immediately registered to vote, voted, and voted Republican.

These factors gave Republican presidential candidates solid victories in 1980, 1984, and 1988, even while the Democrats remained powerful in Austin and across most of the state. The partisan watershed years within Texas came in the 1992, 1994, and 1996 elections. Over this span, the Democrats effectively wrote Texas off in presidential politics. Given the recent mention of Hillary Clinton as a contender who might put the state back on the battleground map, it is interesting to revisit when Texas was conceded to the presidential Republican contenders. The key player was Hillary's then and now spouse, William Jefferson Clinton.

The abandonment of Texas by the Clinton General Election campaign of 1992 was surprising for several reasons. The Arkansas governor had a 20-year history in his neighboring state, dating from managing the ill-fated McGovern statewide campaign in 1972. Clinton also had close personal ties to many Texas players like liberal leader Billie Carr in Houston and Texas Land Commissioner Gary Mauro. Additionally, Governor Clinton had won the March 1992 Texas Democratic Primary by a large margin (65.6 percent of 1,482,675 total votes), showing widespread electoral appeal. Finally, when Dallas billionaire Ross Perot, a harsh critic of his fellow Texan, President George H. W. Bush, also declared for the presidency in the spring of 1992, this greatly increased the likelihood that he would pull white conservative votes from the incumbent, enabling Bill Clinton to carry the state with as little as 40 percent of the total vote in a three-way race.

When Clinton turned to Tennessee Senator Al Gore as his running mate in the Democrat's summer convention in New York City, it seemed likely that he would emulate Jimmy Carter's "southern strategy" of 1976, which hinged on carrying Texas to get a majority in the Electoral College. That did not happen. The all-southern ticket, as one observer noted, "only skirmished in Dixie, and instead marched north to victory." As much as Governor Clinton wanted to aggressively contest Texas, his advisors, including Houstonian Paul Begala, convinced him he did not need the state to win a solid Electoral College majority. They were right.

Elected without Texas in 1992, and again in 1996, Bill Clinton showed that the conventional wisdom of more than a century that "no Democrat could be elected president without carrying Texas" was hopelessly out of date by the end of the 20th century. That lesson has stuck. For Al Gore in 2000, John Kerry in 2004, and Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, Texas is essentially an ATM machine in the General Election for president. Lone Star Democratic money flows to traditional swing states of Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and the new battlegrounds of Virginia, North Carolina, and Colorado.

Given the major role Bill Clinton played in writing Texas off the presidential map, it would be ironic to say the least if Hillary Clinton puts the state back in play two decades later. But before exploring that possibility, I will address factors that contributed to the decline of the once-dominant Texas Democratic Party in future blogs.

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