Analysis: Watch how Texas tilts

By PATRICK REDDY, for United Press International  |  May 22, 2002 at 3:51 PM
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The conventional wisdom among political journalists is that California today is much like New York State at the turn of the last century: the most populous state in the nation overcrowded with recent immigrants.

For once, the conventional wisdom is correct: Like their predecessors in New York, the children of immigrants in Greater Los Angeles are building an ethnic political machine to turn out votes for Democrats.

Another good comparison is between today's second most populous state, Texas, with Pennsylvania, then the nation's number two state at the start of another political realignment in the 1930s.

Just as Franklin Roosevelt's winning Pennsylvania in 1936, solidified the New Deal majority, any Democrat who won both California and Texas would be on their way to a landslide.

The collapse of the aerospace economy in Southern California after the Cold War ended in 1991 combined with a greatly increased Hispanic turnout to make California a strongly Democratic state in the last decade. Even most Republican strategists admit that they will only win California in national landslide years like 1984 when President Reagan carried 49 states.

But California plus the East Coast is not enough to win the Presidency. As Democrats learned last year, it's awfully tough to win an Electoral College majority without carrying at least a few Southern states.

If the Democrats are ever to return to the full majority status they had under Roosevelt, they will have to recover in the South, particularly in the biggest Southern states: Texas, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia.

At the onset of the New Deal in 1932, Roosevelt swept every Southern, Western and Midwestern state. Odd as it may seem today when the South is overwhelmingly Republican, FDR lost only six states, all in the Northeast. One of those was Pennsylvania.

From the Civil War until FDR's Inaugural in 1933, the Keystone State didn't vote once for a Democratic presidential nominee. When Roosevelt became the first Democrat to carry Pennsylvania twice in a row since the Civil War, the Republicans were doomed to be a national minority.

Texas was once part of the slave-holding South, with very few European immigrants or very little industry. Like the rest of the "Deep South," agriculture and plantations dominated it. Accordingly, it joined with other Deep South states like South Carolina, Georgia and Mississippi in seceding from the Union in 1861. Memories of defeat in the Civil War locked Texas into the national Democratic Party: only once in1928 -- from 1877 to the Korean War in 1950 -- did Texas vote Republican for president.

Modern Texas was created by the discovery of oil in 1901, beginning a process of industrialization and urbanization that attracted millions of Yankee migrants from the Frostbelt and immigrants from Latin America.

In 1900, Texas had 3 million people and just 15 electoral votes. By 1950, it had jumped to 7.7 million and 24 votes. Texas passed Massachusetts in population in the Census of 1900, Ohio & Illinois in 1970, Pennsylvania in 1980 and New York in 2000. Texas now packs 34 votes, 12.5 percent of the 270 needed to win.

Texas is physically large enough to contain several distinctive regional and political cultures including the South and West -- Fort Worth is commonly thought to be where the West begins -- and Latin America.

East Texas was the first section of the state settled. It was plantation country and today still has the highest percentage of black residents. East Texas is the part of the Lone Star State most like the Deep South and gave the highest percentages to the two Southern protest candidates -- Strom Thurmond in 1948 and George Wallace in 1968.

North Texas is dominated by the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. It is the quintessential Sun Belt urban area based on high finance, white collar and technical jobs. Dallas-Fort Worth is now the most Republican urban area among the top 20 metro areas.

The Gulf Coast area of Texas is anchored by the cities of Houston, Corpus Christi, Beaumont and Galveston. It is the most heavily industrialized part of Texas, now almost equally divided between Anglos, blacks and Hispanics.

Central Texas is the urban corridor running from the State Capitol of Austin up to Waco, surrounded by ranchland and the "Hill country" that spawned Lyndon Johnson. Austin, home of the University of Texas, is the only big city here that has any significant concentration of white liberals. But this area has less than 15 percent of the state's vote. Central Texas also is a prototypical "swing" Southern metro area, like Nashville, Tenn., or Charlotte, N.C.

The Rio Grande Valley of South Texas running from El Paso to the Gulf of Mexico is the only part of Texas that still consistently votes Democratic. It is the most heavily Hispanic area of the country. San Antonio (59 percent) and El Paso (77 percent) are the most Hispanic big cities in America. Congressional Quarterly once likened this area to "the keel of a sailboat" that "prevents the state from tipping over into a sea of conservative predictability." South Texas has as much in common with Latin America as it does with any other American state.

The west Texas plains, where George W. Bush worked in the oil business is much like Oklahoma, Colorado, Kansas, etc. It is consistently the most conservative section of America outside of Mormon-dominated Utah and Idaho.

The growth of its cities guaranteed Texas would never be pure "Deep South" in political orientation, that is, obsessed with racial issues. As V.O. Key wrote in his classic Southern Politics, "The Lone Star State is concerned about money and how to make it, about oil and sulfur and gas, about cattle and dust storms and irrigation, about cotton and banking and Mexicans."

Unlike northern industrial states such as New York or Illinois, Texas politics never exactly revolved around the competition between Democratic cities vs. Republican farmers. Cities in Texas have great latitude in annexing unincorporated suburban areas and gained much territory since 1945. The result is that most big cities in Texas have huge white middle class neighborhoods. Indeed, North Dallas and West Houston (once represented in Congress by George Bush Sr.) are the two most Republican urban neighborhoods in America.

Only Gulf Texas had a decent-sized urban white working class vote. Inner city blacks and Rio Grande Valley Mexicans voted overwhelmingly Democratic, while middle class Hispanics voted for George W. Bush.

University of Houston Professor Richard Murray points out that the Texas black community is the most Democratic constituency in American politics and until the Bush governorship, Texas Hispanics were more Democratic than their cousins in California.

But the base of the old Democratic coalition in Texas and the rest of the South was the hardscrabble farmers and small-town voters affectionately known as "Bubbas." These rural white Texans were socially conservative on issues like civil rights and foreign policy, but had a spirit of economic populism and they loved the pork barrel spending brought home from Washington by powerful Democrats like House Speaker Sam Rayburn.

Rural whites in Texas went 2-1 for Truman and the Kennedy-Johnson ticket's ability to hold half the Bubba vote saved Texas for the Democrats in 1960. By the 1980s, after Reagan's appeal realigned Texas politics, barely a third of Bubbas were still voting Democratic for president. Al Gore won less than a fourth of their votes in 2000.

Even though Texas was part of the Democratic coalition, it was still a very conservative place. The only liberal candidate elected to major office after 1933 was Ralph Yarborough who won a three-way race for U.S. Senate in 1957.

In the excellent 1971 book entitled The Changing Politics of the South, the Texas chapter was called "Land of Conservative Expansiveness." For the last 25 years, the trend in Texas has been steadily to the right. As Earl & Merle Black wrote in Politics and Society in the South, "conservatism's attraction far outstrips liberalism's appeal among the region's working class as well as its middle class."

But as Texas began to emerge from its Civil War-ingrained heritage after the Second World War, it was derailed from its conservative destiny by a bizarre series of political "accidents." After Dwight Eisenhower carried Texas twice during the 1950s, John F. Kennedy pulled Texas back into the Democratic column in 1960 by choosing native son Lyndon B. Johnson as his running mate.

After JFK became president in the early Sixties, Republicans dreamed of combining wealthy metropolitan voters with rural conservative Democrats to upset the Democratic coalition. That particular GOP dream ended with President Kennedy's assassination and the elevation of LBJ to the presidency. Mr. Johnson's popularity and organization were strong enough to hold the state in 1968 for his Vice President, Hubert Humphrey. Texas was the only Southern state that went Democratic that year.

Lloyd Bentsen's primary defeat of Yarlborough in 1970 kept that Senate seat in Democratic hands for another generation. After President Nixon won the state by 2-1 in 1972, Watergate broke the Republicans' momentum. In the late 1970s, Bill Clements became the first GOP governor since Reconstruction and in 1980 Ronald Reagan defeated President Carter (a native Southerner) by a bigger margin in Texas than he did nationally. But the Oil Bust temporarily derailed the local Republican realignment, as did the blunders of 1990 GOP gubernatorial nominee Clayton Williams.

With the retirement of Lloyd Bentsen (the last of the old moderate Democrats) and ascendancy of George W. Bush, the GOP is now in complete control. Republican nominees have won Texas six times in row, the longest presidential winning streak except for Republican Farm Belt/Rocky Mountain states & the Democrats in Washington going back to '64. Not one single Democrat was elected to statewide office in either 1998 or 2000. Professor Murray predicts that the new state-redistricting plan will result in Republicans winning both chambers of the state legislature for the first time in over 100 years.

Despite their current weakness in the Lone Star State, Democrats will need Texas. No Democrat has ever won the White House without carrying at least five Southern states. For example, Bill Clinton was elected in 1992 while winning his own Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana and Al Gore's Tennessee.

In 2000, Gore got shut out in Dixie and lost the election by five electoral votes despite a half-million vote plurality in the national popular vote total. And no Democrat has ever won a two-way presidential race without Texas. There is good reason for this as Texas is by far, the largest Southern state with a population exceeding the five smallest Southern states combined in the 2000 Census.

Carrying its 34 electoral votes would be equal to winning four smaller Southern states. (Needless to say, Gore would be president if he had carried even one Southern state in 2000). With the states President Bush won in 2000 gaining 7 net votes at the expense of northern Democratic states, it becomes even more critical for future Democratic nominees to break through in the South and/or Mountain West.

Demographics are the Democrats' best hope in Texas. In the 1980 Census, Texas was 18 percent Hispanic, 11 percent black and 2 percent Asian/other. By 2000, the numbers had risen to 32 percent Hispanic, 11 percent black and 3 percent Asian/other. At current projections, the Lone Star State will turn majority-minority in 2007.

To start rebuilding, Texas Democrats nominated a "dream ticket" of moderate Hispanic businessman Tony Sanchez for governor, moderate Anglo John Sharpe for Lt. Governor and Ron Kirk, the African-American former Dallas mayor for U.S. Senator. Sanchez was close enough to then Gov. Bush to have gotten an appointment to the University of Texas Regents Board.

He has nearly unlimited personal wealth and will spend over $5 million on a massive voter registration drive aimed at the black and Hispanic communities. Since a much higher share of minorities are not registered, the potential dividends of this strategy are obvious. A Hispanic/Black ticket would likely have trouble winning in a historically conservative state, but it would also set records for minority turnout -- Sharpe will be the likely beneficiary of this turnout effort and lead the Democratic ticket.

If Hispanics and blacks can reach a combined 33 percent of Texas voters, Democrats will need only about 33 percent of white voters to carry the state with 50.1 percent. Michael Dukakis got 32 percent of white Texans in 1988 despite losing the state handily. The theory of this balanced ticket is that each man will bring in his own ethnic group for the benefit of all. It's long shot, but just might work if the Republicans make mistakes.

Republican Gov. Rick Perry and GOP Senate nominee John Cornyn are nowhere as strong as George W. Bush: they won with 51 percent and 54 percent respectively, compared to Mr. Bush's 69 percent in 1998. Texas is one state where President Bush's popularity will definitely help Republicans.

Regardless of the outcome, Texas will have the most interesting state election this fall. At the very least, a balanced Hispanic/white/black ticket will be a party-building exercise. And Texas Democrats sure could use that.

It is almost inconceivable that President Bush could lose Texas in 2004. Indeed, George W. Bush is the most popular Texas Republican ever: his landslide re-election score was the highest percentage ever won by a Republican for major office. Mr. Bush did better than Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan or even his father. His personal popularity has almost neutralized the Democratic bloc vote among Hispanics (anytime a former 2-1 voting bloc goes less than 60 percent Democratic, it is pretty much defused).

A Democratic recovery will require the fading of George W. Bush from the Texas scene. This can only happen in 2008, at the earliest. So, the Democrats will have an outside chance in Texas in 2008 when the Constitution requires Mr. Bush to stand down. But by the end of the decade, the Lone Star State's new non-white majority could well come of age politically and restore Texas Democrats to their past glory.

If the Democrats can tilt Texas, they will truly be back. 2004 is almost certainly out of the question, 2008 is a live possibility and 2012 is the big opportunity. Watch Texas in 2008 and beyond, it holds the key to future national campaigns due to its emerging minority groups and electoral vote strength.

(Patrick Reddy serves as a consultant to California's Assembly Democrats.)

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