What it would take for Texas to go blue

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In the weeks since Massachusetts voters handed the Democratic party a stinging political rebuke by electing a little-known Republican state senator to fill the US Senate seat previously held by Ted Kennedy, I have been debating which state from a political perspective would best constitute Massachusetts-in-reverse.

In other words, where would a Democratic victory during a Republican administration send the equivalent shockwaves through the nation’s body politic? 

Certainly, states such as Utah and Idaho, which rarely elect Democrats to statewide office, would be formidable contenders. But they are comparatively small states, not nearly as populous or demographically diverse as Massachusetts. Then it occurred to me: I need look no further than right here, the Lone Star State.

Let’s look at the record: Other than Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock, the last time a Democrat was elected to statewide office in Texas occurred in 1990, two decades ago, when Ann Richards became governor for one term. Since that time, Republicans have won every election for the six major statewide offices: governor, lieutenant governor, two US senators, attorney general, and comptroller.

Even more distressing for Democrats is that they now control zero of the 29 elected statewide offices in Texas, including members of the state Supreme Court and Railroad Commission. No Democratic Presidential candidate has carried the state since Jimmy Carter, 34 years ago. Compare that to Ronald Reagan, who carried Massachusetts twice!

If Democrats were going to make any inroads, 2008 would have been a prime opportunity, with a popular candidate atop the ticket and the party poised to add to its majority in the House and Senate. Indeed, Barack Obama was able to carry seven of the eight most populous states. The one exception was Texas, where McCain prevailed by nearly a million votes. In the US Senate race in Texas, Republican John Cornyn won with a similar majority. Not only do Republicans always win here, they always win big.

By contrast, Republicans controlled the governor’s mansion in liberal Massachusetts from 1990 through 2006. Apparently, the Bay State has offered Republican candidates better odds of success than Texas has afforded to Democrats.

This was not always the case. Far from it. From Reconstruction through the 1950s, Democrats controlled every significant political office in Texas, much as they did throughout the states of the Confederacy. Back then, the real election was the Democratic primary; the general election was considered a mere formality.

Indeed, it was said that in Texas, as well as in other southern states, the only way for a Democrat to lose to a Republican was to be caught in bed either with a dead woman or a live man. 

Things started to change in the early 1960s when Republican John Tower won a special election to fill the Senate seat vacated by the newly-elected vice president, Lyndon Johnson. By the 1970s, Texas had become a Republican stronghold which in the last 20 years has evolved into a stranglehold.

That Texas would become so GOP-dominant is rather curious when considering its demographics. According to the 2010 edition of “The Almanac of American Politics,” less than a majority of the state, 48.3%, is Caucasian.  Latinos and African-Americans, which usually vote for Democratic candidates by large majorities, are nearly equally represented at just under 47%.

Despite the fact that the Caucasian percentage of the state’s population has shrunk in the past decade, GOP majorities have remained steady and in many instances have expanded.

While some political observers have forecast that the state’s growing Latino population threatens Republican electoral dominance, recent results seem to belie this.
How can the Democratic Party turn the electoral tide in Texas? In my column last week, I argued that the upset in Massachusetts would not have occurred had the Democratic candidate, Martha Coakley, been more attuned to her constituents. Therein, I believe, lies perhaps the only chance for Democrats to viably compete in Texas.

In the period between 1970 and the early 90s, Democrats that were elected on a statewide basis were imbued with center-right political leanings.

Those such as Mark White, Lloyd Bentsen (before his leftward swing upon being chosen as Michael Dukakis’s running mate), Bill Hobby, and Bob Bullock were able to carry the state because their stance on the issues closely mirrored those of their Republican opponent­­­–and the voters.

Texans are, by and large, traditional, conservative-leaning, and increasingly leery of an expansive tax-and-spend national government.  Democrats such as Bob Bullock, a conservative legislator, and Bill Hobby, who came from a distinguished Texas political family, fit right in with Texans’ outlook on social and economic issues and emulated their distrust of Washington.

Recently, however, Texas Democratic candidates have adopted more center-left–and even sometimes liberal positions–on many issues. Republicans have prospered by tagging their opponents as being out of touch with Texans and representative of the Washington political establishment.

For Democrats to have any chance to stem the tide of Republican dominance, they will need to present viable, conservative-oriented candidates, not the tax-and-spend left-leaning aspirants that have been trounced here even in years when Democrats did well nationally.

If nothing else, their 0-29 record should convey to Democrats a loud and clear message that their current electoral strategy is not working.


Nathan Mitzner is a junior risk management insurance major. He can be reached for comment at nmitzner@smu.edu.

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