With a ticket led by Wendy Davis, the filibustering state senator from Fort Worth, Texas Democrats are hoping to break a political drought that has lasted since 1998, the last time a member of their party held statewide office.
Republicans know how they feel. Despite Texas’ deep red reputation, it was not long ago that the situation was reversed, with Democrats dominating Texas politics while Republicans were widely viewed as permanent also-rans. That changed in 1961, when a political science professor from Wichita Falls defied conventional wisdom and was elected to the U.S. Senate, the first Texas Republican to win a statewide seat since Reconstruction.
The way John Tower managed this feat, and started his party’s fitful journey toward sweeping all of the state’s major offices 37 years later, provides insight into the challenges now facing Democrats, and the reasons Republicans are taking the current threat to their nearly two-decade winning streak seriously.
“If you look at other red states all across the country, they have the occasional Democratic governor, the occasional United States senator who is a Democrat,” said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University. “It’s very rare for a party to have complete control.”
In the years before Tower’s win, the Democrats’ control of Texas was nearly absolute. They held every statewide office and most local positions. The Democratic primary was widely viewed as the most important race in an election cycle.
By the 1950s, the Texas Democratic Party encapsulated such a wide range of views that the party label had begun to lose its meaning, said Sean Cunningham, an associate professor of history at Texas Tech University who has a book out later this year on the rise of Republicans in the Sunbelt states.
“For a long time, conservative Democrats would vote Democrat at the local level and Republican at the national level,” Cunningham said.
As conservative as Texas is today, Republicans are still not as dominant as Democrats were in the first half of the last century. Democrats currently control more than 35 percent of the seats in the Legislature and make up about a third of the state’s congressional delegation. Between 1900 and 1950, the number of Texas Republicans in the Legislature or Congress was negligible.
Yet Republican voters in Texas are also less divided today than Democrats were in the 1950s. Along with Republicans controlling all statewide offices, the state’s voters have consistently backed the Republican Party’s presidential nominee since 1980.
Tower first ran for U.S. Senate in 1960, when he unsuccessfully challenged the Democrat, Lyndon B. Johnson, who was running simultaneously for re-election and as John F. Kennedy’s running mate on the presidential ticket.
“The party felt that we had a responsibility, if we were to be a viable opposition party, to mount a campaign against Lyndon Johnson,” Tower told historian Joe B. Frantz in 1971 as part of an oral history project. “We didn't feel like we had any reasonable prospect of defeating him.”
The next year, Johnson became vice president and vacated his Senate seat. William Blakley, a conservative Democrat, was appointed to fill the seat until a special election could be held. Among a field of about 70 candidates from across the political spectrum, Tower and Blakley advanced to a runoff in which Tower courted “independent thinking Texans” and “disillusioned Democrats.” He compared the state’s one-party rule to “communist Russia.”
“If you are a genuine conservative, get on a genuine conservative bandwagon” read one of Tower’s campaign brochures.
Prominent Democrats endorsed Tower largely as a protest vote against Blakley, whom they viewed as insufficiently liberal.
“Many of them voted for John Tower to teach the conservative Democrats a lesson,” Jillson said. “It just shows how badly the Texas Democratic Party was broken.”
Tower won with 51 percent of the vote. The victory gave the Texas Republican Party newfound credibility and emboldened conservative Democrats to back Republicans in other races, said Richard Murray, a political science professor at the University of Houston.
“When you’re losing, you’ll take a fluke because it signals, ‘Hey, we can win,’” Murray said.
Though Tower repeatedly won re-election, it took Republicans 17 years before they won another statewide seat: Bill Clements was elected governor in 1978. Amid the Reagan revolution of the 1980s, scores of conservative Democratic officeholders in Texas switched to the Republican Party, including Rick Perry, then a state representative. In 1990, he was elected the state’s first Republican agriculture commissioner. In 1998, buoyed by the re-election campaign of George W. Bush, then the governor, Republicans swept every statewide office on the ballot.
“What the liberal Democrats didn’t realize is when they drove the conservatives out of the party, they lost their Yellow Dog Democratic base and the state as a whole was conservative,” said Wayne Thorburn, who was executive director of the Republican Party of Texas from 1977 to 1983, and is the author of an upcoming book on the state’s political transformation.
Democrats are now employing a strategy similar to Tower’s, working to exploit divisions between the Tea Party and establishment wings of the Texas Republican Party. Last week, the Texas Democratic Party published a tongue-in-cheek obituary for the GOP, citing “an infection of the Texas Tea Party” as the cause of death.
“Logically, at some point you can get too far to the right and you start endangering your ability to win more moderate Republicans,” Murray said. “The test of that will be in the lieutenant governor’s race.”
Indeed, state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, is focusing much of her campaign’s efforts on painting her Republican opponent, state Sen. Dan Patrick of Houston, as a right-wing ideologue who would harm the state’s economy if he were elected to the state’s second-highest post. Her campaign has rolled out endorsements from business leaders who think Patrick’s stance on social issues and immigration goes too far. But the Texas Association of Business, the state’s main business advocacy group, has said it will probably support Patrick in the general election, even though it opposed him in the Republican primary.
Even if Democrats manage to end the Republican stranglehold on statewide offices this year, history suggests the state will remain conservative for a long time, Cunningham said.
“The process of political realignment in Texas did not take place overnight,” Cunningham said. “The process of realignment was slow. It was painstaking. It was a roller coaster of ups and downs.”
Disclosure: Southern Methodist University and the University of Houston are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.