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Texas unlikely to turn blue anytime soon: Q&A with author, GOP strategist Wayne Thorburn

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Texas Attorney General and Republican Governor-elect Greg Abbott acknowledges the crowd during his victory celebration in Austin on Nov. 4.

Almost as if on cue given a sweep of Republican victories across the state this month, the University of Texas Press has released “Red State: An Insider’s Story of How the GOP Came to Dominate Texas Politics,” written by Wayne Thorburn, 70, who was executive director of the Republican Party of Texas when the state elected its first Republican governor in 104 years. He also oversaw the coordinated campaign that in 1996 elected all statewide Republican candidates for the first time. In this interview, Thorburn discusses the failure of Battleground Texas to do for Wendy Davis at the polls in Texas what it did for President Obama nationally; how liberals in the Texas Democratic Party actually helped strengthen the Republican Party by deliberately driving conservatives from their own party over many election cycles; and Republican concerns about winning some of the Hispanic vote as that ethnic segment assumes a greater percentage of Texans.

Q    Judging from this month’s election results and the predictions by some pundits of a blue tide washing over Texas in 2014, Republican victories remind me of Mark Twain’s remark about reports of his death being greatly exaggerated. Where did the Democrats go so wrong in this election in Texas?

A    There is no denying that national trends and the unpopularity of President Obama were a drag on the Democratic ticket in Texas. But it was much more than this. We tend to focus on Wendy Davis and her inability to gain more than 38.9 percent of the vote. The nature of the loss was much more fundamental than merely one candidate. As poorly as Davis performed, she still got more votes and a higher percentage than any of the other 11 statewide Democratic candidates. In other words, she was the best they had on their ticket and she lost by some twenty points and nearly a million votes. After all the hype about “Battleground Texas,” it became apparent that their registration and turnout efforts were smoke and mirrors. This should have been evident in the spring when the Democratic primary turnout was the lowest since 1920, a sign that perhaps Battleground wasn’t succeeding in registering and turning out many new Democratic voters.

Q    “Red State” is a tightly comprehensive, well-researched and often detailed saga of how Texas went from a one-party state under the Democrats to a two-party state, then back to a one-party state, this time under the Republicans. What prompted you to write this book?

A    In looking back at my time of involvement from about 1977 to 1997 and reflecting on what went on before and since, I was struck by how much change had occurred over a 50-year period. The commonly accepted opinion is that LBJ lost the South — and Texas — for the Democrats when he signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and that subsequently millions of conservative Southerners became Republicans. As “Red State” points out, this was not a major factor in Texas at all. I believed there was a need to point this out and explain it to those who did not live through those years.

Q    This book is remarkably objective considering you played a key role in helping bring the Republican Party to power, beginning with the 1978 election of crusty Bill Clements as governor after Democrats’ controlling the governor’s mansion for more than a century. In going back over everything for the purposes of putting this book together, is there anything that surprised even you?

A    This was not conceived as a partisan tome but rather as a historical look at the transition of Texas politics over the period since 1960. I’m hoping that it might be used as a supplemental text in courses on Texas history and politics. As I dug into materials and looked at archives around the state there were lots of surprises. The greater importance of migration, particularly in the decade of the 1970s, and the impact of younger voters entering the electorate were two major factors in making Republicans a competitive force. A second influence was the dying off of older “yellow-dog Democrats” and their replacement by a younger generation more open to supporting Republican candidates. Voting behavior preceded party identification and voting in a primary. Many Texans continued to call themselves Democrats and kept voting in that primary while supporting Republican candidates in November. Only in the late 1990s, with George W. Bush as governor, did mass conversion of Democrats become an important factor, especially in the small towns and rural counties of the state.

Q    The most ironic part about “Red State” for me is how Democratic liberals actually encouraged their followers to vote Republican as a way of driving conservatives out of their own party. That doesn’t appear to have been too smart in the long run.

A    For many years beginning in the 1940s Texas politics consisted of contests between conservatives and liberals in the Democratic primary. The more ideologically committed liberals saw themselves as the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,” meaning that they were more in line with the northern wing in control of the national party. To gain control of the Texas party they needed to drive conservatives out of the Democratic primary, something that could be done only if the Republicans were a viable alternative. Thus, some prominent liberals endorsed a GOP candidate when the Democrats had nominated a conservative. This pattern began with John Tower in 1961 and continued on to include George H.W. Bush when he ran against Lloyd Bentsen for the U.S. Senate in 1970. Two old sayings come to mind: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” and “Be careful what you wish for.” The liberals succeeded in gaining control of the Democratic Party by 1976 when the contest between Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford drew nearly a half-million voters into the GOP primary. Two years later in 1978 their candidate knocked off Gov. Dolph Briscoe in the Democratic primary. The result of that, however, was the election of William P. Clements as the first Republican governor in 104 years. What the liberals failed to recognize was that most Texans were conservatives and to them ideology trumped party tradition and loyalty. As the Texas Democratic Party became more clearly liberal, the Republican Party was seen as the only conservative alternative in the state.

Q    You also discuss, in another part of the book, this state’s identity when contrasted with other states and how one analysis describes it as both individualistic and traditionalist, at least in how many Texans see themselves. How has that ultimately helped Republicans?

A    Both individualism and traditionalism represent two important strands of modern American conservatism, reflecting the balance between freedom and order, liberty and tradition. The frontier attitude of “leave me alone” leads to a very limited view of the role of government. That was consistent with the Republican emphasis on limited government, lower taxes and less regulation. The traditionalist outlook, while often including a socially conservative viewpoint, was actually a barrier for the GOP to overcome in rural, small-town Texas where being a Republican was regarded as simply “that’s not how we’ve done it here for years.” In other words, the tradition since the end of the Civil War was to be a Democrat. Anything else was a challenge to the existing order.

Q    Predictions by some Democratic strategists hold that a growing Latino population will eventually help swell ranks for that party, but these same strategists may be ignoring other crucial factors, particularly their continued alienation of Anglo voters at the same time. Why should this matter if Hispanics are on their way to being this state’s majority ethnic group?

A    It’s important to remember that population totals include non-citizens as well as citizens, people under the age of 18 as well as eligible voters. When a majority of Texas’ population is classified as Hispanic, a majority of the electorate is likely to remain Anglo for a number of reasons. According to the CNN exit poll, 66 percent of voters in Texas this year were Anglo while only 17 percent were Hispanic. Time will change that ratio but what will it mean to be Hispanic 10 or 20 years from now? No one knows for sure. Consider the possible impact of assimilation, intermarriage and suburbanization. The two most prominent Hispanic candidates on the 2014 ballot had last names of Van de Putte and Bush. Will their children and grandchildren intermarry and will they and their children continue to identify themselves as Hispanic? Will they live in suburban counties that are overwhelmingly Republican? Will the Republicans elect more Hispanic candidates to office? There are simply too many unknowns to accept with certainty the predictions of the prognosticators. Meanwhile, 72 percent of Anglos voted for Greg Abbott while he received 44 percent of the Hispanic vote. At the top of the ballot, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn did even better. In 50 counties Cornyn got at least 88 percent of the two-party vote against his Democratic opponent. These include a couple of sizable counties in Midland and Randall (Amarillo).

Q    It seems to me that Hispanics might be a natural constituency for the Republican Party on everything from abortion to low taxes, but that Republicans just can’t get past some pretty vehement attitudes about Hispanics when the issue of immigration comes up. How do Republican leaders get their party past this complicated, prickly, oversimplified issue? Or should they continue to cater to such concerns over immigration?

A    Hispanic voters are much more diverse than they are sometimes portrayed in the media. On education, occupation, religious identification and type of community in which they live, Hispanics are as diverse as other Texans. Many Hispanics are as concerned about border security as other Texans. It’s all about how you present an issue and, unfortunately, too often some Republicans have presented their positions in a confrontational and negative fashion. What is perhaps more important than issue agreement is creating an empathetic identity, speaking in a welcoming and positive tone, promoting individuals in the party with whom Hispanics can identify. Abbott is already doing this in his selection of Cameron County Judge Carlos Cascos as the next secretary of state. Here is an individual who was born in Mexico and has been elected county judge three times as a Republican in a county whose population is 89 percent Hispanic. And nothing was more powerful in this year’s election than Abbott’s “madrina” commercial, a testimonial from his Hispanic mother-in-law.

Q    If there was one bit of advice you could leave with the new generation of Republicans coming into pivotal positions of power within the party, what would it be? Overconfidence?

A    I can’t limit it to one. First, govern and don’t simply stand athwart history and yell stop. Remember, you are representing a diverse population, not all of whom agree with you on every issue. Second, be mindful of differences within the party and don’t get caught up in efforts to purify the party. It’s better to have someone who agrees with you 80 percent of the time than someone who opposes you on almost every issue. Third, remember that turnout will be much higher in a presidential election year when many non-engaged, low-information citizens will decide to vote. The electorate of 2014 will not be repeated in 2016, for better or worse.

Q    Obviously the tea party pumped a lot of air into the Republican Party in 2009 and 2010 and continues to influence it. And yet we see two very different visions for the party in our two U.S. senators, John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, highlighted in last year’s government shutdown, which Cruz helped bring about and Cornyn fought to stop. Which vision is likely to dominate the party in Texas? Which should dominate?

A    The question remains on what path the party will take in the future. Over the past four years, Texas GOP chairman Steve Munisteri has managed to keep the focus on winning and expanding the party’s reach to all communities in Texas. He has kept any infighting in the party to a minimum. I hope that pattern continues when he eventually moves on.

Q    Looking at the saga of the Republican Party of Texas, who is its most titanic figure? John Tower? Bill Clements? George W. Bush? Ted Cruz?

A    John Tower brought needed credibility to the Republican label and served as a mentor for literally hundreds of younger Republicans who went on to become candidates, campaign managers and government officials. Bill Clements broke the glass ceiling and showed that a Republican could govern. His appointments gave state government experience to a number of Republicans and created a farm team of future candidates and leaders. George W. Bush brought about the current period of Republican dominance and, since 1996, the party has not lost a single statewide election. Each contributed in his own way to creating a competitive party, then ushering in two-party politics and finally bringing about two decades of Republican dominance.

Q    What part of this book was the most difficult for you to write, given your role in so much of it?

A    Always remembering that this wasn’t a memoir or a personal story. That’s why the book is heavy on numbers and analysis of elections and light on the internal disputes and decisions that take place during campaigns. I tried to make it a book of political analysis and not one of political gossip and insider’s stories.

Q    Do you think this state will ever become a two-party state again? And would that be better than one party running Texas?

A    An excellent question. I think what we see happening is the state going down two different paths. At the statewide level and in the legislative arena, the Democrats may well be able to become a competitive force again but it will take several election cycles. At the county level, it seems we are reverting to one-party control in more and more areas of the state and, given the nature of local government and population patterns, this is likely to continue. In Austin and El Paso, as well as many counties along the Mexican border, county politics is almost totally Democratic. Meanwhile in the suburban and small-town counties of the state, Republicans control local government. This pattern is likely to continue while statewide and state legislative elections may become more competitive. Two-party politics exists when there are distinct differences in the population and unless and until either fewer Texans consider themselves conservatives or the GOP destroys its image as the conservative party, we’ll continue to see Republican dominance of Texas politics.

Interview conducted by Bill Whitaker.