An ex-independent state breeds new free-minded voter

Modern Texas politics has a unique origin in Texas history. This was the first and only state, after all, to enter the Union after fighting a revolution of its own (against Mexico), then existed as an independent republic for nine years.

That gave early Texicans, as they were once called, a lingering sense of political independence and economic self-reliance, which was soiled only by a later experience as a distant, though sensitive, victim of post-Civil War Reconstruction.

Just how much tradition remains in Texas politics today will come to a test in coming elections when the ''new'' Republican strength runs up against old-fashioned Democratic unity. The state's first GOP governor since Reconstruction, William Clements, faces a tough battle for re-election this November against Democratic challenger Mark White.

Back in post-Reconstruction days, Texas returned to the kind of government it had as both a republic and as a state - which is as little as possible. That had always been true, except for such nodding acknowledgment of government as setting aside millions of acres of public land for the future benefit of education and endowing both local public schools and state universities.

The economic self-reliance lasted into the mid-20th century, when Texas no longer began to be shy about modern-day ''carpetbaggers,'' specifically Northern money for oil ventures. The nation's third-most-productive agricultural economy did not really enter modern times except with Yankee-designed and financed technology. The huge Texas petrochemical industry, based on sophisticated use of oil byproducts that otherwise would be wasted, developed from a Northeastern science and money base. The new warmth of a welcome stretched to those who ''discovered'' the gold buckle of the Sunbelt during the 1960s and '70s.

The political independence was, and still largely is, an antifederal, pro-business, good-ol'-boy conservatism. In other parts of the nation, the ruling class would be called tories; in Texas, it was just called Democrats.

Other than isolated Republican enclaves, the state remained Democratic (conservatively so) on both the state and local levels. Only the 1961 election of Republican John Tower to succeed Lyndon Johnson in the US Senate broke the ''tradition'' - and Mr. Tower was regarded as a fluke until he won again in 1966 over a conservative Democrat and in 1972 and '78 over moderate Democrats.

Tower's last race, in 1978, was accompanied by another phenomenon, however. An otherwise-obscure Dallas oil driller, who spent five years in the Pentagon under Presidents Nixon and Ford, dropped a megaton campaign on a Democratic political machine that was both divided and apathetic. Republican Clements was elected governor by less than an average of three votes per precinct and became the first Republican governor elected in 105 years. Democrats were devastated.

Bill Clements triumphed, his postelection polls showed, for three reasons: Texas Democrats were still divided by a bitter primary, in which conservative Gov. Dolph Briscoe was defeated by Attorney General John Hill, a moderate; ticket-splitting conservatives were attracted by Mr. Clements's success-story, business-management, no-nonsense style; and the Republican millionaire spent a record $7.2 million, most of it for Northern-style media and mechanical assistance.

Despite Senator Tower's 1961 victory, the ascendancy of Clements was heralded as the ''real'' Sunbelt-conservative breakthrough. For the first time, after all , the statehouse political crowd - notably the state's business and trade groups and a three-fourths-Democratic Legislature - had to deal with a GOP chief executive.

Clements's crossover support from conservative Democrats also translated into appointments to state jobs, which in turn produced the first Republican-generated patronage (other than Tower's limited influence under GOP presidents) for a political base. Further, state and local officials who had been elected as Democrats suddenly found conscience enough to follow their conservative inclinations into the Republican Party formally. And the Clements-led Ronald Reagan sweep of Texas in 1980, against the unpopular Jimmy Carter, sealed the governor's symbolic influence over Texas politics. The solidity of the state economy, which despite the recession still outperforms the national economy as a whole, seemed to prove the governor ''right'' in that area , too.

But 1982 offers no assurance for Clements and other Texas Republicans. Polls show that voter identification with the GOP is no more than 30 percent, at best. Democrats rank somewhat higher but still only 40 percent, at best. So elections now are determined by the switch-hitters, those Texas electoral independents who closely resemble their forefathers in their behavior. And the ticket-splitters may prove just as cantankerous as their forefathers did in 1861, when Gov. Sam Houston was chased from the governor's mansion because he would not support secession from the Union.

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