Southern voters fall in behind a GOP that's on the march. A Texas district that `yellow-dog' Democrats fled

The luncheon at Somerville's American Legion meeting one day last week featured a hearty helping of beef stew, accented by a dash of politics from Democratic congressional candidate Greg Laughlin. As the crowd shifted from stew to cake, Mr. Laughlin, a West Columbia, Texas, lawyer with a comfortable good-ol'-boy accent, toured the room, handing out campaign brochures and repeating, ``I sure could use your support in this election.''

There was a time in Texas's 14th Congressional District - a rambling region stretching from the gulf to the fringes of Austin and larger than Massachusetts - when a Democratic candidate needed little more than his party label to ensure his arrival in Washington.

But that was before Ronald Reagan. In the 1984 election, six Texas congressional districts switched from the Democratic to the Republican Party, and the 14th was one of them.

Now, four years later, the Reagan coattails will not be around to help pull the state's Republican congressmen back into office. But many people here say it no longer matters.

Some formerly rock-solid Democratic areas are now safely Republican. Migration from other parts of the country into even the most rural Texas districts has changed the makeup of those districts and exposed Texas voters to new political options. Almost everyone says most voters now look at the individual, rather than the party.

Of the six Texas Republicans newly elected to the House in 1984, only Mac Sweeney, who represents the 14th District, is considered vulnerable. (In the 13th District, Rep. Beau Boulter, another member of the so-called ``six-pack,'' is leaving his seat to challenge US Sen. Lloyd Bentsen.) But even in the 14th, the political landscape has irreversibly changed.

That change can be tied in part to the popularity of Mr. Reagan, but it also followed US Sen. Phil Gramm's decampment from the Democratic fold to the Republican in 1982, when he was still a congressman. Mr. Gramm, a staunch conservative who hailed from the yellowest of the state's ``yellow-dog Democrat'' congressional districts, said it was not he who was leaving the Democratic Party, but the national party that had left him. (``Yellow-dog Democrats'' are party loyalists who would vote for the Democratic candidate ``even if it was just a yellow dog.'')

Gramm's reasoning evidently was shared by the 14th's conservative farmers, fishermen, and small business owners. They chose Mr. Sweeney over the incumbent scion of a powerful Democratic family.

Sweeney says it was more Walter Mondale than Ronald Reagan who made his election possible.

``The ascendancy of the Republican Party in districts like mine had as much if not more to do with the unpopularity of Walter Mondale as with the popularity of Ronald Reagan,'' he says. Mondale's nomination, he adds, only strengthened what a lot of Democrats were already feeling: that ``the Democratic Party at the national level had begun to diverge from local Democrats' interests.''

Mr. Laughlin, who is expected to defeat his opponent in the March 8 Democratic primary, in his campaign literature implicitly acknowledges the accuracy of Sweeney's assessment. It prominently labels Laughlin a ``Texas Democrat,'' meaning he is not a ``Northern liberal Democrat,'' words that in much of rural Texas ring out like a death knell.

``The basic political philosophy of this district is the same it's been for a long time - belief in a conservative, restrained government,'' says Steve Holzheauser, a freshman Republican state representative from Victoria, the largest city in the 14th Congressional District. ``It's the parties that have changed. And because of that, the conservative Democrat who represented the area for a long time has turned into a Republican,'' adds Mr. Holzheauser, the first Republican to represent his district since Reconstruction.

The hemorrhaging of the Democrats' basic conservative support in the South has led to efforts by some Southern Democratic leaders to encourage the national party to adopt a more conservative tone. But such efforts, according to Sweeney, are ``a classic case of closing the barn door after the horses have gone.''

If that is true, however, why is the 14th Congressional District race considered by many a tossup?

According to Joseph Reynolds, a Democratic justice of the peace from Somerville, the downturn in the state's economy is a major factor. ``Mac Sweeney was helped in by Ronald Reagan, when oil was good, the economy was beautiful, and the Republican future was bright and rosy,'' he says. ``But things are tough now. Reality isn't the pretty picture they painted.''

Laughlin, who won 48 percent of the vote against Sweeney two years ago, says issues like trade, energy, and farm policy are causing traditional Democrats to return to the fold. ``A lot of voters have told me, `I've voted Republican for the past few years, but I'm coming back home.' I didn't hear that two years ago.''

According to Holzheauser, a veterinarian and farmer, however, the voters of the 14th still prefer the hands-off, less-government approach of the Republican Party. ``They don't want somebody running the farm for them.'' If the congressional race is close, he adds, it's more a question of personalities and local issues.

That view is echoed by John Brieden, a Brenham insurance agent. ``Today people go beyond party and take a longer look at the candidates,'' he says. Mr. Brieden worked for the Democratic incumbent Sweeney defeated in '84, but he's now a Sweeney supporter. ``It doesn't have anything to do with party,'' he adds. ``I just think he's done a good job.''

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