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GOP Lassos Victories in the Lone Star State

After a century in the shadows, Republicans are making a run for the middle ground

By Scott PendletonStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 16, 1994



AUSTIN, TEXAS

CHARLIE JOHNSON can pinpoint the moment he was no longer a Democrat. It was a ``left turn'' by Jesse Jackson midway through a speech to the 1988 state Democratic Party Convention in Houston, which Mr. Johnson attended as a delegate for then-presidential candidate Al Gore Jr.

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This year finds Johnson running on the Republican ticket for the San Patricio County commissioners court. He promises to hold the line on taxes and manage county government like a business.

``I am a conservative,'' Johnson says. ``I am not a dyed-in-the-wool Republican. [This] party happens to fit me better now.''

Conservatives' disaffection with Democrats is just one trend that could transform the GOP into the dominant party in Texas.

Such a conquest would have been unthinkable three decades ago, when out of its 5,000-plus political offices, Texas couldn't have mustered enough elected Republicans for a half-court basketball scrimmage.

Yet, the party has since surged from being virtually nonexistent to being highly competitive with Democrats.

* About as many Texans now consider themselves Republican as Democratic.

* The GOP candidate has carried Texas in five of the last six presidential elections.

* Republicans occupy both of the state's seats in the United States Senate.

* A Republican won the governorship in two of four previous elections. The GOP has enough votes in the state Legislature to block the Democratic agenda.

* Locally, the GOP holds 10 times as many county offices as two decades ago, though just 14 percent of the total.

Ed Martin, state Democratic Party executive director, offers this explanation for Republican gains: ``There's been a natural evolution from being a one-party state that was two parties within the Democratic Party, to becoming a two-party state.''

He adds, ``That's clearly happened. We've recognized that since the '70s.''

An explanation for this trend lies in a shift in the philosophies of the parties and the demographics of the state.

THE party of carpetbaggers and freed slaves, Republicans in Texas were the corrupt political arm of the post-Civil War military occupation known as Reconstruction. The Texas GOP was founded in 1867 by 20 whites and 150 blacks. Although a black woman, Teresa Doggett, is the current GOP candidate for Texas comptroller, few black voters in the state identify with the GOP today.

Democrats in Texas were the party of the whites-only primary, which the US Supreme Court struck down in 1944, and of literacy tests and poll taxes, which the federal Voting Rights Act squashed in 1965. Yet today Texas blacks vote Democrat by a 9-to-1 margin.

When Reconstruction ended, so did Republican rule. It was not until 1978, with Bill Clements, that the Republicans won the governor's mansion again.

From the New Deal onward, the conservative philosophy of most Texans - anticommunist, anti-union, anti-integration, anti-federal deficits, anti-tax, anti-regulation, pro-business, pro-state's rights - found increasing expression in the GOP.

By the 1960s, the liberalism of the national Democratic Party began to drive moderates into the GOP. Texas Gov. John Connally switched to the Republican Party in 1973.

``Texas is inherently the most Republican state in the nation,'' says Royal Masset, who conducts candidate schools for the Texas GOP. (How schools help candidates, Page 13.)

Up to 60 percent of Texans regard themselves as conservative or somewhat conservative, he adds. Fewer than 30 percent say they are liberal or somewhat liberal.