GOP Lassos Victories in the Lone Star State

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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.''

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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.

Other trends began to boost the Republican Party as well. Starting in the mid-1970s, state Democratic leaders attracted many high-tech jobs to Texas. Ironically, this success hurt Democrats politically, notes Max Sherman, a former Democratic state senator who is the dean of the LBJ School of Public Affairs. Jobseekers who migrated to Texas to fill these jobs tended to vote Republican, he says.

Starting in 1980, Ronald Reagan attracted many young people to the GOP. Their party identification has lasted, says Karl Rove, a GOP consultant who works for this year's gubernatorial campaign of George W. Bush (R), President Bush's son. (Rove profile, Page 13.)

THE Reagan effect hit home this year in affluent Collin County, north of Dallas. For the first time, no Democrats are running for local office. Blake Cowden, county Democratic chairman, blames ``the '80s yuppies group'' for ensuring that GOP candidates now collect 60 percent to 70 percent of the vote in every election.

``When they got out of college and got the $80,000 to $100,000 jobs,'' Mr. Cowden grumbles, ``they automatically felt like they were in the Republican class.''

Republicans are demonstrating a new-found appeal to the state's Hispanic voters, thanks to the rise of a Mexican-American middle class, Mr. Rove says. (Hispanic gains, Page 12.)

The most difficult group for Republicans to convert has been women age 60 and over, followed by men of that age, notes state GOP chairman Fred Meyer. Rove expects the GOP will gain strength among elderly voters for the next two decades, but then wane somewhat as the oldest cohort becomes dominated by the Vietnam generation.

Thanks to such trends, Rove says, the state GOP has a base among suburbanites, small business, rural agricultural interests, and middle-class Hispanics.

Mr. Martin denies that GOP gains are evidence the Democrats are ``losing any grip'' on Texas. Republican progress in the Legislature and Congress has ``leveled off'' since 1984, while control of the governor's mansion has flip-flopped, he says.

However, Republicans are landing some offices through party-switching. Twenty-five joined the GOP before last week's primary elections, while one Republican left his party. Some new Republicans are like Charlie Johnson - conservative ex-Democrats.

Reagan County, which held its first Republican primary six years ago, is a case in point. Like elsewhere in Texas, all candidates used to run in the Democratic primary, making that the ``real'' election.

``It's just so much simpler, when you have just a few voters,'' says Catherine Sellman, county justice of the peace.

This year, the GOP primary drew more than double the votes cast in the Democratic contest, thanks to Judge Sellman and four other local officeholders who filed to run as Republicans.

``We're tired of the government giving all our money away to the undeserving,'' she says, citing some $653,000 Texas spends annually per county on education, welfare, food stamps, and health services for illegal immigrants. ``The Republican Party ... wouldn't be giving all this away.''

In Guadalupe County, justice of the peace Walter Bargfrede was one of two Democrats who switched. He wouldn't say why, but party county chairman Pokey Matthies gives an explanation.

``Man, I just don't know what to do. I just don't think I can win,'' Mr. Matthies says Judge Bargfrede told him a week before changing parties. County Republicans, he says he learned, threatened to find strong opponents to run against Democrats who didn't defect.

In last summer's special Senate election, Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) carried Lubbock County with 83 percent, compared to 67 percent statewide. Subsequently, five county officeholders joined the GOP. ``When career bureaucrats who have to face the electorate see those kinds of numbers, it scares them,'' county Democratic chairman Brad Frye explains.

In Williamson County, Ed Richards admits national defense has nothing to do with his sheriff's job. But concern over the issue caused him to switch from Independent to Republican. ``In some ways, we're weakened under the Democratic presidents,'' he says.

One self-described ``ultra-ultraconservative Democrat'' defected after her local party precinct took a pro-choice stand on abortion. ``The line was drawn, and you had to get on one side or the other,'' she says. But she wonders if she'll stay with the GOP. ``They're mixing a lot of religion and politics,'' she says, adding that clinic protesters arrested in her county were Republicans.

Haley Barbour, Republican National Committee chairman, says: ``If we let abortion be the threshold issue of Republicanism, we need our heads examined.'' Elections, including Ms. Hutchison's, have shown pro-choice GOP candidates can win votes of pro-lifers and vice-versa, he adds. ``I don't think it's the party-splitting issue that some in the media like to write about, and that the Democrats are down on their knees praying for.''

Much work remains if the GOP is to capitalize on its popularity. Officials must tackle a century of Democratic tradition at its most tenacious level - local government. The GOP must reach into all 254 counties to build organizations. In last week's primary, at least 24 counties had no GOP candidates.

State GOP chairman Meyer says winning locally is important to gain experienced candidates to run for higher office. Mr. Barbour adds that local and state offices are important in their own right. Since the Reagan years, more government power has rested at these levels.

Meyer acknowledges party weakness locally in Texas, the result of years of focusing on national and state elections. The state GOP chairman says the Republican strategy emphasizes the grass roots, like its ``candidate schools.'' Texas Democrats, meanwhile, will focus on recapturing county offices.

To gain the swing vote and succeed, Democrats must place themselves in the center. That's the aim of the Democratic Leadership Council, whose members, including President Clinton and top Texas Democrats, aim to develop nonbureaucratic programs to advance progressive ideals and traditional values.

``A progressive idea can be very popular only if it reinforces mainstream values,'' DLC president Al From says. ``People are willing to spend money on welfare if they think that welfare recipients are going to work for self-sufficiency.''

The DLC was delayed from having an impact in Texas when key state-chapter staff members joined the Clinton campaign and administration, says Carol Rice, Texas DLC executive director. Now it's back on track, but implementing its experimental programs will take time.

Meanwhile, Texas voters will watch how the Democratic Party handles national issues, Frye predicts.

``If we fall on our face in health reform, budget reform, and welfare reform, the Republicans are going to have a good run here in Texas for quite awhile, as I suspect they will in other places,'' he says.

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