GOP Builds Party in Texas Via Grass Roots, Not Glitz

Door-to-door appeals may hold key to edging out Democrats

Twenty years ago, Montgomery County was as yellow-dog Democrat as any other corner of the piney woods of east Texas.

Not anymore.

Today, Republicans dominate the local ballot, and there is not a single Democrat running in local primaries this year. The local GOP can count on 8 out of every 10 registered voters in the county.

As Houston's suburban population grows, so do the ranks of Republicans. "Voter registration has not been a problem for us - we've been adding 1,000 new voters each month," says Wally Wilkerson, a retired physician and longtime chairman of Montgomery County's Republican Party.

The GOP's strength in Montgomery County is due, in part, to successful grass-roots organizing. And it's emblematic of what both parties would like to do statewide. While neither party wants to pull the plug on all the focus groups and multimillion-dollar ad campaigns, in coming months Texas may see the biggest competition for individual voters' loyalties since Reconstruction.

Ahead of his reelection bid, Republican Gov. George W. Bush has set a goal of registering 400,000 new suburban voters, hoping to realign Texas toward the party of Lincoln. The Democrats, meanwhile, plan to shore up their strength among Hispanics, 1.8 million of whom are registered Democrats.

The need for all this party-building is plain. Texas is well on its way toward realigning from a mainly Democratic to a predominantly Republican state. The GOP controls the governorship and the state Senate, and the Democrats control the House and most other state and local offices, from attorney general to city dog-catcher. But in order for either party to take control, each must return to the battle of door-to-door organizing.

"As a nation, we have changed the way we do politics in a bad way," says Becky Cain, president of the League of Women Voters, from her home in St. Alban, W.Va. "We've moved away from grass-roots organizing, where people were contacted personally. Now we're seeing issues addressed in the national media," tested in front of focus groups, not in front of real voters.

THIS less-personal touch has had a profound effect on voting participation, so that even though 9 million more voters registered in 1996, voter participation at election time was at the lowest rate since 1924. The reason, according to a survey sponsored by the League of Women Voters, is that voters feel a disconnect between politics and the issues that affect them most directly, such as schools, health care, and public safety.

"Nobody in our survey believed that it's their vote that makes a difference," say Ms. Cain.

Here in Texas, Republicans say the reason they have increased their support dramatically is their focus on tax relief and smaller government over the past decade. Four years ago, Texas Democrats had 43 percent support and Republicans had 38 percent. Today, those numbers are reversed, but some GOP insiders say they need more than a 5 percent margin to truly feel safe.

"There's this perception out there that Texas is already a Republican state," says David Weeks, a Republican media consultant. "Doing the voter registration is going to make it happen."

State GOP spokesman Robert Black is reluctant to share details on which county will be targeted and when, but party insiders say their future depends not just on solidifying their support in the growing suburbs of Dallas, San Antonio, Austin, and Houston, but also by courting minority voters statewide, especially Hispanics in south Texas.

"That's going to be the key to the Democrats' future, and for ours," says Mr. Weeks, the Republican consultant. As the Hispanic portion of the population grows, "our victory will be short-lived unless we began to bring Hispanics into the party."

Democrats say they too will continue to court Hispanic voters, noting their long history of fighting discrimination and pushing for affirmative-action policies that have helped many Hispanics gain access to higher education. But they admit that they must do a better job of getting registered Hispanic voters to the polls. In the 1996 election, nearly 1.4 million of the state's 1.8 million Hispanic Democratic voters stayed home. This year could be even more daunting, with no Hispanic Democrat running for statewide office.

"We're looking at increasing Hispanic turnout," admits Rafe Bemporad, spokesman for the state Democratic Party, which plans to set up phone banks and go door-to-door to explain the party's position on of the issues. On top of this, the Democrats plan to attract voters in the same suburbs that are the Republicans' stronghold. Referring to Gov. Bush's goal of 400,000 registered voters, Mr. Bemporad adds, "We're going to compete for the same voters that he's targeting. There's not one area that we take for granted."

This is an attitude that Dr. Wilkerson can well appreciate. As Montgomery County's GOP chairman, it took him 18 years to get his first Republican candidate elected to countywide office.

Now that his party is in control, he has a compassionate view of his Democratic counterparts, saying, "I know how they feel."

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