Texas Politics - Political Parties go back

1. Introduction: Political Parties and Political Representation in Texas
2. Foundations of Political Parties in Texas
2.1 Economic Liberalism, Social Conservatism, and Populism
2.2 Low Taxes, Low Services Political Culture
2.3 Surveying Party Politics in Texas History
3. History and Politics: Political Parties and Party Systems
3.1 Party Systems, Critical Elections and Realignments
3.2 Independence: The Pre-party Era (1836-1845)
3.3 The Civil War and its Aftermath
3.4 The New Deal Coalition in Texas
4. Contemporary Party Politics: The One-Party State of Texas?
4.1 Democrats in Decline
4.2 Republicans Rising
5. Parties as Institutions: Roles and Functions
5.1 Organizing societal interests
5.2 Recruiting Political Leaders
5.3 Communicating Popular Preferences
5.4 Structuring Public Debate on Issues
5.5 Structuring Political Conflict and Competition
5.6 Organizing Government
5.7 Linking State Governments to the National Government
6. Participating in Texas Political Parties
6.1 Register and Vote
6.2 Run for Party Nomination to Public Office
6.3 Run for Party Office
6.4 Organize Your Precinct
6.5 Serve as an Election Judge
6.6 Talk Politics
7. The Future of Party Politics in Texas
7.1 Split-ticket voting
7.2 Trends in Party Identification
7.3 Demographics
7.4 Organizational Strength
8. Conclusion

1. Introduction: Political Parties and Political Representation in Texas

It seems that political parties just can't win in the eyes of professional commentators and the public at large. Either they're responsible for causing divisions in society by being "too partisan" or they don't stand for anything because they represent too many diverse interests.

These contradictory criticisms of parties are not new. Some of the founders of the United States famously saw political parties as sources of "intolerant spirit," [1] a view that has persisted in contemporary times. At the same time we often criticize parties for lacking any coherent political program. The "laundry list" of issue positions produced by party committees - a result allegedly caused by the need for parties to unite enough interests in order to win elections - can often seem to be driven by pragmatism rather than principle.

Parties often do accentuate divisions in society while still uniting multiple groups within the electorate. They can be driven by ideology, while also bowing to the practical need to build coalitions to win elections. And their platforms often contain something for almost everyone, at the expense of a clear and specific vision.

Despite all of the complaints about parties, they perform roles that are critical to the operation of our democratic system and to the overall coordination and functioning of our political system.

First, they provide the means for millions of Americans, including Texans, to participate at various levels of the political system, as many of the convention delegates interviewed in this chapter's Getting Involved video feature illustrate. Second, in addition to providing opportunities for citizen input and participation, parties also engage citizens in a continuing political dialogue by helping to structure and present the issues of the day. Third, parties provide the glue that binds government vertically among the various levels of the political system, and horizontally across the nation.

These roles are replete with tensions - between principle and pragmatism, division and unity, vision and mere distribution of the spoils - that endow our political parties and the party system with a dynamism that powerfully shapes our political system. This chapter of Texas Politics examines how parties work, how they serve as mechanisms for representing societal interests in the political system, and how the history of parties in Texas both shaped and has been shaped by the particular historical forces within the state.

We organize our examination of political parties in Texas by focusing on several areas:

  • The legal and ideological context in which parties operate
  • The roles and functions of parties
  • Interaction between political parties and government institutions
  • The multiple ways that individuals can participate through political parties
  • The evolution of political parties and party systems in Texas
  • The prospects for change in the future
2. Foundations of Political Parties in Texas

At present the Texas Republican Party is enjoying a dramatic rise in stature and power that took it from playing a bit part in what had been largely a Democratic Party show to practically owning the political theater of Texas government.

Republicans now control all statewide offices, both houses of the Legislature, and both U.S. Senate seats. After taking control of the House of Representatives in 2002 with a commanding 88-62 majority, the Republican lead was honed to a very narrow 76-74 after the 2008 elections. In 2010 the Democrats not only failed to continue to make modest gains against the Republicans but instead lost by a huge margin. In 2011 the Republicans took over the Texas House of Representatives with 101 members, 23 of whom defeated Democratic incumbents and two who switched from the Democratic to the Republican party just after the election. In the 2012 elections, Democrats managed to gain a few seats back, but will only hold 55 seats to the 95 seats held by Republicans in the 2013 legislative session.

The Republican party maintains the initiative among the electorate, where political strategists routinely assume a statewide electoral advantage for Republican candidates. This advantage has translated into Republicans' continuing monopoly of statewide executive offices, where a Democratic candidate has not won a statewide race for more than a decade. What happened? How did things turn around so dramatically during the last two decades?

Deep seated tensions in the Texas party system had existed throughout the twentieth century. These tensions generated periodic ruptures and longer term evolutionary changes that accumulated to critical levels, causing a sharp reversal of political party fortunes by century's end.

To understand these tensions, ruptures and changes we need first to expose some of the underlying bedrock upon which Texas political culture and history rest.

2.1 Economic Liberalism, Social Conservatism, and Populism

While Texas political parties have undergone profound transformation over the course of history, the ideological elements of the state's politics have remained remarkably stable.

In brief, Texas political culture and ideology are well described by the combination of three main philosophical concepts: and populism.

Classical liberalism places the primary political value on political arrangements that allow for the fullest exercise of individual liberty as long as the liberties of others are not unreasonably restricted. Classical liberal ideas often form the basis for opposition to the use of government to attain social objectives. They express instead reliance on private initiatives or the free market to determine the best outcomes.

Classical liberalism in Texas is usually invoked in economic discussions, less so when social issues are discussed. Here, the state's entrenched social conservatism, holds sway. Social conservatism derives from the classical conservatism of feudal Europe, which embraces traditional hierarchical social relations and opposes social change. Social conservatives tend to support the use of government to reinforce traditional social relations. They value established traditions that encompass religion and they respect traditional authority figures such as business, military, and religious leaders. While socially conservative views are associated primarily with the Republican Party, they dominated the Democratic Party in Texas through much of its history.

Populism is concerned primarily with the well being of ordinary people, and emphasizes the popular will as the chief virtue of a political position. Populism has both political and social dimensions. Politically, it tends to support involvement of the government in regulating society and the economy. But, populism also tends to be socially conservative. Thus, depending on the context, populist appeals may support very different political positions. At various times in the state's history, populist appeals have been used to advocate government action on behalf of poor farmers as well as to lower taxes for middle and upper class Texans.

2.2 Low Taxes, Low Services Political Culture

These three concepts, coupled with the frontier pragmatism and "rugged" individualism of Texas culture, help explain party development in Texas. For most of the state's history, the dominant political culture has expressed these ideas as a "low taxes, low services" approach to government. Whatever the immediate political issues under discussion during a given period, this orientation has grounded the politics and ideology of our political parties.

Advocating raising taxes has always been politically dangerous to candidates and public office holders in Texas. In political conversations, the phrase "raising taxes" often occurs in close proximity to the term "political suicide," at least as far as political candidates are concerned. That's why whenever the state goes into one of its periodic fiscal crises, public officials go on a mad search for users' fees - driver's licenses, hunting licenses, motor vehicle registrations, student services fees, and more - that can be raised, and why few dare even to utter the words "income tax."

Similarly, calling for an increase in the role of the government also is not advised in Texas. One is unlikely to garner wide political support for any but the most minute increases in the size and scope of state government - unless the state is facing some humanitarian crisis or the money and impetus comes from the federal government.

The "low taxes, low services" creed has endured across generations of both Democratic and Republican dominance of state government. Its lasting influence reflects the importance to party politics of our unique combination of ideas of classical liberalism, social conservatism, and populism. However, these strands of political thinking do not always work in concert, either with each other or with realities in the state, and tensions among these different ideas have fueled divisions within the parties as well as between them.

Those predominantly influenced by ideas of classical liberalism often clash with others influenced by social conservative thinking in the modern Republican Party. Populists wishing to mobilize working class voters and promote a more active state government constantly clashed with social conservatives and classical liberals in the Democratic Party prior to the development of a more competitive Republican Party.

Today, candidates and elected officials in both parties wrestle with their allegiance to the "low taxes, low services" consensus as the state government has increasingly struggled to perform its required tasks in the face of a rapidly growing population and an increasingly complex economy and society.

2.3 Surveying Party Politics in Texas History

The history of parties in Texas is the tale of how the century-long period from the early 1870s to the 1970s following a decade of Republican-run post-Civil War Reconstruction came to be dominated by the Democratic Party and how that "party system" gradually came undone in the post-Civil Rights period, to be replaced by a competitive system dominated by the Republican Party.

It is also the story of how the various strands of Texas political culture have been combined into coherent patterns of party stability as well as jarring, discordant elements of underlying tension, rupture, and sharp change. Running through the story, linking these various elements, is the enduring low taxes, low services consensus.

During the century after Reconstruction, the Democratic Party enjoyed electoral dominance on all levels of state government and in the Lone Star State's representation in the national government. Democratic rule was carried out by a conservative white political elite that strongly promoted economic development, but that resisted change either in race relations or social programs for the poor. Tensions within the party over these issues were effectively muted until the civil rights movement and national politics made their abrupt intrusion into state politics in the 1950s. The parties gradually began to change.

Republicans were not completely absent during this period, but their electoral victories were few and limited in scope. The most common successes were at the presidential level, where Texas supported Republican candidates in 1952, 1956, 1972, and in every election after 1980 as Republican strength grew.

The history of the Texas party system reflects the political heritage of the rest of the old South, including secession from the Union, racial segregation and nationally mandated desegregation, the mobilization of conservative Christians, and continuing immigration of people from the northern states. But the party system is also shaped by other equally important currents more commonly shared with other states in the Southwest, rather than the old South. The strong Spanish and Mexican tradition going back to colonial times and the long term influence of Mexican culture has influenced the state in profound ways.

Texas has also been the home of significant third parties, such as the Populists, La Raza Unida, and, most recently, the Reform Party. Some might attribute this to the storied independence and non-conformism and entrepreneurial energy of Texas culture, all likely contributing factors. But these parties also grew out of the social forces within Texas at critical moments in the history of the state and nation.

The size of the state, its particular history, and the resulting political and cultural variety of Texas society have all contributed to the development of what might be called a "pragmatic center." Scratch the surface of this pragmatism, and one is likely to find that what is "practical" is a relatively conservative, pro-business set of policy preferences, periodically affected around the edges by mobilized groups without the power to remain influential over long periods of time. The resulting political culture has been reflected in a party system that has consistently rewarded pragmatism, compromise, and deal making over ideological purity.

Key characteristics of the political and policy climate in Texas, after the civil rights movement, reflect this pragmatism and the relative strength of conservatives in both parties. These enduring characteristics include:

  • a comparatively low level of state services maintained by a general hostility toward progressive taxation (particularly any form of income tax)
  • a generally anti-union work environment
  • limited environmental regulation
  • culturally conservative social policy in areas such as education, religion, and civil rights

These characteristics of party politics in Texas have deep historical roots, originally established back in the days of Texas's independence and even earlier during the Spanish colonial experience. The consensus on these points has been challenged and modified to some extent during various periods in Texas history, but these tendencies continue to exert a strong influence through to the present. The next two sections provide a more detailed discussion of the party system in Texas history and the future of party politics in the state.

3. History and Politics: Political Parties and Party Systems

The history of political parties in Texas is marked by numerous tumultuous periods of struggle among competing groups and interests. These include a struggle for independence from Mexico, Civil War within the United States, the contentious post-Civil War Reconstruction period, a long and relatively stable (if undemocratic) post- period, a fractious struggle for civil rights for African-Americans, and a post-civil rights period of party transformation and apparent consolidation.

Over the period since initial statehood in 1845, the constituencies and ideologies of the two major parties we know today have experienced profound transformations. The Republican Party didn't even exist in the United States until just before the Civil War, and barely existed in Texas and the rest of the former Confederacy for several decades after Reconstruction. The Democratic Party evolved from a party closely identified with white racial supremacy to a coalition of groups that included African Americans and ethnic minorities, while the Republican Party slowly gained majority status as a home for social conservatives. Both parties today remain economically conservative, resisting tax increases and regulations on business, while promoting government support of business initiatives.

Although the two major national parties have dominated electoral politics in the state, Texas also has spawned significant third parties that affected national politics. The Populist Party existed from the 1880s to the 1910s and played a significant role both in the state and at the national level. More recently, Dallas billionaire H. Ross Perot founded the Reform Party in the early 1990s. Other parties that have enjoyed the support of a small but dedicated number of citizens in the state include the Libertarian Party and the Green Party. In the 2008 election the Libertarian party received just .7 percent of all votes cast in the presidential election. However, other candidates for statewide office received as much as 20 percent of the vote and in both 2008 and 2010 their candidates effected the outcome of a number of races. In the 2012 presidential contest, Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson received 1.1 percent of the Texas vote. The Green Party also succeeded in qualifying for the 2012 ballot as a result of their performance in 2010.

3.1 Party Systems, Critical Elections and Realignments

Before we plunge into the historical details of the ups and downs, and twists and turns of the evolution of parties in Texas, we must first review some of the conceptual tools that have been developed to put some structure in the political, economic and social history of the state and its political parties.

Political scientists and historians have developed a set of widely-used concepts and terms for thinking about the dynamics of political parties. This section introduces these terms, and applies them to party history in the state. You can link back to it if you're a little fuzzy on the terms later on. (You can also use the glossary to look these definitions up later.)

The party history of the United States and of Texas can be understood as a series of long relatively stable periods interrupted by profound shifts in the composition of the major parties - which types of voters and interest groups consistently support each party - and their relative strength in the political system.

Shifts in the make-up and fortunes of the dominant parties are called realignments and are often marked by a critical election in which voters and interest groups make long-term changes in their party preferences. The relative positions of dominance of the major parties after realignment and their long-term constituencies (e.g., labor unions in the Democratic Party) together form a party system.

One might infer from this language of realignments and critical elections that the transformation of party systems happens in only very compressed periods, say from one election to the next. Though political scientists and historians debate the details, such transformations have deep historical roots, and sometime take place over a series of elections.

For an example of how shifts in party allegiance and power can take place over a series of elections, consider the rise of the Republican Party in Texas in the modern period. The development of a competitive Republican Party can be traced to the blossoming civil rights movement that matured over the course of the 1950s. The 1961 election of John Tower to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Lyndon Johnson (who campaigned successfully as Kennedy's vice-presidential running mate) is often cited as the debut of the newly resurgent Republican Party.

While Tower's election greatly energized the Republicans, the senator might more appropriately be regarded as an advance scout in a long-term and uncertain campaign. Almost two decades passed before Bill Clements was elected as the first Republican governor since Reconstruction, when the long migration of conservative voters and campaign contributors from the Democratic to the Republican Party reached "critical mass."

The long years between Tower's election to the Senate and the shifting tide of Republican allegiance highlight the multiple and complex factors that affect the configuration of party systems. The fortunes of political parties can be affected by sudden and dramatic changes to the socio-political environment. These changes might include going to war, defeat in war, imposition of new rules regulating political life, socio-economic changes like industrialization and urbanization, surges in immigration (either from other countries or other regions of the same country) and the conflicts these changes create not only between parties, but within them. In some circumstances, the stability of the party system can also be affected by the focused actions of a small group of people or even an individual seeking to change the status quo.

So change comes from the combination of long term developments and short, sharp shocks. Consequently, understanding how parties and party systems change seems deceptively easy when looking backward in history to find patterns in the unfolding of events and trends. But it is much more difficult to see patterns and turning points as they develop. Despite these analytical challenges, the concepts we survey here help to analyze the shifting patterns of party allegiances and political power.

3.2 Independence: The Pre-party Era (1836-1845)

Because of the absence of political differences that would solidify into distinct parties, many historians have characterized the early years of Texas independence as "the pre-party" period. Opposition to the central government in Mexico before and after Texas independence unified the political leadership of the state, but did not create the pronounced differences that shaped the first party system in the post-independence United States.

However, the range of social and political influences that shaped the subsequent party system (as well as the state's political culture) emerged during the pre-party system, setting the stage for more than a century of politics. Populism, classical liberalism, and social conservatism all took root in the earliest days of Texas's political existence.

Populism was imported by Jacksonian Democrats who chased the frontier from Tennessee to Texas. Sam Houston, war hero and the new Texas republic's first regularly elected president, had the strongest ties to any political party in the United States. Houston had been Governor of Tennessee and reportedly was being groomed as the Democratic candidate for U.S. President by incumbent Andrew Jackson, himself an early populist. [2] Jacksonian populism was characterized by mistrust of excessive private power, particularly as exercised by large banks and corporations. In some ways populism continues the tradition of Jeffersonianism, which saw small landholders and businesspersons as the cornerstone of a healthy democracy. In the Jacksonian vision, the government could be used as a tool for restraining the accumulated power of large private interests. In the modern period this tradition of populism has been invoked by groups and individuals of diverse circumstances (rich and not-so-rich alike) to demonstrate their shared values with ordinary Texans.

Classical liberalism was planted by independent-minded Mexicans who had recently experienced intense struggles against the Catholic Church and the Spanish monarchy. These colonial institutions embodied classical conservatism, which upheld views of an unchanging "natural order" of society, in which people occupied fixed places in the social and political hierarchy. The Mexicans who fought against Santa Anna contributed a strongly liberal flavor to Texas political culture. One prominent Mexican, Lorenzo de Zavala served as the vice-president in the interim government immediately following the war for independence. Zavala had a long career of liberal activism before Texas independence. [3] He moved to Texas in 1829 under an empresario contract to settle 500 families there. He was appointed in 1833 by Santa Anna as minister to France. But he eventually came to the conclusion that Santa Anna would not respect the Mexican Constitution of 1824, and decided to resist as a Texan.

Social conservatism was conveyed by the many Southerners who migrated to Texas between independence and the Civil War. These Southern conservatives brought a distinctive blend of tradition, Christian social identity, racial hierarchy, and romantic individualism to Texas from the other states of what would become the Confederacy. The Confederate states, of course, lost the Civil War, but this particular brand of conservative political thought took root in Texas and would continue to influence culture and politics.

Several attempts were made to bring Texas into the union in the early 1840s, but these failed. Meanwhile, debate in the U.S. over allowing slavery in new states intensified as the presidential election of 1844 approached. Democrat James K. Polk, a protege of Andrew Jackson and strong advocate of Texas statehood, won the Presidency in 1844. With widespread popular support in Texas for joining the union, the Lone Star republic became a state in 1845. [4]

Between independence and statehood, the primary political issues were annexation by the United States (versus remaining independent) and expanding the western and southern geographic boundaries of the Republic (which had never been clearly specified). Vagueness in the definition of Texas's borders led to raids across the Rio Grande and territorial claims in what is now New Mexico. Geography and slavery combined to make Texas's relationship to the United States the dominant political issue of the period, as Texans with a strong attachment to the United States clashed with a succession of Texas nationalists, secessionists, and Confederates. For more on this period, see the Handbook of Texas Online entry for Unionism.

3.3 The Civil War and its Aftermath

The Civil War and its aftermath largely defined the Texas party system for the duration of the nineteenth century. Texas was a "tagalong confederate", with strong divisions among its citizens regarding secession. When the War concluded, Texas like the rest of the South was eventually put under military rule and subjected to restrictions that prohibited former Confederate officers (usually white Democrats) from engaging in political activity. This paved the way for Republican Party control of state governments throughout the South, with high numbers of black office holders. This is known as the period of Reconstruction.

In Texas, the Radical Republican administration of Governor Edmund J. Davis (1870-1874) was known for devoting considerable attention to public works, as well as its political corruption. This administration undertook the construction of extensive infrastructure projects (roads, railroads, bridges, and government buildings) and it created a public school system. But as the expenditures rose, so did taxes. Because many of the state's landowners refused to pay the high taxes, levels of public debt skyrocketed. (Davis's administration also created a homestead provision that would protect indebted citizens in the event of bankruptcy. Texans continue to enjoy homestead protection today.)

In 1872, the Democratic Party won control of the legislature, some five years before the Compromise of 1877 ended Reconstruction. Three years later, the Democratic-controlled legislature (now dominated by conservative whites who had been shut out of government under Republican rule) called a convention to rewrite the existing Constitution of 1869, a document that had been most strongly backed by Unionists and African Americans. After the Compromise of 1877, state Democratic parties throughout the South (including Texas) solidified control of their state governments, effectively halting Republican Party projects and dismantling the Party itself.

The end of Reconstruction and the return of "home rule" by conservative whites in Texas kicked off a period of Democratic Party dominance that would last though the rest of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth century. Reconstruction left the Republican Party associated in popular thought with military occupation and external rule. The party's only significant support was among African Americans and migrants from other states. Republicans were relegated to seemingly permanent minority status as Democrats took long-term hold of local political organizations and government offices.

The Democrats of this period constituted a different party than the present-day Democratic Party. The party was dominated by white interests dedicated to maintaining segregation, using racial appeals, patronage, and the suppression of black voters to maintain their hold on elections and government. Socially conservative thinking guided by the political culture of the Confederacy, as in much of the South, exerted a powerful influence over the controlling majority of the Democratic Party. This Democratic Party past is often invoked by present-day moderate Republicans attempting to appeal to ethnic and racial minority voters who now overwhelmingly support the post-Civil Rights Democratic Party.

The most significant challenge to the post-Reconstruction Democratic Party was an alternative political party that grew out of a group of farmer and rancher cooperatives known as the Farmer's Alliance. The Alliance became politically active in the state in 1878. The movement spread throughout the state and then nationally, and by 1887 had a national membership of between one and three million. The movement joined with other reform groups to become the People's Party in 1891, and subsequently the "Populists," as they were often called, won elected public offices in Texas and other states.

The Populists attracted Democratic voters and activists on reform issues. As a result, Populist successes aggravated divisions in the dominant Democratic Party. In a bid to get key platform planks favored by both the Alliance and the People's Party implemented, the national People's Party supported Democratic Party candidate William Jennings Bryan in his failed bid for the Presidency in 1896, exacerbating splits in both the Populist and Democratic parties. The combination of Jennings's defeat and these divisions within the party contributed to the rapid decline of the Populists after 1896. Democratic hegemony in Texas remained intact as the nineteenth century ended and the new century began. But the Populist insurgency heralded tensions that would eventually split the Democrats in Texas and in the nation.

3.4 The New Deal Coalition in Texas

The saga of the Populists and the Alliance presaged divisions in the Democratic Party that would grow during the first two decades of the twentieth century. These divisions fed on issues emphasized by the Progressive Movement, such as the regulation of large corporations and trusts, prohibition of alcohol, and election law reform. By the time the Great Depression set in during the early 1930s, reformists became a permanent force in the Democratic Party. Under the national Democratic Party leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt progressives, unions, and working class voters, as well as traditional, more conservative Southern Democratic voters and elites, were organized into a powerful national Democratic coalition.

In Texas, a recurring pattern emerged in which Democratic dominance was marked by contentious infighting among Democrats while Republicans remained largely marginalized in state politics. Essentially, intense political contests occurred within the single dominant party, instead of between two competitive parties. For most of the period from the 1930s to the 1970s, a minority of reformists in the Democratic Party contended with a majority of conservatives and moderates, who generally retained control of the party organization and of most elected offices. For most of this period, all of the infighting notwithstanding, allegiance remained overwhelmingly Democratic among voters who vowed famously that they would vote for a dog before they would vote for a Republican. Nevertheless, battles among Democrats set the stage for the key developments in contemporary Texas politics: the decline of the Democrats, the rise of the Republican Party, and the emergence of a competitive party system dominated by the ascendant Republicans.

4. Contemporary Party Politics: The One-Party State of Texas?

Democrats held a lock on state politics and government throughout the first half of the twentieth century. But beneath the surface the party's dominance was crumbling. Political change in Texas and the nation eroded the conditions that fostered Democratic dominance. The feature The Texas Delegation to the United States House of Representatives 1845-2013 shows the effect of these trends on Texas congressional representation.

We can summarize the most important changes to influence state and national politics, though each of these brief descriptions is a story in itself:

  • Support from liberal activists and African Americans for civil rights loosened the allegiance of conservative white voters, activists, and contributors to the Democratic Party.
  • Highway construction and residential development patterns increased the suburbanized population throughout the nation, including Texas. Conservative whites from northern states migrated to "Sunbelt states," including Texas, as the economy diversified from raw materials extraction (the "oil business") and agriculture to service industries, aerospace, and, in some local areas, digital communications technology.
  • Changes in party organizing and campaigning, including the shift to more expensive methods of campaigning, helped level the competitive landscape between the parties. The Republican Party, both in Texas and nationally, built a substantial advantage in fundraising, as this chapter's feature on Money and Votes illustrates.

All of these factors converge in the story of the contemporary party system, which has two interrelated plotlines: the decline of the Democratic Party and the dramatic rise of the Republican Party.

4.1 Democrats in Decline

Following the demise of the Populist insurgency after 1896, the Democratic Party dominated politics in Texas for six more decades. But within the party, open warfare often raged between three loosely defined groups of Democrats:

  • conservatives, who were pro-business, frequently resistant to allowing progress on civil rights for African Americans and Mexican Americans, and defensive of existing social conventions
  • liberals, who were progressive on civil rights, critical of corporate leadership and the pro-business bias of state government, and in favor of increasing state services to the poor
  • moderates, who sought to mediate between these two groups, typically by attempting to take middle-ground positions on civil rights and social services while seeking to maintain favor with business interests in the state.

The development of the civil rights movement in the South catalyzed change in the nature and political position of the Democratic Party in Texas in the 1960s and 1970s. The story of the state Democratic Party during this period is tightly intertwined with the national struggle over civil rights for African Americans and ethnic minorities in the United States.

What we now refer to in the overly homogenized term "the civil rights movement" emerged from a diverse array of legal actions, grassroots organization, and protests with a long history of struggle. Anti-segregation protests dot the early twentieth century history of the United States, including protests at the University of Texas at Austin and other colleges and universities in Texas. The movement was fixed in the public eye by the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, in which the Court invalidated the doctrine of "separate but equal" as applied to grade school education. The following year, the Court ruled that segregated school districts must integrate with "all deliberate speed," pressuring state and local officials to recognize the implications of the Brown decision: the legalized racial segregation practiced throughout the South and in parts of the Southwest since Reconstruction was unconstitutional and its dismantling would be enforced by the national government.

Later that same year, Rosa Parks refused to sit at the back of a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama, setting off a successful boycott by African Americans of the municipal bus service. This marked the beginning of more than a decade of nationally visible protests, boycotts, and other forms of resistance to segregation, all against a steady backdrop of legal action in state and federal courts.

The civil rights movement widened a long-standing division between tense allies in the national Democratic Party. On one side of this split were white, conservative, mostly southern Democrats, the mainstay of traditional Democratic power in the South since the Civil War. On the other side were liberal, mostly northern Democrats, as well as African Americans and ethnic minorities. These diverse groups had gathered in the Democratic Party during Franklin Roosevelt's presidency, but the civil rights movement raised a fundamental contradiction inside the Democratic Party. In many areas, political control by local Democratic officials and their supporters rested on an electorate that excluded African Americans by using a variety of legal and extralegal means to keep them off the voting rolls.

Civil rights legislation promised to disrupt these practices, along with the post-Reconstruction social segregation upon which they rested. Conservative white disaffection in the South reached critical mass when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Many southern Democrats, convinced that the Democratic Party was pandering to African Americans and ethnic groups, voted either for George Wallace's third party candidacy or for Richard Nixon in the 1968 presidential election, and never returned to voting for Democratic presidential candidates afterward. They joined a growing number of new Republicans and independents already attracted to the Republican Party's platform calling for low taxes and reversing or limiting the growth of the government services.

The effect in Texas of the civil rights earthquake reflected the particular history of the state. African Americans were slowly being integrated into the Democratic voting base in the state following the outlawing of so-called "white primaries" (which excluded black voters) by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1944 in Smith v. Allwright, and the national recruitment of African Americans into the Democratic Party as a result of appeals tied to the New Deal policies of Franklin Roosevelt. Though African Americans continued to experience racial tensions within the Democratic Party for decades, by the 1970s they constituted one of the most reliable blocs of Democratic voters.

In the short term, ironically, growing black support for Democratic candidates helped keep the conservative white Democratic elite, many of whom had resisted granting full political rights to African-Americans and Mexican-Americans, in dominant positions in the party. Until the 1960s, the Texas Democratic Party was so dominant that the Democratic primary election usually determined who would hold office. The widespread allegiance to the Democratic Party and the stigma attached to being Republican virtually assured victory to Democrats on the general election ballot. As this chapter's feature on Decline of Democratic Dominance illustrates, many more voters participated in the Democratic Party primary than participated in the general election throughout the 1950s.

Beginning in the 1960s that ratio became inverted - increasingly more people voted in the general election than in the Democratic primary, a sign that intraparty tensions were eroding the Democrats' electoral lock on Texas government. As decades of dominance by the party's conservative faction gave way to pitched battle between old-line conservatives and newly-mobilized liberals, many longtime Democratic conservatives found a new home among the growing ranks of Republican Texans.

Beneath the voting numbers, internal politics in the parties, particularly among Democrats, churned. African Americans and Mexican Americans were slowly becoming more integrated as factions in the Democratic Party, as minority voting blocs became more important to electoral success. Mexican American political elites, for example, were active in the internal conflicts in the Democratic Party over the decision by Democratic governor Allan Shivers to throw Democratic support behind Republican presidential candidate Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956. [5] When Mexican Americans subsequently organized independent efforts to win local office under the rubric of La Raza Unida Party, organized in 1970 to elect Mexican American candidates, they revealed a long-simmering dissatisfaction in areas where Mexican Americans and progressives had been dominated by conservative Democratic office holders and party officials.

As moderates and liberals gained ground with the increased integration of ethnic and racial minorities in the Democratic Party, many welcomed the departure of the conservatives with whom they had long battled. The long term victory of moderates and liberals, however, has not been without significant political costs. If the Democratic Party has changed and become more defined, the political culture in the state has not changed at the same pace. The social conservatism and classical liberalism that has always influenced the state now exerts less influence in the Democratic Party. But those who resisted changes in the Texas Democratic Party, as well as many who came to Texas from other states and had no Democratic ties to forsake, had another party to which they could turn. In recent years, that party, the Republican Party, has become a powerful and highly organized alternative.

4.2 Republicans Rising

Though internal divisions in the Democratic Party's base fed the growth of the Republican Party, not all of this growth can be attributed to Democratic defections. As the state's economy gradually diversified, the suburbs grew, people migrated to Texas from other states, and religious conservatives became more involved in politics, the natural Republican base in the state grew. It was only a matter of time before Republican activists and candidates overcame the entrenched Democrats whose own electoral base was steadily eroding.

Republican fortunes were foreshadowed in 1952 and 1956, when conservative Democrats led by then-governor Allan Shivers engineered Democratic support for Republican presidential candidate Dwight Eisenhower. Subsequently, John Tower's election in 1961 as the first Republican U.S. senator since Reconstruction marked the beginning of a long Republican climb that would span over four decades. A critically important milestone in the Republican ascent occurred in 1978 when Bill Clements won the governorship in 1978, the first time since 1869 that a Republican won election for Governor in Texas. Clements was defeated four years later in 1982 by Democrat Mark White, but returned to win the governorship again in 1986.

Republicans continued to erode - if unevenly - the Democratic Party's dominance of state politics over succeeding years, as this chapter's feature on The Rise of the Republican South illustrates. The Republican Party reached a summit of sorts in 1998, when it won all 27 state-wide offices. Just two years earlier in 1996, Republicans won control of the Texas Senate with a slim majority (17 of 31 seats) and have held control in subsequent elections. In the Texas House of Representatives the Republicans enjoyed a sharp gain in the number of seats in the 1984 election (a Presidential election year that saw the reelection of Ronald Reagan). The party has made steady gains since then, and finally established a majority in the House in 2002, allowing Tom Craddick to become the first Republican Speaker of modern times.

The erosion of the Democrats' historical base of conservative whites and the growth of a newly reorganized conservative base in the Republican Party polarized the ideological orientations of the two parties beginning in the 1970s. As a party, the Democrats shifted to the more liberal side of the spectrum. This brought them much closer to the orientation of the national Democratic Party, with which Texas Democrats had often been at odds in earlier periods. Meanwhile the Republican Party more or less kept to the same strongly conservative path it had followed for decades, a path that would lead to continued electoral gains from the 1970s on. This chapter's feature on Comparing Ideology in Texas Politics - which presents the ideological orientation of U.S. congressional representatives from Texas, the South, and the country as a whole - illustrates this polarization.

On the national level the Republican presence in the Texas delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives grew from two in 1974 to twenty-four in 2013. In 2003, the Republican-controlled state legislature launched a bid to exercise control of the redistricting process through which the boundaries of congressional districts are drawn. Republicans argued that while their candidates were sweeping statewide races, typically with substantially more than fifty percent of the vote, Republicans still held less than half of the state's thirty-two seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Governor Rick Perry called a special session of the legislature in the summer of 2003 to address the issue after Democrats in the Texas House of Representatives employed the unusual tactic of leaving the state in order to deny the quorum needed to conduct business on the chamber floor. This effectively killed the redistricting legislation during the regular session. Democratic Senators tried the same ploy, also leaving the state in protest during a subsequent special session called that year. Ultimately, Democratic unity broke, and a new map was passed which appeared to give Republican candidates a chance to gain as many as seven more seats. The redistricting battles of 2003 were thus the final step in the Republican rise in Texas. The redistricting process after the 2010 U.S. Census also resulted in litigation that continued into 2013, though no result was likely to seriously erode Republican legislative majorities.

5. Parties as Institutions: Roles and Functions

What exactly do political parties do? Though parties are multifaceted and operate in many different arenas, the most commonly recognized roles and functions of parties can be grouped into three areas.


People identify with the ideas associated with particular parties, and participate in the activities of a particular party to various degrees. So we say that parties have a presence in the electorate that affects people's political beliefs and behaviors, which in turn define the parties over time.


Parties have formal structures and processes. They have permanent organizations that manage party affairs on an ongoing basis with temporary organizational components that exist only during the campaign months that lead up to elections. The permanent organization includes precinct chairs, county executive committees and chairs, and state executive committees and chairs. The temporary organization includes all party electoral conventions on the precinct, county, district, state, and even national levels.


Even though there is little formal specification (either constitutional or statutory) of the roles of parties within government, parties shape and add dynamism to the institutions of government. Governors tend to appoint executive branch personnel who are members of their party. Such appointments tend to promote loyalty to the party as well as to the governor. Legislative committee chairs are usually members of the majority party in the House and the Lieutenant Governor's party in the Senate. On the local and municipal level, where elections are often non-partisan (i.e., where candidates do not run as members or specific parties), the party-in-government tends to be less overt.

Although political parties were not envisioned by the founders of the United States, they were clearly part of the political landscape when Texas joined the Union in 1845. Over the past two centuries parties have become central to our understanding of how people seek and achieve representation in the councils of government.

Based on the way in which political parties have evolved over time, we expect political parties to perform critical functions in the political system. Chief among them are:

  • Organizing societal interests
  • Recruiting political leaders
  • Communicating popular preferences
  • Structuring public debate
  • Structuring political conflict and competition
  • Organizing government
  • Linking state governments to the national government
5.1 Organizing societal interests

Although many Texans are members of one or more interest groups, many are represented by no organized group. Parties provide an umbrella organization within which citizens can associate both as individuals and as members of groups, and they provide channels for citizen participation in a range of political activities.

This chapter's Getting Involved video feature includes interviews with a wide range of Texans discussing how political parties provided them channels for making common cause with other like-minded people.

5.2 Recruiting Political Leaders

Parties do not exercise tight control over the nomination process for their political candidates, but the leadership can strongly encourage particular outcomes. The so-called "dream ticket" or "dream team" of the Democratic Party in the Texas state elections in 2002 resulted from concerted support from prominent members in the party to favor specific Democratic Party nominees over others. The resulting slate of candidates - led by Dallas's first African American mayor Ron Kirk for U.S. Senate and Latino businessman Tony Sanchez for Governor - reflected an effort to favor candidates from diverse ethnic groups that also had the potential to raise enough money to run effective campaigns. The dream fell short; the ticket was swept as Republican candidates were returned to all statewide offices.

The presidential administration of George W. Bush actively supported particular Republican nominees over others in state level contests across the country in both the 2002 and 2004 elections, and Texas was no exception. President Bush attended numerous fundraisers and gave dozens of speeches supporting specific Republican candidates. At one Texas fundraiser in 2002 he helped U.S. senatorial candidate John Cornyn and fellow Texas Republicans raise $1.4 million. These actions to recruit and support candidates helped create party unity and discipline, because the recipients often develop personal bonds and loyalty to their patrons within the party.

The ability of ranking party officials to control nomination choices, however, is usually contested, at least to some degree, and 2002 was no exception. Conservative Republicans targeted other Republicans they considered to be moderate, labeling them "RINOs" - or "Republican in Name Only."

On the Democratic side, despite substantial support from party officials, former Dallas mayor Ron Kirk's bid to be the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate was challenged by rival candidates Victor Morales and former attorney general Dan Morales (the two are unrelated). When the Democratic ticket failed to win any statewide offices, many fingers pointed the blame at officials of the Texas Democratic Party, though the official leadership's control over candidate selection is limited at best.

5.3 Communicating Popular Preferences

Parties serve as one of several channels for communities and organized interest groups to communicate their wishes to elected representatives and appointed officials. The executive committees and conventions on every level (precinct, county, district, state, and nation), for example, are important mechanisms by which constituents may be heard. The caucuses within the parties also work to shape the party platform, yet another way party members communicate preferences to their office holders.

Since candidates raise most of their funds and form campaign organizations directly, independently of the party organization, they are more likely to listen to their own constituents than those of the general party if elected to office. But the parties remain important vehicles for influencing these officials.

5.4 Structuring Public Debate on Issues

Parties collect and disseminate data and other information related to public policy issues in order to persuade voters and other influential individuals about a specific approach. Parties also provide the specific line of argumentation and word choice that best promotes their position. Though the parties always have dissenters, the parties come to be associated with particular policy positions which they can be expected to advocate in public debate.

5.5 Structuring Political Conflict and Competition

Much of the conflict in the political system takes place within what might be called "templates" created by the two parties. As noted above, parties are associated with sets of positions on public issues and with the broad coalitions that gather in the parties in support of those sets of positions. The public uses these templates of typical party issue positions and the party labels of the numerous candidates for public office to determine whom to support. At the same time, candidates and other policy advocates adopt positions that the public can recognize as a "Republican" or "Democratic" (or "Green" or "Libertarian") position. The parties provide issue positions along with labels, phrases, and talking points that the range of political participants - from voters to office holders - can use to define both themselves and others.

5.6 Organizing Government

We alluded to this function above in the brief discussion of "the party-in-government." The divided nature of the institutions of Texas government (e.g., the bicameral legislature, the plural executive, checks and balances) and the loose organization of parties themselves limit the ability of parties to organize the government. Nevertheless, party officials and sometimes office holders try to use party allegiance as an organizing tool. In practice, the best that party leaders can usually hope for is the ability to organize numerous small, loosely joined parts of government that intermittently coordinate on public policy formation and implementation.

5.7 Linking State Governments to the National Government

Parties also shape the organization of government by augmenting the ties between the states and the national government in our federal system. State parties play a prominent role in selecting candidates for President and Vice-President through winner-take-all state-level primaries. Members of the U.S. Congress run as party candidates on the state level. U.S. Senators recommend state party loyalists as nominees to the federal District courts in that state. Party loyalty is also frequently a consideration in upper-level appointments to federal bureaucracies. Parties thus often serve as a career network through which candidates and political professional can progress from state-level to national-level political work.

6. Participating in Texas Political Parties

Political parties play a wide variety of roles in mobilizing and organizing individuals, despite never being "officially constituted" as political organizations. Throughout the modern history of the Lone Star State, Texans in large numbers have identified with one of the two major parties. The trend in party identification has weakened somewhat in recent years, with the number of self-identified Democrats experiencing the greater part of that decline . However, even with the weakening of party identification, thousands of individuals still use the major political parties as a means of participating in politics.

Through their involvement active participants shape the organization and leadership of the political parties. Acting as individuals or members of interest groups, Texans participate in selecting the officers of what we've referred to as "the party-as-organization." Additionally, active citizens are directly involved in selecting party nominees for public office through political volunteering and voting. We even help shape the party in the electorate through our every day interactions and conversations with friends and neighbors.

The functions that parties perform in a political system are the results of millions of individual political acts. There are a number of ways in which you, like other citizens and organized groups, can participate in parties and use parties to participate in politics. These include:

  • Register and vote
  • Run for party nomination to public office
  • Run for party office
  • Organize a precinct
  • Serve as an election judge
  • Talk politics
6.1 Register and Vote

The most basic and common party activity for citizens is voting. Voters cast ballots in primary elections to choose a party's nominee (or general election candidate) from a list of potential party candidates. They vote in the general election to choose the person to occupy a specific public office, like Governor, state senator and state Supreme Court justice.

In order to vote, you must register to vote with the state. In Texas, a citizen 18 years of age by election day may register in person or by mail at least thirty (30) days prior to the election (primary or general) in which he or she wishes to vote. The registration process is administered by county government, but regulated by the state. You can download the voter registration form in English or Spanish from the Texas Secretary of State website.

Remember: after completing the form, mail it to the voter registrar in your county. The Secretary of State's website also lists the addresses for registrars in every Texas county. If you move, state law requires that you re-register at your new address. Many voters are disqualified because they forget to re-register after moving.

Texas election law allows registered voters to vote in the primary of only one party in a given election, but as you may have noticed, the registration process does not require that you register as a member of a specific political party, as is the case in some other states. Consequently, you are not required to decide what party primary you will vote in until you arrive at the polls. Most voters, of course, don't put the decision off that long.

During the primary election voters choose both their party's candidates for public office and the leadership of both the party organization at the local precinct and the county (or district) levels. If no party nominee for a specific public office wins a majority (more than 50 percent of the vote), a runoff election is held, usually about one month after the initial primary, to choose the party's candidate.

6.2 Run for Party Nomination to Public Office

A more challenging way to participate in party politics is to run for a party's nomination to a specific public office.

Usually, this would be for a state-level office since local and municipal elections in Texas are typically nonpartisan - the candidates do not run as nominees of their parties. But, if you're worried about starting out too big, remember that a local elected position that is technically non-partisan can serve as a solid springboard into party politics.

Many state-level offices are local or regional in nature. The state of Texas is divided into 150 districts for the Texas House of Representatives and 31 districts for the Texas Senate. So you don't have to run state-wide, but only in your district, which is much smaller. All things being equal, the smaller the district the easier it is to win the nomination. These offices draw relatively little attention from powerful special interests and the media, and even less attention from voters. Therefore, a small but determined campaign organization has a relatively good chance of success.

The two major parties can recommend professional campaign schools that train prospective candidates for public office in how to plan and execute a successful electoral campaign. Universities and interest groups also offer training and seminars on the mechanics and techniques of running for elected office. For example, the New Politics Forum at UT Austin's Annette Strauss Institute, provides non-partisan seminars in the fundamentals of campaigning.

6.3 Run for Party Office

One important way to participate in the political system through political parties is to nominate someone or run directly for one of the many party offices. On the same day as the primary, after the polls close, the parties hold their local precinct conventions. Any registered voter who voted in a party's primary may attend that party's precinct convention. After being elected to a precinct-level position, you may attend functions and conventions at the county, state, and eventually even the national level, and attempt to be elected to higher positions in the parties. County and district conventions are held on the Saturday after the March primaries; state conventions are held in June of even-numbered years. [6]

All of this organizational structure and activity may make the party bureaucracy seem critically important, but there are important limits to party officials' power. Party organizations do not exercise centralized control over nominations or campaign funding. Anybody who wants to run as a party nominee for office can do so, and candidates raise most of their own campaign funds. Lacking control over funding means that party organizations struggle to coordinate candidates' campaigns. Party officers must persuade office holders to coordinate with party objectives rather than impose policy discipline.

Parties and the officials who maintain them from election to election strive to use the tools at their disposal to organize groups and individuals, and to attempt to achieve their political and policy objectives. But the resources at their disposal, and the context in which they use these resources, make consistent success difficult to achieve.

6.4 Organize Your Precinct

The old political saw that "all politics is local" (attributed to former Speaker of the U.S. House Thomas "Tip" O'Neill, Jr.) points to the importance of local issues and organization for political success. Political parties that do not have effective local organization risk being cut off from the electorate and losing elections.

The precinct is the smallest administrative political unit, composed of anywhere from 50 to 3000 registered voters. Organizing a precinct involves grassroots, person-to-person, face-to-face contact. Party members working at the precinct level connect the district and state-level party organizations to the membership, and connect the individual members to each other.

The first step to organizing your precinct is contacting and getting to know your precinct chairman. Your county party will have his or her contact information. If you don't have a precinct chairman, you might consider running for this position yourself. Your county party can also tell you how to run for that elected office. This chapter's feature on Organizing Your Precinct provides tips on precinct organizing.

6.5 Serve as an Election Judge

Election judges preside over polling places to ensure ballot security. Each July, the county commissioner's court appoints a presiding and alternate judge for each general election precinct. Your county chairman must submit the list of nominees.

For the primary election, the county chair (with the approval of the county executive committee) appoints all election judges and their alternates. In turn, the election judges recruit and appoint their own clerks for their precincts.

6.6 Talk Politics

Last but not least, you can support your party just by communicating, either talking to your neighbors, writing letters to the editor or opinion articles in your local newspaper, or e-mailing friends. With the explosion of electronic media there are numerous, additional channels through which your voice can be heard. You can join electronic chat-rooms, post messages on electronic bulletin boards, or communicate via Internet Messaging (IM).

If you're more ambitious, you and your like-minded local party members could even set up a Web site at relatively low cost to gather resources and exchange ideas regarding the issues and politics of the day. Such sites are becoming much more common as people with political interests take advantage of cheap or even free Web hosting services and weblog ("blog") software.

7. The Future of Party Politics in Texas

We close our discussion of Texas political parties by examining briefly four sources of dynamism in the state that will continue to cause changes in patterns of party allegiance among Texans. These areas are:

  • split-ticket voting
  • party identification trends
  • demographic patterns
  • the organizational strength of the parties
7.1 Split-ticket voting

Changes in split-ticket voting in Texas reflect the steady increase in party competition in the state from the top to the bottom of the ballot. A voter "splits a ticket" when he or she chooses Republicans for some offices, Democrats for other offices, and perhaps members of another party for yet other offices.

Split ticket voters in Texas traditionally have been likely to vote Republican for national offices (Presidency and Vice-Presidency) and Democrat for state-level offices. This national-state pattern assumed more of a state-local character during the 1990s. Voters might choose a Republican for Governor or other statewide office, but vote for Democrats for other offices farther down on the ballot, especially their district's member of the Texas House of Representatives.

Republican control of state government and the resulting influence of the Republican Party have undermined even this lingering Democratic advantage. The election of a Republican majority in the Texas House in the 2002 elections, despite an earlier redistricting that protected many incumbents, signaled that Republican gains in the state were eroding traditional Democratic advantage, particularly in rural areas. The subsequent redrawing of legislative maps in 2003 and the continuing decline in Democratic party identification put an end to the Democratic dominance that had long been a feature of Texas politics. Democrats rebounded with victories in state legislative districts with changing demographics in 2006 and 2008, buoyed by high Democratic turnout in the presidential election. But the Republican advantage in party identification remains a significant obstacle for Democrats in the current political environment.

7.2 Trends in Party Identification

Trends in party identification - that is, the changing distribution of party allegiances in the electorate - will also influence the extent to which the Republican Party continues to gain ground at the Democrats' expense.

This chapter's feature on Party Identification in Texas shows significant change from 1978 to 1990 in the percentage of Texans that identify with one party or another. The percentage of those who identified themselves as Democratic declined from 48 to 34 percent, while those who identified themselves as Republican rose dramatically from 19 to 33 percent. The number of independents, meanwhile, stayed consistent at about 33 percent. This data confirms one simple reason Republicans have made dramatic electoral gains during this period: a larger percentage of citizens consider themselves Republican than at earlier times.

Polling conducted in October, 2012 by the University of Texas at Austin in conjunction with the Texas Tribune revealed a roughly evenly divided electorate in terms of party identification. The numbers of self-identified registered voters who identified as either Republican or Democratic were nearly even, though somewhat more independents said they leaned Republican (15%) than said they leaned Democrat (10%). The overall number of independents was 12% -- returning us to the neighborhood of independent number in the historical data from recent years.

Party identification data reveal the existence of this sizable pool of independents, roughly a third of the electorate, that the major parties might be able to tap into. However, the size of this group hasn't changed significantly since the 1970s, and there are no compelling reasons to think that either party will be able to develop long-term party loyalists from this group. Independents will remain up for grabs during every electoral cycle.

7.3 Demographics

The Texas population has become increasingly diverse over the past decade as the result of new immigration, primarily from Latin America and Asia, and natural growth of the existing minority populations.

Intense political attention has been focused on Texas Latinos, whose share of the population (and the potential electorate) is growing and is expected to keep growing in the near future. This chapter's feature on Demographics of Race and Ethnicity in Texas illustrates the increase in Latino numbers in the state between the last two national censuses, 1990 and 2000. According to these census data, Hispanics and Latinos constitute almost one-third of the Texas population, and those of Mexican descent constitute almost one-quarter.

Though Mexican Americans and (to a lesser extent) Latinos have voted strongly in favor of Democratic candidates, leaders of both parties speak frequently of the importance of Latino voters to the future of politics in the state. Democrats prioritize increasing voter turnout among Latino voters and cementing their traditional allegiance to Democratic candidates. Republicans have emphasized attempting to recruit Latino candidates and finding ways to woo at least some Latino voters away from the Democrats. Even amidst the Republican resurgence of past two decades, former Governor Bill Clements made a public appeal to fellow Republicans for greater attention to Latino voters in an editorial in 1998 in the Corpus Christi Caller-Times:

Hispanics must have an important role in the future of the Republican Party of Texas. If they don't, in a few years when people talk of minorities, they won't be talking about Hispanics. They'll be referring to Texas Republicans. [7]

The problem for Republicans is that Latinos have tended to identify with the Democratic Party. Any attraction that Latinos might have for the Republicans will be tempered by the influence of the conservative wing of the party, whose policy positions have historically held little appeal for Latino voters. Ideological conflicts between Republican moderates and conservatives have been reinforced by differences in outreach strategies. As the reality of demographic changes set in during the late 1990s, part of what defined many Republicans as moderates was an emphasis in both rhetoric and policy toward increasing the party's appeal to Latinos and other ethnic and racial minorities. Conservatives in the party, however, have been focused on other issues that either do not speak directly to the concerns of Latinos and minorities, or are sometimes hostile to the concerns of these ethnic groups.

For their part, Democrats cannot assume that the Latino population will continue to provide a reliable base of support. Critics, both among Latino activists and elsewhere, frequently argue that the Democratic Party often neglects Latino constituencies, sometimes taking Latino support for granted. They predict that this neglect will hurt at the polls, as some Latinos experiment with supporting Republican candidates or otherwise choose to disengage - declining to join the party organization or simply not voting. Such criticisms form part of a larger critique attributing the Democratic decline over the past two decades to the party's overconfidence and failure to maintain organizational strength in the state.

7.4 Organizational Strength

While demographic changes will affect the party system profoundly over the long term, organization, unity, and quality of candidates will be critical to the parties' success over the short- and medium-term. Strong statewide leadership from officeholders, candidates, and party activists that provides strategic focus, consistency, and unity in the ranks will have a significant impact.

The parties' organizational efficiency and effectiveness are rarely considered by the general public, as the party organizations function largely out of view of television cameras and audiences at political rallies. But the "party as organization" plays a critical role in the fortunes of a political party. The precinct captains, county chairs, state chairs, workers at party headquarters, communications officers, and other party activists all have roles in enabling parties to remain viable in the eyes of potential supporters and voters. Money has to be raised and allocated, rooms reserved, bills paid, letters and e-mails sent, Web sites maintained, voters informed and helped to the polls, and a thousand other routine tasks completed.

The parties' financial conditions provide one indication of organizational health. The Republican ascendancy in Texas has been accompanied by an advantage in fundraising and by better overall financial health. Republicans in the state, as at the national level, have enjoyed a consistent advantage in raising campaign funds. As the Democratic Party's electoral fortunes declined, the party also sank into debt and operated in the red for eighteen years, until finally retiring its debt in 2002. [8] The Republican Party has not experienced such financial difficulties.

Leadership poses a much more difficult organizational advantage to measure precisely. Nevertheless, the Republican stranglehold on statewide elected offices since 2000 gives that party a distinct leadership advantage and deprives the Democrats of important means for communicating with the media and with statewide audiences. Executive leaders with a statewide constituency and with the advantages of incumbency are able to establish their names and identities with the public. Legislators have some access to media, but because they are elected in specific geographic districts, their ability to exercise leadership in the name of their political party is more limited.

The Republican Party's recent successes thus give them a sustained advantage over the Democrats for the near future. Elected officeholders from the Governor down to local judgeships will continue to represent the successful face of the Republican Party. This advantage in office-holding will continue to be a powerful support for an already well-funded, ascendant Republican Party.

Nothing guarantees that the organizational advantages recently enjoyed by Republicans will be permanent. In fact, like the Democrats before them, the Republicans are finding that organizational unity is harder to maintain when your party is dominant. The 81st Legislative session in 2009 started off with a fight over the office of Speaker of the House. Several Republicans came forward to try to replace the previous speaker Republican Tom Craddick, including Joe Strauss who eventually came out on top. The 2010 election cycle saw significant gains by Republicans, but was also marked by divisions between moderate and more conservative members and so called "tea party" candidates. Both Republicans and Democrats must struggle to prevent internal conflict from consuming party resources, sending conflicting messages about the parties' positions to voters and activists, and alienating supporters and contributors.

8. Conclusion

Political parties play a number of critical functions and provide unrivaled mechanisms for political organization and representation. Parties are frequently criticized for either fostering partisanship and providing a forum for ideologues or, conversely, for lacking coherent vision. These criticisms both ring true, but in isolation provide only a partial understanding of the roles and evolution of the Texas party system.

The struggle between moderates and more ideologically driven members provides part of the dynamism that helps parties evolve over time and maintain their central role in the state's political system. Whatever the criticisms leveled at them, political parties provide a critical mechanism for citizens of varying interests and means to associate with others, to pool their resources and to attempt to influence institutions at all levels of government. Throughout the history of the Lone Star State, diverse interests (and coalitions of interests) have used political parties as vehicles for participating in politics and influencing government.

The pattern of successive party systems in Texas closely resembles that seen in other states of the old Confederacy, except with a healthy dollop of uniquely Texas flavoring. A Democratic Party long ruled by moderates and conservatives succeeded in stunting what seemed like the natural growth of a successful Republican Party until the 1990s. Since then, various forces have contributed to the growth of the Republicans, and eventually, to a remixing of the core membership of each party.

Most recently, the state has seen the development of a dominant Republican Party that doesn't (yet) hold quite the stranglehold the Democrats enjoyed through most of the twentieth century. The Republican Party has certainly benefited from the defection of former Democrats, the influx of Republicans and independents from out of state, and organizational difficulties in the Democratic Party. As a result, Republican officeholders dominate state government, and Democrats find themselves reduced, for the present, to the status of an embattled minority party seeking to reestablish themselves among their voting and financial constituencies.

Is this newfound Republican dominance just the beginning of a new durable party system, or are we in a state of transition in which the terms of political competition are still in flux? If it is a new party system, just how durable will it be? At the moment, it seems that Republican dominance of state government will continue for a number of years; however, the pace of social and economic change in the state has accelerated considerably from the time when moderate and conservative Democrats could count on a stable base of support. Consequently, Republican dominance is unlikely to have the lifespan of the century-long Democratic hegemony.

Texas Politics:
© 2009, Liberal Arts Instructional Technology Services
University of Texas at Austin
3rd Edition - Revision 115
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