Gimme a D for Texas

Texas used to run Washington. Now Bush is the latest Texas politician to be run out of Washington. The quickest path back to power may lie in accepting demographic reality.

By Mark Schone

Published January 27, 2009 1:45AM (EST)

As Time magazine notes, when George W. Bush went back to Texas last week, he found a divided state Republican Party. Well-coifed incumbent governor Rick Perry faces an intraparty challenge from Kay Bailey Hutchison, who plans to leave the U.S. Senate before the end of her current term to battle Perry for the 2010 GOP gubernatorial nomination.

What Time does not explain, however, is that Bush has returned to a state far different from the one he left eight years ago. A rapid rise in the Latino electorate promises to turn the state purple in the foreseeable future, and the Republicans have lost seats in the state legislature in each of the last three election cycles. But more importantly, having placed all its chips on the wrong party, in 2009 the state has ceded nearly all of its national influence.

For the past 80 years, no state has held more power in the federal government than Texas. Starting in the 1920s, there have been only 10 years when the Lone Star state could not claim the allegiance of either the president, the vice president, the Speaker of the House or the leadership of at least one of the two major parties in at least one of the chambers of Congress. There have been relatively fallow periods, like the years following the departure of the last two Texan presidents, LBJ and the elder Bush, from the White House. It has been nearly a century, however, since Texas has experienced the power vacuum it is feeling now that the latest Texan president has headed home. And that is almost exclusively due to the fact that Texas has become so Republican.

The state had a good run, especially in that distant era when it was monolithically Democratic. In 1929, John Nance Garner became Democratic minority leader, and then two years later, after the Republicans were hammered in the first national election during the Depression, Garner became Speaker of the House. For the next 40 years, except for two years when the most powerful Texan, Sam Rayburn, was merely minority leader of the House, Texas Democrats were either Speaker, Veep, or President; often party leaders in Congress were Texans as well. For example, Sam Rayburn was Speaker from 1940 to 1961, with two brief interruptions, while LBJ was leader of the Senate Democrats from 1953 to 1961, and whip for two years before that.

When Richard Nixon replaced LBJ as president in 1969, Texas endured a diminished status for a time. But still, George Mahon was chairman of the all-powerful House Appropriations Committee, and soon Olin Teague was chairman of the House Democratic Caucus and John Connally was secretary of the treasury. By 1973, George Bush was chairman of the RNC and Bob Strauss was head of the DNC, but the state really regained its accustomed power when Democrat Jim Wright became majority leader of the House in 1977. In 1981, George Bush became veep; six years later, Wright became Speaker, and in 1989 George Bush became president (defeating a Democratic ticket that included a Texan vice presidential candidate). Order was restored to the world, at least as viewed from Austin.

When the elder Bush lost his reelection bid -- in a general election in which Texans came in second and third, and the winner was from next-door Arkansas -- the Lone Star state again suffered a brief period of relative powerlessness. Between 1993 and 1995, Texas had to make due with Clinton adviser Paul Begala and cabinet secretaries Lloyd Bentsen and Henry Cisneros.

But Texas quickly recovered, this time by going all in with the GOP. Once a bulwark of the Democratic party, Texas began to turn deep red in the mid-'90s. In 1995, Dick Armey became House majority leader, and Tom Delay became majority whip. In 2001, George W. Bush became president. Delay, long seen as the true power behind Republican Speaker of the House Denny Hastert, took over Armey's majority leader job in 2003. When Republicans took control of the Texas state legislature, Delay helped redraw congressional lines so that the state would send even more Republicans to Congress. A delegation of 22 House members in 1959, all but one of them Democrats, had grown to 32 in 2005, 21 of them Republican. Texas again had reached a peak of power.

Since 2006, however, it's been a deepening valley. First Tom Delay lost his job. Then the Republicans lost control of Congress. Now George W. Bush is back in Texas. The most powerful Texas Republicans in Washington today are Senators Hutchison and Jon Cornyn and Rep. Pete Sessions. Hutchison was, until recently, the Senate GOP's policy chair, while Cornyn and Sessions helm the respective efforts of Republicans in the Senate and the House to reverse their fortunes, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee.

And the other problem, at least for Texas Republicans, is that the state is changing. Texas became majority minority in 2005, when whites dipped under 50 percent of the population. The surge in the Latino electorate, 20 percent of the vote in 2008 and climbing fast, is the prime factor turning the state purple again, but younger white voters and Anglo transplants are also less Republican than older whites. Experts who spoke to Salon predicted that Texas would be a presidential swing state by 2016. While a Republican just won back Tom Delay's old Congressional seat in a Democratic year, on the local level the Democratic party is already resurgent. Democrats are now within two seats of a majority in the state house; they just used their increased power to force out Speaker Tom Craddick, the arch-conservative who helped Tom Delay gerrymander the state. Democrats peeled off enough dissident GOP votes to replace Craddick with a GOP moderate. A growing population means Texas is set to add three more seats in Congress after the 2010 census, but now it's no longer clear that that's a guarantee of three more Texas Republicans in Washington.

If Texas Republicans want to hang on to power in Austin, they should probably decide the civil war within their party in favor of Kay Bailey Hutchison, and the more moderate wing of their party generally. Nominating Hutchison for governor in 2010 would probably be smarter than reupping with Rick Perry, since Hutchison appeals to suburban swing voters and Perry's base is rural and socially conservative. But if Texans of all political tribes want to reclaim the power they once held in Washington, they might need to fast forward to 2016 (or rewind to 1928), and start electing Democrats to Congress again.


Mark Schone

Mark Schone is Salon's executive news editor.

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Democratic Party George W. Bush John Cornyn R-texas Kay Bailey Hutchison R-tex. Republican Party