One-Party Rule Has Never Been That Simple In Texas

Feb 27, 2018

Texas has been a one-party state for a long time.

The state was ruled by Democrats for decades after Reconstruction, with only a brief moment of purpleness in the late ’80s-early ’90s before Republicans took over. But, of course, one-party rule is never as simple as just one party in charge of everything. That one party always splinters.

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Back when Texas was blue, the state was controlled by liberal Democrats and conservative Democrats. Now we’ve got conservative Republicans versus extremely conservative Republicans.

Mark Jones, a political science fellow at Rice University, says the history of one-party rule under Democrats can be seen in the GOP now.

“We’ve seen the Republican Party take on many of the attributes that the Texas Democratic Party had during the era of a one-party state,” Jones said.

The divide between conservative and more conservative Republicans has led to plenty of disagreements among party leadership and elected officials. Many of the public battles have come in the Texas House. Members of the Freedom Caucus, a collection of about a dozen hard-right lawmakers, have taken every opportunity to attack the conservative credentials of House Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) and any other Republican who doesn’t support the group’s priorities.

That fight led to the State Republican Executive Committee censuring Straus in January for his actions to block some of the governor’s priorities, including the so-called bathroom bill, which would have restricted restroom access for transgender people.

The censure had no effect on Straus, who had announced in October that he would not run for re-election. The move could have been a signal to Republicans candidates, however, to stay away from Straus and any campaign money he might pass out.

But the divide goes beyond Straus and the Freedom Caucus. Gov. Greg Abbott has also jumped into the fray by throwing his support behind three state House candidates who are running against GOP incumbents. Jones says it’s common for governors to give opinions in a primary race, but only when it’s an open seat.  

“It’s not all that common for a governor to step into a primary where they’re effectively challenging an incumbent,” he said. “It’s occured in the past in Texas in the era of Democratic dominance.”

So there’s another instance of Republicans acting like Democrats under single-party rule. Does that mean a reckoning is coming for the GOP? Will that party eventually fall apart like Democrats did in the ’80s?

That’s a good question, and one that I’m not about to answer. But I will offer up a few things that would need to happen for the state to turn purple on the way to blue.

I’m not talking about getting new voters to the polls – that’s a trend Democrats have been waiting for for decades. I’m talking about whether a middle-of-the-road Republican decides to vote for a Democrat.

One thing that needs to happen for a Republican to change voting habits is for that voter to feel like the party no longer represents his or her interests. There were instances of that during the 2016 presidential election, when lifelong Republicans didn’t vote for Donald Trump.

That’s Step 1: Stop voting for the Republican. But Democrats need Step 2: Decide to vote for a Democrat.

Jones says voters select candidates who more closely align with their world view. So let’s take the governor’s race. For Republicans to support someone other than Abbott in November (he’s expected to win the GOP nomination easily) they’d need to feel more closely aligned with another candidate. Jones says you can see that calculation being debated in the Democratic primary between former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez and Houston businessman Andrew White.

“The Lupe Valdez strategy is more identity politics,” he says. “That is, get younger Anglo millenials on your side, ramp up the Latino turnout, and win a larger share of the Latino vote, and that’s the way that you return to majority status.

“The Andrew White strategy is more along the lines of doing some of that, but also trying to give moderate Republicans an alternative on the Democratic side that they view as closer to them than the movement conservative side of their party.”

So maybe the bigger question is not whether Republicans will vote for Democrats in November, but whether Democrats will select any middle-of-the-road candidates in March.

Got questions about the primaries? Send them to KUT’s TXDecides project.

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