If Gov. Rick Perry decides to throw his hat into the presidential ring, we can expect enhanced interest in his Democratic past. His uninterrupted tenure in public office began in January 1985 as a Democratic member of the Texas House of Representatives. He served two more terms in the House, during the last of which he switched midterm to the Republican Party, before continuing his ascent up the political ladder via election as agriculture commissioner in 1990.
In the context of a potential Republican presidential primary contest, scrutiny of Perry's Democratic past revolves around the question of whether being a Democrat means that once upon a time Perry was not a conservative. Here I use methodology that has been employed for more than two decades to study the ideological location of members of the U.S. House and Senate (as well as numerous state and foreign legislatures) to shed light on Perry's location as a legislator on the liberal-conservative ideological continuum along which most voting has taken place within the Texas House. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, the analysis suggests Perry did not leave the Democratic Party so much as it left him, although compared to Reagan, Perry was (ideologically) much less of a Democrat to begin with. (An interactive graphic can be found here.)
Any discussion of the governor's political past should take into account the following context. First, in the early 1980s in rural West Texas, most if not all routes to Austin ran through the Democratic Party, a party divided into liberal and conservative factions. Second, in 1984, the Democratic Party held more than three-quarters of the seats in the Texas House, which in turn was run by a speaker (Gib Lewis of Fort Worth, 1983-93) from the party's conservative faction. Third, Perry's voting record on the House floor placed him in the conservative wing of the conservative faction of the Texas Democratic Party. Fourth, during Perry's short tenure in the House, the space within the Texas Democratic Party for politicians with conservative ideological profiles such as Perry's was rapidly disappearing. In the end, given Perry's conservative ideological position and the evolving nature of partisan politics in Texas, by 1989 Perry had but two choices if he wished to pursue a career as an elected official in Texas: change his political beliefs or change his party. He opted for the latter.
Perry began his career at a time of partisan transformation in Texas, in which a one-party system was being increasingly supplanted by a competitive two-party system. Within this transformed party system, there was increasingly less room for conservative Democrats, squeezed by Republican competition at the state level and a national Democratic Party with which they and their voters had less and less in common. Being from rural West Texas, Perry's natural route to public office was via the Democratic Party, but once in Austin he found himself a clear outlier in the party, increasingly so as time progressed.
As recently as 1965, the Texas House was composed of 149 Democrats and one Republican. From that point the proportion of Democrats began to slowly decrease (93 percent in 1971, 87 percent in 1977, 75 percent in 1983), before dropping in 1985 (the year Perry arrived in Austin) to 63%. At the time of Perry's election, the Texas Legislature could perhaps best be described as a three-party system consisting of two Democratic Party factions (liberal and conservative) and the Republican Party. In rural West Texas locales such as Perry's Haskell County, the political system was dominated by Democrats, with Republicans often not even contesting general elections at the House district and county level. Perry, for instance, faced opponents in the 1984 and 1986 Democratic primaries (winning 59 percent against two opponents in 1984 and 76 percent against one opponent in 1986), but ran uncontested in all three of his general elections. In sum, in the early 1980s, the Democratic Party continued to dominate the Texas Legislature, and in Perry's House District 64, the Democratic Party was the only game in town.
The methodology employed here (DW-NOMINATE) is a sophisticated computer program that applies a spatial voting model to the information provided by all roll call votes (those where the losing side garnered at least 2.5 percent of the vote) cast in the Texas House. It uses the vote decisions (yea or nay) made by every representative (compared to every other representative) to identify the position (the ideal point) of every Texas House member on a standardized ideological scale for each legislative period in which they served. We can compare representatives within the same legislative period, and also can compare a representative's ideological location vis-à-vis other representatives over time. The illustration provides the Liberal-Conservative (Lib-Con) Score (ranging from the theoretical liberal extreme of -1.0 to the conservative extreme of 1.0) for the representatives of the 1989-91 Texas House, with Democrats in blue and Republicans in red. Perry, who switched parties between the first and second special sessions, has two bars (in yellow) showing him as a Democrat and then as a Republican.
During Perry's first term (1985-87) in the Texas House his voting record located him as the 12th most conservative Democrat, rising to 10th in the 1987-89 session and 7th in 1989. From the very beginning, Perry was clearly a conservative outlier within his party, with his roll call voting behavior placing him in the conservative wing of the conservative faction of the Democratic Party.
Perry would have been located at the conservative end of the Democratic Party even if he had arrived in Austin a decade earlier. An examination of the combined data for the 1973-2011 period indicates that Perry's voting record (as a Democrat) was more conservative than 77 percent of Democrats who served in the 1970s.
Of the six Democrats who had more conservative voting records than Perry during the 1989-91 period, only one returned to Austin in January of 1991. Three did not run for re-election, one lost his primary to a liberal Democrat, and one was defeated in the general election while running as a Republican. The sole remaining representative (Warren Chisum of Pampa) would switch to the Republican Party in 1995. In the session following Perry's departure in 1991, there were only two Democrats with more conservative voting records than Perry (as a Democrat), and since 1997, no Democrat more conservative than Perry has served in the Texas House.
The illustration highlights Perry's location in the ultra-conservative wing of the Democratic Party, light years away ideologically from liberal Democratic colleagues such as Paul Moreno of El Paso and Senfronia Thompson of Houston. In fact, despite at times being constrained in his behavior by the need to vote the party line (resulting in a more liberal voting record than would have been the case absent the party pressure), Perry's 1989 (Democrat) Lib-Con Score is proximate to a relatively similar number of Republicans and Democrats. For example, within 0.333 of Perry's 0.287 Lib-Con Score there were 40 Democrats and 44 Republicans. By the same token, beyond 0.5 from Perry's Lib-Con Score there were 44 Democrats, but only three Republicans. In sum, even as a Democrat, Perry's ideological position on roll call votes was substantially closer to a larger proportion of Republicans than Democrats.
After participating in the regular and first special sessions of 1989 as a Democrat, in September of 1989 Perry switched parties, serving as a Republican during the second through sixth special sessions of 1989-90. Perry's switch allows us to compare his voting behavior as a Democrat and as a Republican on the same scale. Less constrained by party loyalty/discipline, Perry's location on the liberal-conservative scale moved from the conservative extreme of the Democratic Party to the middle of the pack within the Republican Party, relatively close to future Speaker (2003-09) Tom Craddick of Midland (a shift confirmed by an alternative analytic method to DW-NOMINATE, IDEAL) Perry had embarked on a partisan journey — but without ever having to leave his ideological home.
Mark P. Jones is the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy's Fellow in Political Science as well as the Joseph D. Jamail Chair in Latin American Studies and Chair of the Department of Political Science at Rice University.