One of the people who steered Texas from a one-party Democratic state to a one-party Republican state sees some similarities between the Republican Party of the 1970s and 1980s and the Democrats of today.
Wayne Thorburn does not think Texas Democrats are ready to take back the state — not yet. But he does see some cautionary signs for his party in the Democrats’ fall.
Thorburn was executive director of the Republican Party of Texas from 1977 to 1983 — a period that saw both the 1978 election of the state’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction and the 1982 election that wiped out almost all of the Republican gains to that date. The 1982 election was the last time that Democrats swept the statewide elections in Texas.
He believes the Republicans were in better political condition when they began making serious inroads than the Democrats are today. Back then, the moderates among the Democrats — they were derided as conservatives — were increasingly out of ideological sync with Democrats on the national ticket. Texas has not sided with the Democratic presidential candidate since 1976. While Republicans then were gradually increasing turnout for their primary elections, Democrats today are seeing declining turnout for their primaries.
He does see some parallels. For instance, when the Democrats controlled the state, their infighting created an opportunity for John Tower, a Republican college professor, to win Lyndon B. Johnson’s former seat in the U.S. Senate in 1961. These days, infighting among Republican factions is common and often bitter; still, Democrats have not been able to crack the statewide blockade.
Thorburn does not believe that poses an immediate threat to the title of his book, Red State: An Insider’s Story of How the GOP Came to Dominate Texas Politics.
“Even though Tower broke the ice in 1961, it was not until 17 years later that Republicans were able to win,” he said. It took the better part of two more decades to reach a Republican sweep of statewide elections in 1996.
“If the Democrats are hoping that Wendy Davis or the Castros — that that, in and of itself, will turn this state blue or purple, that’s just not what happens,” he said, referring to the current Democratic candidate for governor and the prominent San Antonio twins. “Republicans had been building up an infrastructure of candidates and supporters, and there were more of them than the Democrats have now.”
Texas Democrats currently maintain some geographical strongholds along the state’s southern border and in most of the big urban counties. Republicans command rural Texas and — critically — the suburbs. That has been enough to control statewide elections.
In his book, he writes that straight-ticket voting — where voters pull a lever for one party or another instead of picking and choosing candidates race by race — accounted for 61.4 percent of the vote in 2012, and that 55.9 percent of those straight-ticket votes were cast for Republican candidates.
He compiled straight-ticket voting data from 112 of the state’s 254 counties — those where at least 7,500 votes were cast in the 2012 elections. Democrats outnumbered Republicans by 153,148 in the six biggest counties in Texas, but were swamped in suburban, smaller urban and rural counties. By his count, the straight-ticket Republicans outdid the Democrats by 551,975 votes overall in that election.
“The Democrats are always going to have a strong presence,” Thorburn said, “but you put all of that together, and you’re still a half a million votes short.”
Thorburn is not crowing, and he does not appear to be losing any sleep over the rise of Texas Democrats. It is a slow process. Local elections around the state have been going his party’s way — an indication, he thinks, of a strong farm team and of a local political infrastructure.
Democrats have pinned much of their hopes this year on Battleground Texas, a well-financed operation founded by veterans of Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns to turn Texas into a place where it is possible for a Democrat to beat a Republican in a statewide election.
Thorburn is decidedly skeptical about their chances, particularly in the 2014 elections. But he knows from his own experience that it is possible with a sustained effort.
“Six to eight years,” he said this week. “That’s probably the range.”