Could Texas Lose Its Solidly Republican Identity?

GOP Losing Hold On Texas Politics?
Kirk Radish/NPR

The Republican Party in Texas holds every statewide elected office, including both U.S. Senate seats, the governor's mansion and majorities in the Texas House and Senate. There's no reason to be worried, right?

Except that Indiana used to be considered safely Republican — as did Iowa, Nevada, Virginia, Colorado and North Carolina, all states won by President-elect Barack Obama last month.

Although Arizona Sen. John McCain carried Texas by a double-digit margin, some Democratic organizers believe that, with enough money and staff, the Lone Star State could be flipped. This imagined realignment would not happen immediately; it would take between two and four election cycles.

But if Democrats could flip Texas, the ramifications for the Republican Party could be traumatic, making GOP politicians vulnerable to a decades-long exile from power at the national level.

Texas GOP Vulnerabilities

Dallas Republican Rep. Jeb Hensarling is a rising young star in the U.S. House of Representatives. He was key leader in the Republican opposition to the $700 billion Wall Street bailout package. He has no wish to spend the next 20 years wasting away inside a politically marginalized party.

"We've lost the pocketbook issues, and it's part of our core identity as a party," he says. "People no longer view us as the party of fiscal responsibility. They don't view us as the party of smart government. They don't view us as the party of economic growth."

Watching the Republican brand transform from a proudly worn gold medallion into something that must be dragged around like a ball and chain has not been a pleasant experience for Hensarling. The Texas GOP has challenges on several political fronts.

First, Democrats have made significant strides with young voters over the past six years. This trend is apparent in the turnout for Republican and Democratic functions in the state. With Obama's success recruiting 20- and 30-something voters, young Republicans are vulnerable to a sense of disappointment at their much smaller numbers — sort of like watching the really fun party at the house across the street.

Hensarling knows Republicans need to do a better job nurturing and recruiting this next generation of conservatives. He understands that if you are trying to find your way politically, you ask the voters for the map.

"A lot of them are interested in competent government," he says. "They're interested in economic growth and opportunity, and they're looking for people who don't project an angry message."

How Texans View The GOP

The perception of the GOP as an angry party is a problem of both style and substance. Republican pollster David Hill began sounding the alarm on just this issue two weeks ago, when he published the results of a statewide poll of Texas voters that stunned pundits on both sides of the political aisle.

"For example, we found that Republicans are characterized as an angry party. The Republicans are characterized as a less than welcoming party," he says.

In nearly every negative category, Republicans lead Democrats by double-digit margins. Forty-three percent of Texas voters believe Republicans are arrogant, with just 15 percent saying that term applies to Democrats.

The Republican Party suffers a 23-point lead when it comes to the subject of corruption and a 24-point margin as racist. The Democratic Party, on the other hand, enjoys double-digit leads when pollsters ask about positive attributes. Democrats are considered thoughtful by more than 25 points over Republicans. Reformer, innovative, smart, fair, professional, competent, pragmatic and practical — in category after category, Democrats have the lead, and often sizable ones.

The fact that Hill is such a widely respected GOP pollster only added to the sense of Republican concern because Hill is not attacking them; he is sending a warning.

"I'm worried that a lot of Republicans have forgotten how Republican realignment occurred, and so [they] are not well-positioned to combat the Democrats making a comeback here," he says.

The poll also revealed the Texas GOP is in danger of fracturing, partly along generational lines. Emerging Republicans are less socially conservative, less ideological and more open to voting for the other party. For example, the number of traditional Republicans who believe that government spending should be strongly cut comes in at 67 percent. But only 42 percent of emerging Republicans felt the same way, a 25-point difference and sobering evidence of a split that must eventually be bridged.

A Democratic Comeback In Texas?

If there is a Democratic comeback, it's down the road.

In the here and now, Texas is dominated by the Republican Party, and the party is dominated by evangelicals. They put President George W. Bush on their back in 1994 and carried him to the governor's mansion. Then they did the same for his more conservative successor, Rick Perry.

Social conservatives decide what science books are used in public schools and what compensation can be sought in Texas courtrooms. Their influence, in other words, is widespread. They are believers, and they do not believe that the path to future political success is to water down the GOP's core conservative values.

Bill Crocker is the Republican National Committeeman in Austin.

"Show me the last time a moderate Republican campaign won nationally," he says. "I can remember all the way back to Kennedy, every time we have campaigned as a moderate we have lost, period."

But the gap between moderate and conservative Texas Republicans could be widened in an upcoming race for governor: with incumbent Rick Perry running against U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.

It would be the first time in history a U.S. senator has challenged a sitting governor from the same party. Social conservatives will trend to Perry, and economic and moderate conservatives to Hutchison.

Even though the election is two years away, Perry's staff has already begun characterizing Hutchison as a hopelessly compromised Washington politician. Hutchison's staff responds that the Texas governor is an antagonistic ideologue whose strident positions stand in the way of effective government in Austin.

Harvey Kronberg, editor of the Texas political journal The Quorum Report, says nobody knows how the GOP would emerge from such a contest. But he knows that the way the Democrats have eaten into the Republican majority in the Texas House is real cause for Republican concern.

"There are a lot of signals. The easiest signal to understand is, in the last three elections, Republican numbers in the Texas House of Representatives have dropped from 88 to 76. They are now down to a one-vote majority, and that's all happened in the last six years," he says.

And off in the distance is the sound of marching Hispanic feet, like Santa Anna's Army just beyond the horizon. The growth of the Hispanic electorate in Texas is 1 to 2 percent per election cycle, and the building of the border wall in the Rio Grande Valley, combined with hot anti-illegal immigrant rhetoric, has only helped Democrats with this group of voters.

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