1996: The year the Republican Party of Texas turned hard right
Wed February 15, 2012 1:31 pm

One of the most interesting aspects of a Texas presidential primary, if there is one, will be how Mitt Romney fares. Romney is the establishment candidate. The size of the Romney vote will clarify what percentage of the state’s Republican vote is still cast by the establishment. In its early days, the Republican Party of Texas was an establishment party, in which people named Bush and Hutchison were prominent. That begin to change with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Over the next decade, social conservatives gained in strength, and the establishment began to lose its grip on the party. The tipping point came at the 1996 state convention.

The delegation to the national convention is traditionally headed by the governor of the party in power. But the convention produced a rebellion by social conservatives against Governor Bush and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison for their purported moderate views. Establishment figures were treated shabbily. Former state party chair Fred Meyer, who was largely responsible for the party’s rise to power in the 1980s, was denied delegate status to the San Diego convention. So was  Congressman Henry Bonilla. Hutchison was allowed to be an at-large delegate only after the interventions of Bob Dole, the nominee-to-be, Texas senator Phil Gramm, and state party chairman Tom Pauken. But social conservative leaders were anointed as at-large delegates, including Texas Christian Coalition leader Dick Weinhold, longtime activist Steve Hotze, State Board of Education member Donna Ballard, Eagle Forum president Cathie Adams, and Home School Coalition founder Tim Lambert. The longstanding tradition that the governor of the  party served as chairman of the state’s delegation to the national convention was ignored; the delegates rejected Bush (a compromise was reached to allow Bush to serve as honorary chairman) and installed Pauken instead. When the convention was over, the social conservatives had seized control of the party, and they continue to control it to this day.

Following the convention, Bush adviser Karen Hughes told me, “It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to.” No one understood the significance of this development better than Rick Perry. He had never been much of a social conservative before the convention, but he could read the tea leaves and has been one ever since. The shift of the Republican party in 1996 toward a conservatism that is less interested in governing than in internal doctrinal battles has been the most significant development in Texas politics over the last thirty years. It will only end when the party loses an election, and that doesn’t seem likely any time soon.

Here is what I had to say about this pivotal moment in the August 1996 issue of TEXAS MONTHLY:

THE LEGACY OF THE TUMULTUOUS Republican state convention in San Antonio is that the state GOP is headed for open warfare between its mainstream and ultraconservative factions. The defining incident of the convention was not the unsuccessful attempt by pro-life dissidents to prevent U.S. senator Kay Bailey Hutchison from becoming a delegate to the Republican National Convention in San Diego. It was the successful overthrow of Governor George W. Bush as the chairman of the Texas delegation to San Diego, in which the essential perpetrator was none other than state Republican chairman Tom Pauken.

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