OF COURSE WE’RE ALL GOING to wake up on November 8 to discover that Rick Perry will be our governor for another four years. But the incumbent was polling at 35 percent in late summer, and unless he uncorks a big homestretch sprint against independent Richard “Kinky” Friedman, Republican-turned-independent Carole “Grandma” Strayhorn, and Democrat Chris “No Nickname, No Chance” Bell, his victory will be one of historic proportions. That’s because Perry is in danger of eclipsing the record currently held by Democrat Dolph Briscoe for the lowest winning percentage in any Texas gubernatorial race since the nineteenth century.
Briscoe’s 48 percent plurality in the 1972 election (which similarly featured an effective third-party challenge) marked the beginning of the end for the century-long hegemony of Texas Democrats: Six years later, Briscoe was succeeded by Bill Clements, the first Republican governor since Reconstruction. So it isn’t illogical to ask if something equally seismic is building beneath our state’s Permanent Republican Majority, which until recently seemed destined to endure many election cycles into the future. Perhaps this wacky four-way governor’s race is less a freak of nature than evidence that the tectonic plates of Texas politics are again in motion, an early warning of major quakes to come. And if that’s true, this improbable campaign season may well mark the beginning of the end for one of the most venerable traditions in Texas politics: one-party rule.
That’s not because Texas Democrats are poised for a return to power, any more than the independents are ready for prime time. But if Friedman and Strayhorn are at best long shots against the major parties’ get-out-the-vote machines, they’ve each bested Bell in a number of polls and, taken as a package deal (just think of them as One Kinky Grandma), have even outpolled the governor. Meanwhile, with the independents rising, the Texas GOP has been perfecting the politics of self-destruction. It’s not just the widely observed ideological arrogance and relentless internal litmus testing that already threaten its four-year-old permanent majority. With astonishing heedlessness, Texas Republicans are rushing to repeat the fatal errors of the once unassailable political franchise that preceded theirs. The real and present danger to the Texas GOP is its apparent determination to line up on the same side of history—the wrong side—as the Texas Democrats who went down the tubes before it.
How the Democrats went wrong is a long, sad story, but even an abridged version tells us a lot about the shifting paradigms in today’s Texas politics. After the Civil War, Texas Democrats were apoplectic over what they saw as a vast Yankee conspiracy to enfranchise freed slaves and bring the state into the Industrial Age. As soon as they had reclaimed the state government from Republican carpetbaggers and scalawags, the unrepentant ex-Confederates who led the state party wrote and ratified the minimalist 1876 state constitution, still in creaky, much-amended effect today. Vehemently anti-government, anti-industry, and anti-black, the new constitution was seen as a restoration of antebellum agrarian values against the corrupting influence of the modernizing, commerce-minded North. Having lost one war, Texas Democrats essentially declared another with the 1876 constitution, a hundred years’ war against the future.
During the early decades of the twentieth century, Texas Democrats made a cursory accommodation of progress, as banks and railroads were regulated and women allowed to vote. But the dominant Texas lifestyle was little better than serfdom, as hundreds of thousands of landless tenant farmers and sharecroppers lived from crop to crop, their numbers growing every year. The misery was color-blind, but power was for whites only: Texas Democrats bookended the nation’s Progressive Era with an anti-minority poll tax in 1902 and the scandalous “white primary” law of 1923, which banned blacks from voting in the Democratic primary, effectively disenfranchising them entirely in a one-party state. By 1930 Democrats still ruled a rural, agricultural state that remained as white, racist, and, despite newfound oil wealth, as desperately impoverished as it had been in the 1870’s. The war with the future seemed to have become a rout.
The turnaround began with the Great Depression. Texas Democrats accepted the vast expansion of federal largesse that saved the economy, but, states’ righters to the core, they fumed about the expansion of federal power that enabled the New Deal. Regardless of their protests, by 1950 the future had gained on Texas with a vengeance: Almost overnight we had become an urban state with burgeoning cities and a booming manufacturing sector spurred by World War II and Cold War defense spending. Yet the emerging pillars of national Democratic power—the urban “liberal elite,” organized labor, and minorities—had already become the axis of evil to the state party. Urban professionals were largely abandoned to the vestigial Texas Republican party; organized labor was thwarted by a series of anti-strike and right-to-work laws that had been passed by Texas Democrats in the forties; and opposing federal desegregation mandates became the Texas party’s signature issue well into the sixties. Red Scare politics also figured in a toxic mix. During the fifties Texas Democrats like Governor Allan Shivers, a race baiter who favored the death penalty for Communists, and his successor, Price Daniel Sr., conjured a unified threat to their white Christian monoculture, with Communist-controlled labor unions funding the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
During the sixties Lyndon Johnson, who had proved a master at trimming between his liberal national party and his conservative state party, brought the two into uneasy accord. It didn’t last, and LBJ’s own civil rights legislation and Great Society programs inaugurated a mass white flight from the Democratic party in Texas as well as across the South that the Republicans were all too willing to embrace. Already strong in the cities, Texas Republicans benefited as the Democrats remained a rural-dominated party. Those rural voters stuck with the party just long enough to provide Briscoe’s margin of victory over liberal Frances “Sissy” Farenthold in the hotly contested 1972 Democratic primary, but by 1978 they had defected and