Almost Blue

Is Texas about to be a Democratic state again? The fact that we’re even asking the question is a sign of how weird and unpredictable this election year has been.

Is Texas still a red state? I never thought I’d be posing that question as early as 2008, but the strength of the Democratic vote in the March 4 primary was so unexpected, so complete a departure from our recent history, that the numbers are potentially the most significant development in Texas politics in thirty years. You have to go back to 1978, when Bill Clements became the first Republican to be elected governor since Reconstruction, for an event of equivalent importance. Apparently Democrats do exist here, and in places hitherto thought to be uninhabitable by their species, such as the bedrock Republican suburbs. The discovery is akin to learning that life exists on Mars: It means that the universe is not what we thought it was.

The combined turnout for the two parties of 4,253,116 smashed the previous record of 2.7 million, set in 1988, which was the last time Texans had a chance to affect a presidential race. The primary turnout came close to matching the vote in the 2006 general election, when 4,399,116 ballots were cast in the governor’s race. This kind of participation has no precedent. Of all the numbers, though, the one that really caught people’s attention was the total vote in the Democratic primary: 2,868,454, more than double the Republican primary vote of 1,384,662.

The Democratic wave should scare Republicans to death, because it raises the specter of realignment. We have seen it happen before. For much of the twentieth century, Texas was a one-party—that is, Democratic—state. Many counties didn’t even hold Republican primaries. Conservatives routinely voted in the Democratic primary because that was the election in which local officials (judges, sheriffs, legislators) were chosen; they then voted Republican for president or governor in the general election. Demographic change, driven by economic growth, corporate relocations to the Houston and Dallas metro areas, and urban decay, set the stage for the rise of the suburbs and eventual realignment. The triggers were the election of Ronald Reagan as president, in 1980, and of Phil Gramm as U.S. senator, in

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