Little Did We Know…

. . . that the outcome of the election for governor ten years ago between Ann Richards and George W. Bush would affect more than Texas. An oral history of the race that changed the world.
Debate and switch: The candidates meet in Dallas on October 21, 1994.

The 1994 Texas Governor’s race lived up to its billing as one of the most important in the state’s history. The matchup between the nationally popular incumbent, Ann Richards, and the son of a former president, George W. Bush, produced total Republican dominance of the state for a decade and beyond: No Democrat has won a statewide election since that year. But its impact was not limited to Texas. Bush’s victory put him on course to a presidency that has reshaped the nation’s foreign policy and altered America’s role in the world.

Ten years ago the race drew nationwide attention because it was great political theater. Richards was the saucy, white-haired wit who had famously dissed George the elder in her 1988 Democratic National Convention keynote address with the line “Poor George. He can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.” W. was the dutiful son with a famous name and an engaging grin but not much of a record in business or politics. Richards had won the governorship four years earlier by appealing to Republican voters who were turned off by the bumbling rhetoric of GOP nominee Clayton Williams. But by 1992 Republican consultant Karl Rove had seen demographic and political trends that favored Republicans, and he persuaded Bush that the race was winnable despite Richards’s personal popularity.

On Election Day, Richards received almost 100,000 more votes than she had polled in 1990, but Bush piled up half a million more votes—most of them from suburbia—than Clayton Williams had tallied, winning the race with more than 53 percent. To mark the anniversary of this historically significant campaign, I asked the main players to share their recollections of the last Battle of the Titans in Texas politics.

The Numbers

Reggie Bashur, Bush press consultant: The state of Texas liked Ann Richards, liked her a lot, liked her on the day they voted her out of office. She had an approval rating of over 50 percent. And conventional wisdom is, if an incumbent is well liked, has high “favorability”—it’s near impossible to defeat that individual. But the first poll I saw, the Texas Poll in November 1993, had Ann Richards at 47 percent and George W. Bush at 40, so he obviously was in a very competitive position, which had to do with his name and the trend of Texas becoming a Republican state.

Chuck McDonald, Richards campaign press secretary: The state undeniably had shifted to the Republican majority that is still in place today. In a lot of ways Ann had sown the seeds for her own defeat. She had aggressively [worked on] bringing all those jobs to Texas—Southwestern Bell in San Antonio, big telecom companies in North Texas, all the growth in Round Rock. The growth in suburban areas around Houston and Dallas and Fort Worth between 1990 and 1994 was phenomenal. Those people voted Republican.

Mary Beth Rogers, Richards campaign chair: I ask myself, Would any Republican have won that race or was George Bush the only Republican who could have won that race? A lesser-known figure probably would have had a little harder time, but I’m not sure [we could have won] given those demographics.

Cathy Bonner, Richards consultant: Ann Richards knew from the day Bush targeted this race that he would probably win. And she told me so. We were on a fishing trip at South Padre Island. I remember her telling me, “I don’t think this is going to be possible—to beat him.” She had an acute sense of the demographics of the state and how things had changed, what it meant to have that name behind you.

Ann Richards, governor: The name ID—that’s a huge thing to start with for a candidate. It was not just that the state itself was becoming so conservative, but the right wing and the Christian Coalition and the gun lobby were on the ascendancy nationally. You remember that year was the year that Newt Gingrich took over the Congress. It was the high point for the right wing.

Karl Rove, Bush chief strategist: The state was in the midst of a pretty phenomenal partisan shift. Starting in 1978, the dominant political dynamic has been the growth of the Republican suburbs—the overnight transformation in places like Williamson County, Collin County, and Denton County from being semirural Democratic strongholds to burgeoning sources of Republican strength. This change was also mirrored in a shift in most rural counties from Democratic to Republican, or at least competitive for Republicans.

Then, when the primary totals came in, Ann Richards got a smaller percentage of the vote than she should have as an incumbent. Which showed there was dissatisfaction with her and that it was primarily rural. You got a sense of Democrats being unhappy with her and telegraphing that by voting for another name on the ballot.

Honing the Message

Bashur: [Bush] was living in Dallas at the time, and he would come down to Austin and have meetings with policy people to get more expertise on various issues facing the state. And from that were developed the four issues of the campaign: tort reform, education reform, juvenile justice reform, and welfare reform. They were all interconnected with Bush’s basic philosophy and approach, which was more individual responsibility. He went out and got his sea legs by going into smaller towns and rural areas, getting more comfortable, more relaxed, and sharpening his presentation. That was all part of Karl’s plan.

Rove: His first campaign speeches were not seen by the press. He was playing around with language to talk about four issues. And the rhetoric was different than you would expect to hear from any typical Republican campaign. It was a broad, optimistic conservatism that naturally appealed to the center-right of Texas. It’s odd for someone talking about juvenile justice to use the word “love,” and he did.

If it’s January and you are running for governor and you go to Dallas, as we used to say, you

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