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.
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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.
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 gotta run naked down Main Street in order to get good coverage. But if you go to Palestine, they’ll write you up in the paper. They’ll have you on the radio. I grant you there is a utility to this. The media glare is not on you and you can refine what you say and you can become a more polished candidate. [Voters] develop a sense of who you are. Particularly if they think they already know a lot about you by the fact that you’re the son of the former president.
McDonald: For six months [Bush] just went to Sweetwater and every little town in the state, itty-bitty places, making a stump speech. I assigned John Hannah III to go to all his events and tape-record them so we would get him saying something we could exploit as far as contradicting himself or not being able to answer questions. It was a gigantic wasted effort. He had his note cards, and he would show up and make his speech. There was no deviation. There wasn’t a new sentence. He would greet John, and they’d say hi to each other and joke around. Then he would get up and make his speech, and it would never change. It was a good strategy. Why kill yourself like we were doing and write the Gettysburg Address for every dadgum town you go to? You got a speech, you say you’re against crime and for education, and you go to the next town. It’s pretty simple.
Bonner: In communication, it’s called “bridging”: No matter what question is asked, you bridge to what you want to say. And so you could ask him about leadership in Texas and he would go right to putting juveniles in jail. It didn’t matter what was asked by the press or by others, he would bridge to the four messages he had.
And our candidate would try to explain how to make a watch instead of tell you what time it is. She didn’t want to leave it at soundbites. She had a lot of experience. She wanted people to understand why tying the lottery to education would create problems for education. Well, the voters didn’t want to hear that. He made it an issue to tie it to education, and she wanted to explain why that was a bad policy.
Richards: Remember, I wasn’t just a candidate. I was a governor and appropriately, I think, preoccupied with being governor. I had a job to do. I naively thought if you did a good job as governor and had the approval of the citizens that they would want to put you back.
Don Sipple, Bush media consultant: We thought the smart move for Richards to make would be for her to come after us early. It might have altered the race. We had done some focus-group testing of our ads where there was some initial skepticism about Bush as governor. So we thought, “If we can get those issues ads under our belt before she comes after us, then we are in this race to stay.” Once we got through three ads, we reached the point where he was a legitimate contender.
McDonald: We were hesitant to go out there and really aggressively portray his weaknesses in spring and summer. We probably should have done that. If you start off, as you do in Texas, with more people voting for the Republican than the Democrat, the only way to win is to convince people, first, not to vote for the Republican, and then, step two, “Here’s why it’s okay to vote for me.” We thought we had to make people comfortable with the job she had done, and that wasn’t good enough. Later in the campaign, we wanted to use his failed business career to make people realize that he was not very accomplished in any regard, that he didn’t merit being elected governor. And frankly, it didn’t take hold.
Bonner: It was very hard to get Ann to project why she wanted to be governor for four more years. You couldn’t say, “These are the three reasons she should be governor.” I’m not sure Ann Richards really wanted, deep in her heart and soul, to spend four more years as governor. I think there was a yearning not to do that job again. She felt like she had to run for everybody else’s sake.
Richards: I know there’s some kind of psychobabble out there [about whether she really wanted to be governor]. No, I put everything I had into it.
I thought the campaign was dispiriting because I never thought we got traction. We spent too much time telling people what we had done and not enough time telling them what we were going to do.
Rogers: They ran a stealth campaign in East Texas. It was on guns. It came out in flyers on cars at churches, in radio spots on small rural stations. It was an underground campaign: “She’s gonna take away your gun.” She had vetoed a concealed handguns bill. [The stealth campaign] was aimed at the Democratic base, or what was left of it. Where we thought we still had traditional yellow-dog Democrats—those East Texas counties—she lost them to Bush.
Gays was another one of those East Texas issues. They had no hesitation playing it—never in the mainstream media, but there was always that undercurrent. There was always someone to do the dirty work, little front groups. It is a tactic that they have carried through to this day. Richards: It was huge. I had no idea it was going on. They started a below-the-radar whisper campaign that there were people who worked for me in the governor’s office who weren’t married, and because they weren’t married, they were probably gay, and then the next step was, well, maybe if they were gay, maybe I was too. I saw the piece of material they were putting on windshields of automobiles in parking lots of right-wing churches that showed a black man and a white man kissing each other, with the message “This is what Ann Richards wants to teach your children in the public schools.” It was a key part of their campaign, and I was just flabbergasted by it. My God, I’d been married thirty years! I had four children!
Rove: I think what she had done on guns and gays had already had the influence that it was going to have before the campaign began. When she touted, “I’m appointing this person to the funeral commission because they’re gay,” that offended some people. It was not the fact that the gay person was on there. It was that she was touting the fact that being gay somehow qualified them to be on the funeral commission. I think the gun issue and generally her lack of cultural connection with East Texas—she didn’t connect well with them—were problems of her own creation, not ours. Richards: We had funeral parlors in the state that were refusing to bury people who’d died of AIDS. It was an issue of some significance, so we appointed a man whose partner had AIDS to the funeral commission. It was a very serious problem at the time.
Rogers: It’s much easier to be a challenger than an incumbent, because your stance as an incumbent is pretty much defensive. I think the campaign against Ann started the day she took office. With Karen Hughes as the spokesperson for the Republican party, there were relentless attacks, so we were always fighting that rearguard battle. It just started immediately. We had so many open-records requests that we had to hire somebody to stand at the copy machine. It was an onerous burden.
McDonald: We had that bad moment in September when it was reported in the press that she called Bush a jerk. We were going to have this education rally, and we had to get teachers there, and we really wanted the press there. It was a hugely high-stress event, and it all came together. We ended up with a gigantic crowd of teachers and a great press contingent—unfortunately.
I lost this fight with the press. She didn’t call George Bush a jerk. All the teachers were whooping and hollering, and she said, “You know how it is. You are working your tail off and doing a good job and then some jerk comes along and tells you it’s not good enough.” And everybody goes, “Whoooo!!” to the rafters. She was talking about the people who say Texas education isn’t good enough. It wasn’t too hard to make the leap to say she called him a jerk.
Rove: I thought it said, “We are totally inside her brain. She’s totally focused on us. She’s not focused on her agenda, on her mission.” That gave us the freedom to stay focused on the four big issues.
There were constant moments on the campaign where it was clear she was totally reacting to us. When she went to East Texas and made those comments over there—the “jerk”—I thought, “Way to go. Absolutely way to go. Thank you so much.”
Joe Allbaugh, Bush campaign manager: I walked with him backstage, and it was the first time Governor Richards and he had met, and he was very gracious, and she said—to this day, I can’t get over this. I think she was just trying to psych him out—she said, “Are you ready for this, boy? This is going to be rough on you.”
One question was “Governor, what is your vision for Texas?” [She said,] “Well, I wanna give teachers a pay raise.” And that’s all she said. Well, hell, everybody wants to give teachers a pay raise. I still am dumbfounded by that response. It revealed something to me, that they had basically played their cards. It was a signal to me that it was over, and that night was not rough on George W. Bush by any measure at all.
Rove: First they turned to Richards, and she made an opening statement about the horrific flooding in Houston, and Bush said, “Well spoken, Governor.” Complimenting her. That showed such confidence and comfort, that he was capable of complimenting a competitor. She couldn’t shake him. He stayed focused.
Rogers: I felt like Ann was superb—that she had made her case for what she had done, she had made her case for what she wanted to do in the future, she was gracious, she was charming, and she looked beautiful. He had a couple of answers that were kind of stupid, but that’s not how it played. Immediately afterward, everybody was spinning, and I realized that the press was in awe of Bush because he didn’t make a major mistake. He didn’t do what his dad did and look at his watch. So people thought, “This guy’s not so bad. There’s nothing scary about him.” After the debate, he came off looking like a knight in shining armor. That’s not what I thought watching the debate, but by the time I went to bed that night, I knew.
Rove: The day before the election, we were in the car and we started joking, and I started making imaginary phone calls to all those people who had sat on the sidelines and said “I’m with you” and then popped up on the other side or who had taken cheap shots. Everybody chimed in. The candidate, Karen and me, and [finance chairman] Don Evans were just rolling by the time we finished making imaginary phone calls to all the people we wanted closure with in the campaign.
Election night was extraordinary. I think [Bush’s] first reaction was one of accepting an enormous responsibility. And then there was joy. He called his dad to share the news, and he literally was standing in the bathroom of his hotel room in order to be able to hear his dad and to tell him he was winning. His dad was getting bad news from Florida about Jeb losing his race, so it was a mixture of family pride and anguish.
Rogers: I think we knew how it was going the last ten days of the campaign. It didn’t stop us from doing everything we possibly could. It’s devastating to lose a race like that. You put your heart and soul into it. It was a real hard loss. You have to come to terms with the things you can’t control and the things you can control. Until the demographics begin shifting again—as they are going to, but we’re not there yet—Texas is pretty much a Republican state.