There’s a good case to be made that Texas’s 1994 gubernatorial election is the most consequential event in the state’s modern history. On November 8, George W. Bush defeated Democrat Ann Richards by 7.6 points, launching a genial one-and-a-half-term governorship that set the table for a much less genial presidency. Texas is one of those places that has an unsettling ability to tilt the world on its axis. In 1994 the state gave the globe a little kick; the resulting wobbles jostled pretty much every continent—and then set off earthquakes back at home.
This was not clear at the time, of course; Richards’s loss looked less like a reversal of fortune than a confirmation that the state was already trending Republican. It was her 1990 campaign, which elevated Richards to the Governor’s Mansion, that was the anomaly. At the time Texas was turning right, and Richards hailed from the Democratic Party’s liberal wing, which had traditionally taken a back seat to its conservative faction. The stage was set for a Republican rout.
But the GOP nominated a terrible candidate, Clayton Williams, who joked about rape and famously refused to shake Richards’s hand after their debate. Swing voters revolted against him, and Texas elected, for the first time in many decades, an avowedly progressive governor.
The celebrations didn’t last long. Richards made some serious missteps during her tenure in office, and she didn’t have much room for error. The Texas Democratic Party was already in tatters, and the 1994 election cycle was one of the national party’s worst ever. Bill Clinton’s unpopularity and a newfound Republican ardor were about to wipe out generations of Democratic lawmakers across the South.
In Texas the warning signs were all there, and the Democratic Party’s bench of senior statesmen were either heading for the exit or on the verge of getting fired. In 1993 this magazine reported that, at a meeting of the Republican caucus of the Texas House, the crowd was asked who wanted to run for statewide office. A “legion” of hands went up. The Texas Democratic Party had become a rotten edifice, and all that was needed was for someone to kick down the door once and for all.
But did it have to be that guy? Accounts of the race at the time were skeptical. Dubya was young, handsome, and the heir to his father’s political network, but if he hadn’t been the former president’s son, he would have been a nobody. It’s startling, when rewatching the 1994 gubernatorial debate, to hear W. introduced as “general partner of the Texas Rangers,” which seemed to mean a moneyman who had reliably good seats.
In his early years, he was a mostly failed oilman in West Texas.
Later, he helped put investors together to buy the Rangers and build a new stadium, which was offered as the cornerstone example of his leadership ability. It would be hard to imagine a thinner résumé for the governor of one of the nation’s biggest states.
Bush tended to misspeak. He didn’t seem to know all that much about state government. At his debate with Richards, an audience member asked the candidates what was the most important issue facing Texas. Education, said Richards. Bush responded with a concentrated dose of focus-grouped, mid-nineties culture-war conservatism: “The biggest thing Texas must do is to end the post–Vietnam War syndrome that blames others for society’s ills”—a strange line coming from a man who ducked the Vietnam draft.
He would bolster a culture of “responsibility” in two ways, he said; he would cut welfare and crack down on juvenile crime. Mothers receiving government benefits would have to attend “parenting schools” and be disincentivized from having more children. He would change the law so that children as young as fourteen could be tried as adults. At a campaign event with criminal-justice officials, Bush touted his hard-line plan, expecting applause. One audience member objected: these kids needed help more than jail. Bush snapped, telling the crowd that only “punishment” would “win the war” on crime.
The 1994 election was a watershed moment not because it helped solidify the GOP’s inevitable control over Texas. That ship had sailed; the party would have ascended even if Bush had never run for office. Nor was it notable because Bush accomplished all that much. He governed Texas with a light hand; Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock, a Democratic insider, ran the trains. W. signed bills he agreed with. It was a happy arrangement. If he had retired from politics after two terms, he would be fondly but little remembered, about the same way that Governor Bill Clements is today.
No, what was important about the 1994 election was that it set Bush up to lead the nation. And it was the successes (and failures) of his presidency that changed Texas. After 9/11, the nation rallied around the flag, with W. scoring the highest presidential approval ratings ever recorded. His overwhelming popularity in rural Texas opened the door for the Texas GOP’s takeover of state government in 2002, when Democrats lost the state House for the first time since Reconstruction. In 2003, at the urging of House majority leader Tom DeLay, the Texas GOP was able to redistrict in the middle of the decade and put the final nails in the coffin.
But then things started to go wrong. The occupation of Iraq deteriorated, and as more and more caskets came home to Texas, the certainty that Bush knew what he was doing wavered. In 2006 and 2008 Texas Democrats surged back to within striking distance of control of the state House.But it was the global financial crash that changed Bush’s party most. In a series of emergency moves, Bush bailed out big banks and staved off the risk of a depression. This was politically courageous, but it was inexplicable to conservatives who saw it as crony capitalism. The man they had worshipped as the country’s savior seemed to have no principles at all. At the end of Bush’s presidency, his approval rating had dropped to 25 percent, one of the lowest ever recorded.
Just weeks later, a populist revolt began brewing among conservatives. The tea party wanted to seize the GOP from its elites, who were typified by the Bush family. They hated Democrats, but they hated RINOs (Republicans in name only) even more. They clambered for a politics that was socially conservative, protectionist, nativist. And eventually they got it, in Donald Trump’s MAGA movement.
No state was changed more—or at least more consequentially—by this ideological shift than Texas. The state government that we see today, marked by sadism and dominated by the vagaries of internal Republican politics, would have been unrecognizable to Governor George W. Bush, who fit squarely into our tradition of pragmatic centrism and interparty comity. It was his next incarnation, President George W. Bush, who made it all possible.
A version of this article originally appeared in the October 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “How George W. Bush Did—and Didn’t—Change Texas.” Subscribe today.
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