Lost in all the hullabaloo over the presidential election is what happened in Texas. Behind the numbers lie some intriguing revelations about the current state of Texas politics.
Party loyalty in South Texas isn’t what it used to be. George W. Bush won 230 of Texas’ 254 counties, 63 more than Bob Dole in 1996. He won such traditional Democratic strongholds as Travis and Bexar counties. Even an analysis of the border counties that Bush lost shows him making inroads: In El Paso, for instance, the number of voters choosing the Democratic candidate for president was virtually unchanged from the last election, while Bush picked up more than 14,000 additional voters. In Webb County (Laredo), the Democrats actually dropped 800 voters between the 1996 and 2000 elections, while Bush polled 8,300 more votes than Dole. Exit polling by the San Antonio-based William C. Velásquez Institute says that Bush won 33 percent of the Hispanic vote statewide, more than doubling the percentage of Hispanics voting for Dole in 1996. Statewide, the number of Texans voting for Al Gore was 26,000 below the number who voted for Bill Clinton four years ago. (Yes, Ralph Nader won more than 138,000 votes this year, but Ross Perot got 378,000 in 1996.)
The suburbs are more Republican than ever. The number of registered voters in the ‘burbs has exploded in the past eight years: Collin County, north of Dallas, is up from 153,000 to 296,000, while Williamson County, north of Austin, is up from 72,000 to 161,000. These new voters are overwhelmingly Republican. In Collin County, for example, Democratic voters increased by only 5,000 since 1996, while Bush scored 44,000 more votes than Dole. In nearby Denton County, the Republican gains exceeded the Democrats’ by 37,000 to 4,000. This means that the new voters are going Republican by the astonishing margin of nine to one.
Bush didn’t have coattails. This was perhaps the biggest surprise in Texas voting. Despite running up a vote total that fell just short of the landslide level of 60 percent, Bush was unable to help fellow Republicans win legislative races. (The GOP did pick up 119 local offices across the state—courthouse officials such as sheriffs, judges, and constables.) The party failed to achieve its long-sought goal of winning a majority of the seats in the 150-member Texas House. Indeed, the GOP did not gain a single seat in either the House (in which the Democrats retained a thin 78-72 majority) or the Senate (in which the Republicans kept their 16-15 lead). Endangered Democratic incumbents such as Senator David Cain of Dallas and Representatives Dan Ellis of Livingston and Bob Turner of Voss held their seats handily. Democrats were able to maintain the status quo in the Legislature despite the efforts of Lieutenant Governor (and governor-in-waiting) Rick Perry, who joined a Republican strike force that campaigned for GOP legislative candidates challenging House incumbents. Perry hoped to bring about a shift of at least four seats to the GOP, enough to win a majority and perhaps unseat longtime Democratic House Speaker Pete Laney. Not surprisingly, Laney did not look kindly on Perry’s efforts. He issued a rare public rebuke of Perry, suggesting that his actions violated the unwritten code of partisan etiquette followed by George W. Bush and Bob Bullock: It’s okay to campaign for your party’s candidates in races for vacant seats, but don’t mess with incumbents. In addition to Perry, the GOP campaign team included, at various times, Attorney General John Cornyn, land commissioner David Dewhurst, and railroad commissioners Michael Williams and Tony Garza. Significantly, the three statewide Republican women officeholders invited to make the trip—U.S. senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander, and agriculture commissioner Susan Combs—all sent word that they were busy that week. Busy? Washing their hair, no doubt.
Personality is still more important than party. Why didn’t Bush’s popularity rub off on legislative candidates? First, Democrats fought back, with the help of Laney, who raised money and campaigned hard for Democratic incumbents. Another argument is that voters in rural areas know their legislators personally and therefore are less influenced by party labels. But the most plausible explanation is that Bush’s strength lies more in his personality than his party. It’s often said that the Republicans didn’t elect Bush, Democrats did. Consider Bush media adviser Mark McKinnon, who winced during an election-night interview when a TV reporter called him a “former Democrat.” He quickly offered a correction: “I’m a Bush man.”