May 14, 2019

Mystified by Texas Politics? We’ve Got Answers

Reporting Texas

The State Capitol of Texas. Cristina Pop/Reporting Texas

In 2017, 542,432 more Americans moved to Texas than moved out. Some of those transplants might find the state’s politics bewildering. For example, the Railroad Commission has nothing to do with railroads, and campaign finance laws are looser than in other states.

And as Mark Jones, political fellow at the Baker Institute at Rice University, said during an interview in April: “Every politician in Texas is more conservative than members of their party elsewhere. Take the political scales and tilt them right.”

If you’re not from Texas, you probably have questions. Reporting Texas has you covered.

Why do Republicans dominate Texas state politics?
Although voters picked John Tower, a Republican, to replace Lyndon B. Johnson in the U.S. Senate after Johnson was elected vice president in 1960, Texas was a strong Democratic state until the suburbs around Dallas and Houston, referred to as the “country club suburbs,” flipped red beginning in the late ’60s.

The switch got kick-started by the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, which drove Southern white voters, once reliably Democratic, into the Republican party. Ronald Reagan was also a factor, as he came to Texas in 1976 asking Democrats to cross over to the Republican primary and vote for him for the presidential nomination; many went on to vote Republican in November. While Reagan lost, he helped change the political framework of the state.

In the 1980s, a number of conservative Democrats became Republicans, including Rick Perry, who served as governor from 2000-2015.

What really changed the state’s alignment was a redistricting battle at the start of the century. The state Senate was Republican and the House was Democratic in 2001, and the two chambers could not agree on a House district map. That sent the job to the Legislative Redistricting Board, where Republicans had a 4-1 majority. A federal court approved the board’s map in November 2001. Under the new plan, the 150-member House went from 72 Republican representatives in the 2001 Legislature to 88 in 2003. For the first time in more than 100 years, Republicans controlled the Texas House.

The last time a Democrat won a statewide elected position in Texas was 1994. Those Democrats were Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, Attorney General Dan Morales and Comptroller John Sharp.

What are the divisions in the GOP?
Republicans have so dominated Texas politics over the past 30 years that their greatest battles have often come on their own side of the aisle. The bathroom bill, which would have forced transgender people to use the bathroom of their birth sex, was a battle fought largely between Republicans in 2017.

In Texas, there are three different groups of Republicans: business Republicans, social conservatives and the Tea Party. Business Republicans are true moderates who align with the party in power and vote for things that improve the prospects of businesses big and small. They might lean liberal on social issues. Social conservatives are animated by the tension between institutional values and personal conduct; they often oppose abortion and gay rights. The Tea Party is concerned about taxes and leans libertarian.

Joe Straus, former speaker of the Texas House, was a business Republican. Former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul was a Tea Party figure, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is a social conservative. Gov. Greg Abbott straddles the three.

The party has moved toward more economic-focused issues and centrist positions during the Trump administration and the reawakening of the Democratic voter in Texas, playing into the business Republicans’ hands.

Is Texas really going blue?
This could be the question posed most often by non-Texans. With Texas growing faster than any state, and with a significant number of electoral votes already, a blue Texas could reshape national politics.

The major cities — San Antonio, Houston, Dallas, Austin and El Paso — are all blue. Their suburbs are not, but they’re starting to lean left. Rural voters may always be Republican.

More people moving to Texas cities and suburbs from out of state could tilt the balance. As of 2018, the Texas Demographic Center estimates almost 25.4 million people lived in the 25 most populous metropolitan areas. Total population was estimated at 28.5 million.

The potential voting populace is one of the most demographically diverse in the country, which could also help Democrats. Most Latinos vote blue, and they are a significant share of the Texas populace — 11.1 million people as of 2017. But only about 5 million are eligible to vote out of the state’s 18 million eligible voters, and they turn out at lower rates than white voters. In 2016, 47 percent of Hispanic voters cast ballots in the presidential election versus 65.3 percent of whites.

The same goes for young people, who are flocking to Texas and strongly favor Democrats. Voters aged 18 to 29 tend to participate in smaller proportions than older citizens, but in the 2018 midterms, 31 percent voted, the most in 25 years.

Analysts have predicted a greater push left after the gains Beto O’Rourke made this past campaign cycle. Beto activated Hispanic voters in Texas and got closer than any Democrat has to winning a Senate seat held by a Republican since Bob Krueger lost to Tower by half a percentage point in 1978.

Why is the governor of Texas weaker than other states’ governors?
“Texas rewrote its constitution in 1876, and they decentralized the government,” Dave McNeely, a retired journalist and former political editor at the Austin American-Statesman, said. “Rather than a strong governor, they dispersed the power.”

Four statewide elected positions — railroad commissioner (there are three), agricultural commissioner, commissioner of general land use and comptroller of public accounts — wield enormous regulatory and administrative authority independent of the governor.

For the most part, these positions do what their titles suggest. The ag commissioner is responsible for all things agricultural. The land commissioner is responsible for public lands. The comptroller collects and appropriates tax revenue.

Railroad commissioners? Not so much. They have nothing to do with railroads any more, but they still have plenty on their plates: overseeing the oil, gas, mining and propane industries in Texas.

What are some of the most famous scandals in Texas political history?
Texas has seen its fair share of scandals. There have been scandals over sexual escapades and excessive drinking, which cost former Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock his chance at the governorship; instead he ran for lieutenant governor, a position he would serve in from 1991-99. There have been self-serving deals like the one Texas House Speaker Billy Wayne Clayton made in 1979 with former union leader L.G. Moore and a compatriot, accepting a $5,000 bribe (but never spending it) to rig a $76 million state employee health insurance contract. Clayton was charged but never convicted.

Tom DeLay, the former Republican majority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, left office in 2006 over a campaign finance scheme to help GOP candidates; he was acquitted of the charges.

Then there were the Fergusons. James E. “Pa” Ferguson was governor from 1915 until he was impeached in 1917 after he vetoed all appropriations to the University of Texas in response to the University’s not firing his Democratic primary opponent. Lawmakers then banned him from holding any future office.

In response, Pa’s wife, Miriam A. “Ma” Ferguson, ran for governor in 1924, hinting during the campaign that she wouldn’t be working alone. She won, making her the United States’ first female governor. She eventually lost the 1926 election to Dan Moody, the attorney general who investigated Pa Ferguson for corruption in 1925. Ma Ferguson would win election again in 1932.

Former president Johnson’s rise to early power had more than a whiff of scandal to it.

In 1948, Johnson and former governor Coke Stevenson ran in the Democratic primary for U.S Senate. Stevenson appeared to win a runoff by about 150 votes statewide, but “203 votes came in late from Box 13” in Alice, McNeely said, “and it was discovered they voted alphabetically in the same handwriting, and those 203 votes gave Johnson an 87-vote margin of victory” out of nearly 1 million votes cast.

Finally, there is Sharpstown. Houston banker Frank Sharp gave politicians stock in his company — stock which could be sold later for a massive — in return for legislation beneficial to Sharp.

After the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission got involved in 1971, several legislators were brought down. The toll included Gov. Preston Smith, Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes, House Speaker Gus Mutscher, Attorney General Waggoner Carr and Democratic Party Chairman Elmer Baum.

Does similar corruption exist now?
The simple answer: no. As former Dallas Morning News political reporter Wayne Slater put it: “Then, corruption was undisclosed. But after some of the reforms, by the time you got to the late ’80s and ’90s, the corruption is more in the open, and that is a fundamental difference.”

Envelopes full of cash are harder to track than campaign contributions, and that’s how most special interests exert influence now.

Texas puts no limits on how much money can be given to campaigns and few regulations on how campaign money may be spent, as long as it is properly reported.

That’s cleaned Texas politics up and brought it into the sunshine. There’s no need for financial scandals when things that used to be considered scandalous are now perfectly legal.