How did the Texas Republican Party, which was in the forefront of the battles to win the Republican presidential nomination for Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Ronald Reagan in 1976 and 1980, become a wholly owned subsidiary of Karl Rove and George W. Bush?
Today, the Republicans in Texas control every statewide elected office, yet it is hard to see much of a difference in policy matters from the time when centrist Democrats such as Lyndon Johnson, former Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, and the late Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock (George W. Bush’s favorite Democrat) ran the state. Our two Republican senators include a pro-abortion Rockefeller Republican (Kay Hutchison) and a Bush loyalist (John Cornyn) who was the deciding vote as a Texas Supreme Court jurist in upholding Gov. Ann Richards’ unconstitutional school-finance scheme (known as the “Robin Hood” plan).
Our elected state officials, with a few notable exceptions, have continued the business-as-usual approach of their Democratic predecessors. In fact, two of our state officials, who happen to be feuding at the moment, are former Democratic officeholders. Our comptroller, Carole Strayhorn, was the former Democratic mayor of Austin, the liberal stronghold in Texas and home of the Molly Ivins crowd. Strayhorn jumped ship and became a Republican as the state began to lean that way. Her two sons work in the Bush administration, with Scott McClellan serving as Bush’s press secretary and Dr. Mark McClellan, as assistant secretary in the Department of Health and Human Services. Carol Strayhorn is a likeable politician who styles herself “one tough grandma,” but her political views on state issues are more in tune with the Austin liberal crowd than with Texas conservatives. In the most recent legislative session, Strayhorn pushed her scheme of providing “free” education to any Texan wanting to attend community college in our state. She also blasted the Republican governor and Republicans in the legislature for not spending more money on a variety of government programs. Comptroller Strayhorn, like most advocates of big government, never seems to concern herself with where the money will come from to fund her pet projects.
Our current governor is Rick Perry, another former Democratic officeholder, whom Strayhorn plans to run against if Senator Hutchison does not decide to make the race herself. Governor Perry finally may have learned his lesson on the spending front. Two legislative sessions ago, he stood by while the Democratic-controlled state House of Representatives went on a budget-busting spending spree. In that same session, the legislature mandated a number of new entitlements. Apparently, our legislators thought that the booming Texas economy of the 1990’s would never end. Their timing, however, could not have been worse, as all of this new and increased state spending came just as the stock-market bubble burst and an economic recession hit Texas. The ensuing revenue shortfall led to a huge deficit, which had to be made up in the 2003 legislative session. Unlike the federal government, which has been piling up record deficits during the Bush presidency, Texas has a constitutional obligation to balance her budget.
Fortunately, the Republicans took control of the Texas House of Representatives after the 2002 elections; led by a new wave of conservatives, the legislature (with support from the governor) slammed the brakes on state spending and entitlements in order to balance the budget without raising taxes. Their actions upset Comptroller Strayhorn, the editorial writers of most Texas newspapers (generally owned by national chains), and liberal Democrats; but it showed that the conservative instincts of most Texans remain intact.
While Governor Perry deserves credit for going along with those conservatives in the legislature who were determined to hold the line on taxes and spending in 2003, there is not much else positive to say about his four years in office. The Austin lobbyists (generally Bentsen/Bullock Democrats who now call themselves Bush Republicans) exercise the greatest influence over legislation, just like they did when the Democrats were in power. In fact, one of the most prominent Austin lobbyists, Mike Toomey, served as Governor Perry’s chief of staff for a couple of years before recently resigning to resume his lobbying career. Toomey, a former Republican state representative, was also a key advisor to Gov. George W. Bush.
Once in power, Texas Republicans have all-too-often become what conservatives complained about when the Democrats ran everything—a party beholden to the special interests, rather than representing the views and values of middle-class Texans. Nothing exemplifies this better than Republican failure to get rid of the hated “Robin Hood” school-finance scheme. I have been involved in this issue from the beginning, having led the fight against Governor Richards’ attempt to impose a statewide property tax on Texans through a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow state officials to transfer property taxes from “property-rich” districts to poorer ones. We defeated this plan in a statewide vote by a 2-to-1 margin, only to have Governor Richards impose it on Texas by legislative action. Her refusal to listen to the Texas voters on this unfair taxing plan was a key factor that led to her defeat (in 1994) by George W. Bush, who made the Robin Hood scheme a central issue in his campaign.
Republicans now have held the governor’s office for more than a decade and currently control both houses of the Texas legislature. Even so, the Robin Hood scheme has yet to be repealed, while Texans face a ever-increasing property-tax burden to fund education—and not just in the Robin Hood districts. Those districts are hit the hardest, however, with more than a billion dollars in local property taxes taken annually from local school districts and shipped elsewhere.
Governor Perry recently called the legislature into special session, ostensibly to eliminate the Robin Hood scheme. However, the solution he proposed relied heavily on expanding gambling. Ironically, Carole Strayhorn, his bitter foe, had first promoted such a plan as a way to “fix” our school-finance problems. Perry’s proposal would have benefited certain gambling interests that, coincidentally, have made major contributions to his reelection campaign. The Texas House of Representatives took one look at the Perry plan and voted unanimously against it. The special session turned out to be a complete waste of time and money, though it did lead to the employment of a host of lawyers and lobbyists who were hired to represent competing gaming interests. Now, the legislature may be forced to act in light of a recent court decision declaring aspects of the Robin Hood scheme unconstitutional.
Why has the Texas Republican leadership strayed so far from the conservative principles that propelled it to become the majority party in Texas in the mid 90’s?
One of the key leaders in the Goldwater movement in the early 60’s was a young, wealthy Texan named Peter O’Donnell, who had wrested control of the Republican Party machinery away from the Eisenhower Republicans and put it behind the Goldwater insurgency. Because of his financial independence, O’Donnell was able to devote much of his time to building a Republican Party in Texas. He was a skilled organizer, an accomplished fundraiser, and was the undisputed leader of this emerging conservative force within the Republican Party.
Along with Cliff White and a few other influential conservatives, O’Donnell helped lead the Goldwater forces to victory in the bitter nomination fight against Nelson Rockefeller in 1964. O’Donnell was shunted aside in the general-election campaign against LBJ. After the Goldwater debacle, many wrote off the conservative movement as politically dead. However, Ronald Reagan assumed leadership of the conservative movement after winning election as governor of California in 1966. Grassroots conservatives who had supported Goldwater for president in 1964 by and large had become Reaganites by 1968, when Reagan mounted a last-minute, abortive challenge to Richard Nixon at the Republican National Convention. Not Peter O’Donnell: While O’Donnell had solidified his position in Texas as the dominant leader of the party, he was now with the Republican establishment in helping to deliver the Republican presidential nomination to Nixon. He would remain in that camp, supporting Gerald Ford against Reagan in 1976, George H.W. Bush against Reagan in 1980, and George W. Bush in 2000. The man who built the Goldwater movement in Texas was now using his formidable talents and financial clout against the conservatives.
Although O’Donnell assumed a less-public role in Texas Republican politics from the 1970’s onward, his influence over the party was as strong as ever. He was the power behind the Nixon reelection campaign in Texas in 1972, and he organized Bill Clements’ successful bid in 1978 to become the first Republican governor elected in Texas in the 20th century. While George H.W. Bush may have encouraged Karl Rove to set up his political consulting shop in Texas, it was O’Donnell who gave Rove his big break by approving Rove’s hiring as a political operative for Governor Clements in 1979. Rove became acquainted with the Bushes in the early 70’s while serving as executive director of the College Republicans when George H.W. Bush was chairman of the Republican National Committee. Rove ran for National College Chairman in 1973 against Robert Edgeworth. Both Rove and Edgeworth claimed victory in that race, with the Edgeworth camp accusing the Rove forces of engaging in “dirty tricks” by throwing out the votes of delegates pledged to Edgeworth. The decision to declare Rove the victor was ultimately made by RNC chairman Bush. Rove later became Bush’s special assistant at the RNC. He moved to Texas in 1976, established his business in Bush’s hometown of Houston, and has been associated politically with the Bush family ever since.
A very thorough discussion of Karl Rove’s modus operandi as a political operative and his rise to political power can be found in the book Bush’s Brain, written by longtime Austin political reporters Wayne Slater and James Moore. One mistake that the authors make is their depiction of Rove as a “right-winger.” Rove is much more a Cardinal Richelieu figure, obsessed with acquiring and keeping political power. Rove’s well-deserved reputation for employing a scorched-earth approach is simply a reflection of his willingness to say or do whatever it takes to win. Rove will use conservatives when necessary but only as a means of consolidating and maintaining political power for the establishment wing of the Republican Party.
Despite the success of O’Donnell, the Bushes (aided by their consigliore, James Baker, and Rove, their hired gun), and their network of supporters across the state in turning the Texas Republican Party into a more pragmatic, centrist party, Texas conservatives have occasionally stormed the barricades and taken power back from the establishment. In 1976, Ronald Reagan won a convincing presidential primary victory over Gerald Ford, garnering votes from Democrats and independents. Conservatives were even able to name one of their own, Reagan campaign leader Ray Barnhart, as Republican state chairman in 1976. Control of the party by conservatives would last for little more than two years, however, as Bill Clements replaced Barnhart with his own man when he was elected governor in 1978.
Then along came Phil Gramm, a libertarian economics professor from Texas A&M, who ran an unsuccessful race for the U.S. Senate in the Democratic primary against Sen. Lloyd Bentsen in 1976, then won a congressional seat as a Democrat in the late 1970’s. Gramm was a key supporter of the 1981 Reagan tax-cut proposal and helped along its passage in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives. He later switched parties, winning reelection to his congressional seat as a Republican before succeeding John Tower in the U.S. Senate. While never close to the O’Donnell/Bush crowd, Gramm built a statewide coalition of Republicans loyal to him personally, rather than organizing a network of solid conservatives, as Jesse Helms and Tom Ellis had done in North Carolina. The Goldwater and Reagan grassroots leaders who had stayed true to the conservative cause were there for the taking, had Gramm invited them. Instead, he concentrated most of his attention on wooing the big-money crowd, a group that tended to be more in tune with the establishment wing of the Republican Party. Rather than helping movement conservatives win election, he lent his potent political support to such opportunistic politicians as Rick Perry and Carole Strayhorn. Gramm’s political career ended with a failed presidential campaign in 1996, although he served out his final term in the U.S. Senate. Thereafter, he tried and failed to be selected president of Texas A&M, losing that post to the Bush candidate, Robert Gates, a former CIA director under President George H.W. Bush. Had he built a conservative network in Texas, things might have turned out differently. Gramm, however, sees issues and policies in terms of “economic man” and never could manage to forge a conservative coalition composed of independent conservatives not driven by money and power.
In 1990, Clayton Williams, an independent oilman and Goldwater conservative, won the Republican nomination for governor over the O’Donnell/Bush-supported candidate, Dallas attorney Tom Luce. That year, Karl Rove ran the campaign of Kent Hance, who had defeated George W. Bush as a Democrat in a 1978 congressional race. Hance started out as the early favorite to win the Republican nomination for governor, but Williams won the primary without a runoff. Williams appeared to be headed for victory over Ann Richards in the general election. This was not good news for the Bush/O’Donnell faction, which had very little influence over Clayton Williams. A series of widely publicized gaffes in the Williams campaign, however, turned enough voters against him to cost him the election. That opened the door for Karl Rove to run George W. Bush for governor four years later.
During this period, the establishment Republicans maintained control of the party machinery, with Fred Meyer, a prodigious fundraiser, as state party chairman and Karen Hughes as his executive director. Karl Rove ran the political operation for the party as its chief political consultant and direct-mail vendor. If you wanted to run as a Republican for the Texas Supreme Court or any other statewide elected office, you had better hire Rove as your consultant. He was well connected and good at what he did.
The Texas Republican Party and its preferred candidates had become a consultant-driven operation with Karl Rove as the dominant player. I decided to do something about it by running against Meyer for state chairman in 1994, the same year Bush ran for governor. We organized a strong, grassroots coalition of Old Right, Goldwater/Reagan conservatives along with the social conservatives of the Religious Right. Conservative activists turned out at the precinct and district conventions, and there was enough support going into the state convention to defeat Fred Meyer. In an effort to split the social-conservative vote, the establishment (and Phil Gramm) got Meyer to withdraw from the race and put up Congressman Joe Barton to take his place. Even though I was not part of the Religious Right, most of its grassroots activists continued to support me against Barton. Our side won, and it was another temporary success story for the conservative forces in Texas. My first act as party chairman was to fire Karl Rove as the party’s political consultant. (Rove claims that he quit before I fired him.)
When George W. Bush was elected governor in the fall of 1994, Rove wanted to minimize the influence of the party under my leadership. He made sure that we had no influence over the governor’s political appointments and did all he could to discourage big contributors from financially supporting the party as long as I was chairman. Rove wanted to make sure that the party apparatus did not develop into an effective and independent force in Texas, which might get in the way of Bush’s presidential ambitions. Rove also sought to divide the right and to woo social conservatives by enlisting the services of Ralph Reed (the former head of the Christian Coalition), whom Rove got placed on the Enron payroll to help in the Bush presidential bid. When I resigned as chairman to run for state attorney general in 1997, Rove succeeded in getting two well-known and well-financed candidates to enter the race against me. John Cornyn ultimately won, as a Rove-inspired attack achieved its purpose of knocking me out of the primary. I know how John McCain must have felt after Rove went after him in a similar fashion in the South Carolina presidential primary two years later.
I was succeeded as party chairman by Susan Weddington, who had risen to her position of influence in the party through the support of the Religious Right. Like Ralph Reed, Weddington joined the Bush/Rove quest for the White House. Any criticism of Bush’s policies from the party chairman (no matter how unacceptable to conservatives those policies might have been) ended when Weddington took her post. She was “on the team.” A few social conservatives who were elected members of the State Board of Education, led by Donna Ballard and Bob Offutt, bravely stood up to Bush and Rove when Bush sided with the public-education establishment against the conservatives on education-policy issues. Ballard and Offutt felt so strongly about Bush’s failed education policy in Texas that they publicly endorsed Steve Forbes in 2000. That was the political kiss of death for Offutt; Rove made sure he was defeated in his reelection bid for the State Board of Education.
Many of us conservative activists in Texas laughingly refer to ourselves as “political exiles” during this era of Rove/Bush dominance of Texas politics. Other Texas conservatives have convinced themselves that the President really is “one of us.” I tried to convince myself of the same thing as a young conservative in 1970 when I joined the Nixon administration after returning from my military tour in Vietnam, only to leave after one year when I realized that Nixon was no more a conservative as President than he had been when I first met him in the mid-60’s during my tenure as national chairman of the College Republicans.
Right now, the future looks bleak for Texas conservatives. The state party has been effectively neutered, and the evangelicals are fighting among themselves for control of it. The new chairman, Tina Benkiser, was Susan Weddington’s candidate, defeating Gina Parker at the state convention this summer. Predictably, Tina is going along with the powers that be. Control over state government is where the real power in Texas politics resides these days, and the Bush/Rove faction of the party has nearly complete control of the executive branch of government. Independent conservative leaders have been marginalized or defeated.
As I write, Bush is in a tight race for reelection against John Kerry, in a campaign reminiscent of Nixon’s run against George McGovern in 1972. In fact, this Bush administration, run by men like Rove and Vice President Dick Cheney, reminds me much more of the Nixon administration than of the administration of Bush’s father. Assuming Bush wins reelection to the White House, it will be interesting to see if it comes to an unpleasant end, as the Nixon administration ultimately did.