Setting aside the shock of the phrase “President-Elect Obama,” November 4 looked a lot like the same old, same old election night for Texas Republicans. They didn’t lose a single statewide race. They took back Tom DeLay’s congressional seat, handily carried the state for McCain-Palin, and clung-pending a recount in Irving-to their majorities in the state Capitol. So, once the White House-clinching call of Ohio was made, and the chills and rationalizations worked through, the Texapublicans went back to the customary business of celebrating themselves at the Austin Four Seasons.
“It’s a good night in Texas,” cheered Governor Rick Perry. “I can’t think of a place I would rather be than in this state, standing in front of good conservative, conservative Republicans that love the state and have delivered the state for the Republican Party.”
Note Perry’s use of the double conservative modifier. Did the man stutter? I tend to think not. Being doubly conservative-Reagan squared-happens to be, if you ask the Texas GOP leadership, just the ticket. They’re avidly promoting it as the prescription not only for continued dominance here, but also for a national Republican renaissance. The Democrats’ surge has zilch to do with voters moving center-left and rejecting right-wingery, Perry & Co. argue. It’s actually thanks to a failure of Republican nerve.
“We need to hold the line on what it means to be a Republican, which is, of course, being conservative,” Perry lectured the California GOP last year. “If you see a candidate who wants to tax like a Democrat, regulate like a Democrat, and educate like a Democrat, they should not have the honor of being called a Republican.” (Hasta la vista, Governor Schwarzenegger.)
“Lots of Republicans think, ‘We went astray from our Reagan roots,'” says SMU political scientist Cal Jillson, “‘and if we just get back to them, we’ll be fine.'” Call it the Palin-Perry Plan. Trouble is, “That was 25 years ago. You have to have a presentation that’s forward-looking. Until the Republican Party finds one, voters are going to keep beating on them till they get a new message.”
Texas Democrats did not administer the beating they’d dreamt of on November 4. But they did show signs, as Jillson says, of having transitioned from “brain dead” to “twitching.” They built on their eye-opening sweep of Dallas County in 2006 by making inroads in Harris County (see “Houston, There Were Problems”) while picking up state House seats for the third straight election.
But while Perry’s Texapublicans paddle defiantly against the demographic currents, the Democrats have their own challenge: capturing turf outside the metro areas, where the partisan map still glows beet-red. “What we’re not doing is reaching out to people who’ve voted for Republicans in the past,” laments longtime Democratic operative Leland Beatty. “We believe that old myth that if we just turn out the base, we’ll win. Well, buddy, we turned out the base. And we squandered a chance”-especially to take back the House.
The Democrats’ base will keep swelling over the next decade. But Latino turnout still lags considerably behind that of whites. And despite Perry’s Reagan fixation, saner GOP heads are grappling with reality behind the scenes. The day after the election, party spokesman Hans Klinger acknowledged, “The ballgame in 10 years is going to be the emerging Hispanic population and capturing their votes.” What he didn’t say was how.
Which brings us to the real upshot of November 4 in Texas: In an increasingly competitive state where the power of white conservative voters will keep shrinking for many elections to come, it’s officially game on.