I'm in Dallas today for a much-anticipated (by me) interview with Richard Fisher, who has been the president and CEO of the Dallas Fed since 2005.

Fisher often says that he gave up partisan politics when he became a central banker, and he is generously critical of both parties, but a casual observer would probably guess that he was a Republican in his pre-post-partisan life. He's spent much of the past few years publicly disagreeing with Ben Bernanke, quantitative easing, expanded economic stimuli, "too big to fail" policies, etc, etc; his (late) father-in-law was a longtime Republican congressman; before the last election, George Will suggested him as a great Treasury Secretary for Mitt Romney; and of course as the head of the Dallas Fed, he's been one of the leading authorities on the Texas Miracle. Yet the last time Fisher was in electoral politics, he was a Democrat--he was the Democratic candidate against Kay Bailey Hutchison in the 1994 race for US Senate.

In hindsight, the 1994 cycle would prove to be a critical inflection point for Texas Democrats. They won several statewide offices that cycle: Bob Bullock was re-elected as lieutenant governor, John Sharp was re-elected as comptroller, and Dan Morales was re-elected as attorney general. But Fisher lost the Senate race (KBH had been elected to the job in a 1993 special election, defeating the Democrat Bob Krueger); Ann Richards lost her gubernatorial re-elect effort to that mild-mannered young George W. Bush; and 1994 would be the last time Democrats won any statewide office in Texas. 

This isn't what I'm talking to Fisher about later today, but given that I can't go a day without someone asking me about this "Texas turning blue" business, two quick observations about 1994.

First, Republicans were winning elections partly because Democrats were losing them; this is part of the reason that Texas Republicans started winning elections in the first place. The biggest example, in 1994, was at the gubernatorial level: Richards's jokes about W Bush were popular with Democrats during his presidency, but keep in mind that at the time, he wasn't President Bush, and a lot of Texans found it mean-spirited. Also turning off some voters was Henry Cisneros, a former mayor of San Antonio who was serving as Bill Clinton's HUD secretary; that summer his ex-lover had sued him for a quarter of a million dollars, seeking damages for the emotional distress, which was a scandal. This wasn't the case in the Senate race--Hutchison was facing legal issues, not to mention allegations of pinching her subordinates, and Fisher had explicitly declined to run a personal campaign. But the overall perception of the parties was such that Texas Monthly would recognize Texas Democrats as the 1995 "Bum Steer of the Year" (Lance Armstrong is this year's honoree): "Hee-haw, in 1994 they made jackasses of themselves." 

Second, the 1994 scoreboard was, I would argue, a lagging indicator of underlying change rather than a driver of further change. Texas Democrats had historically been more conservative than their national counterparts. They had also been conservative in a slightly different way than their southern counterparts; I go into this at some length in the book, but the short version is that Texas Democrats were more concerned about fiscal conservatism than, say, civil rights. The realignment of the parties at the national level that began in the 1960s and 1970s meant that a lot of Texas Democrats (including Fisher) would have started to look like Republicans, in national terms. Some (like John Connally, Phil Gramm, and Rick Perry) did switch parties as a result. At the same time, Texans have a longstanding disposition to limited government, which is effectively enforced by a state constitution that would make it difficult to meaningfully expand the government. That adds a dose of inertia to Texas's elections. All things being equal, the incumbents have the advantage. Electoral change tends to lag cultural/political/philosophical change among the people themselves. 

The reason this is relevant right now is that although I'm not sure whether either phenomenon is necessary for Democrats to win statewide office again, both are somewhat in effect. After nearly 20 years of one-party government, centrist Texans--the same people who were put off by Democratic excess in the 1970s and 1980s--have had time to store up minor grievances. Prayer rallies, fetal-pain bills, calls for armed guards in schools, complaints about the United Nations, state contracts awarded to cronies--no single non sequitur is going to lose you an election, but a dozen of them might. Similarly, the Texas Republican Party is, as I noted recently with regard to gay marriage, significantly to the right of the Texas electorate on a number of issues; that's an intrinsically unstable situation. 

Putting both together, Texas Democrats are bound to see some openings soon--maybe not 2014, but by 2018, one would think. The tricky thing for Texas Democrats, however, is that economic issues can still trump social ones for the hypothetical median Texan voter. If moderate Republicans can regain control of their party--and that's a big 'if' at the moment--they could keep Texas red for a long time. 


Your comment will be posted after it is approved.

Leave a Reply.