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The Troubled Texas GOP

In the News
by Jonathan Gurwitz   |   The Wall Street Journal

SAN ANTONIO, Texas—In 1994 George W. Bush delivered the coup de gra├že for the Republican revolution in Texas by defeating incumbent Gov. Ann Richards. The GOP then went on to complete its ascendancy in the state.

But is Texas now slipping away from the GOP? The answer is more than a little surprising, and it’s not just because of the president’s sagging approval ratings.

Democrats haven’t won a statewide contest since 1994, and Republicans hold comfortable majorities in the state House and Senate. Both U.S. senators are Republicans. And even with the loss of two tight congressional races last year, Republicans hold 19 of 32 congressional districts.

There are, however, signs of trouble for the GOP. While Gov. Rick Perry won re-election in November, he only achieved a plurality in a four-way race that featured a Democrat and an independent as well as a former Republican-turned-independent (State Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn). And Republicans lost two heartbreaking races in the past year. Rep. Henry Bonilla, a seven-term incumbent and the only Mexican-American Republican in Congress, lost to Democrat Ciro Rodriguez, who ran a haphazard campaign. George Antuna, a rising star who had worked for Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Mr. Perry (when he was lieutenant governor under Mr. Bush), lost a race for an open state legislative seat.

In Dallas, moreover, Republicans imploded. Democrats ended decades of GOP dominance last fall by winning the county judge’s seat, the district attorney’s office and 41 out of 42 contested judicial races—election results the Dallas Morning News dubbed a “Democratic deluge.”

Perhaps the biggest shoe to drop on Republicans came in the legislature. In January a clutch of disgruntled members tried to depose House Speaker Tom Craddick. They failed, but in May, tried again and this time the fight turned very ugly when Republican members were blocked from calling for the speaker’s ouster by the speaker himself, who refused to grant them time to speak on the floor.

The result was raw politics: When members tried to force the issue, Mr. Craddick declared that his power to decide which members can bring motions to the floor was “absolute.” In response, the House parliamentarian along with her deputy resigned in protest, and two Republican committee chairmen have appealed to GOP Attorney General Greg Abbott. His decision will likely come later this year. This is just the kind of parliamentary fight that most voters never understand, but will nonetheless perceive as evidence that Republicans can’t be trusted with the levers of power.

Don’t believe that voters would ever draw such a conclusion in Texas? In June several national polls found younger voters are turning away from the GOP. One of them, conducted by CBS News, the New York Times and MTV, found that 54% of 17 to 29-year-olds would vote for a Democratic candidate for president, while only 32% would vote Republican.

Many Republicans would like to believe that they are only experiencing a temporary downdraft caused by the unpopularity of the Iraq war and President Bush—conventional wisdom that seems to forget that Mr. Bush’s success in gubernatorial and presidential elections is a large reason why the GOP completed its domination of state politics. It was only in 2002 that the party won control of the legislature.

Not everyone, however, is buying this assessment. Royal Masset, a political consultant and long-time political director for the Republican Party of Texas—who played a key role in organizing the grassroots support that took the GOP from marginality to an overwhelming majority—has been predicting a reversal for years.

“There’s a certain inevitability in demographics,” he told me. “We knew that if we could win 40% of the Hispanic vote,” as Mr. Bush did in 2004, “we’d control Texas until 2030.” But in 2006, the number of Texas Hispanics who voted Republican fell to between 30%-35% (depending on the poll).

This shift alone spells trouble for Republicans. Many conservatives may not want to hear it, but Mr. Masset puts the blame on talk radio and cable TV reaction to immigration reform. He says an uncompromising attitude toward comprehensive reform and appeals to fear sometimes carry a whiff of racism that alienates Hispanics. “Houston is no more than six years behind Dallas,” he warns.

And if the demographic shift continues to gain momentum, there’s a real possibility that Democrats could achieve a majority in the Texas House by 2010. In 2003, Tom DeLay helped redraw the state’s congressional districts to give Republicans six new seats in Congress. In just a few years, Democrats could turn the tables. Mr. Masset sums it up this way: “This thing with the Latino vote is deadly serious.”

Last month, an Austin-based polling and political consulting firm decided to quantify the GOP’s standing in the state. “We were frustrated by people talking about how bad things are for Republicans in Texas,” says Marc DelSignore, vice president of Baselice & Associates, Inc. What his firm found dovetailed with the national polls and Mr. Masset’s political forecast. Older and white voters who predominate in suburban and rural communities continue to have positive impressions about the Republican Party, but there’s an image problem among the state’s growing number of younger voters and Hispanic voters, who are more numerous in urban centers. “When we looked at the numbers,” Mr. DelSignore says, “this grew into a compelling narrative.”

And why not? A similar flip happened in California in the 1990s. What was once Reagan Country became a Democratic stronghold. GOP Gov. Pete Wilson’s get-tough approach to immigration was an undeniable factor.

If there’s a silver lining for Republicans, it’s that the Democrats haven’t been improving their own image. As Mr. Masset puts it, “There’s still a chance the Democrats can screw this up royally.” But depending on voters to reject the other party is a losing strategy. To maintain their position, Republicans will have to overcome the sense that they are more interested in warring with each other than in governing. They’ll also need to come to grips with this reality: Even Texans don’t have to vote Republican. Absent compelling reasons to support the GOP, Texas could become the new California.

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Mr. Gurwitz is a member of the editorial board of the San Antonio Express-News.

Source: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB118376667845459718.html

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