"The New Deal and the Emergence of the Republican Party in Texas"


One of the greatest changes in Texas life over the last half century has been the emergence of a Republican party in the Lone Star state that is not only competitive in the electoral arena against the Democrats but stands poised today at century's end to achieve dominant status. For well over a century the Republican party was discredited among Texans and it's only a slight exaggeration to jest that God himself could not have run as a Republican in Texas and won. Following the Civil War and Reconstruction experiences, which citizens blamed upon the party of Abraham Lincoln and northern abolitionists, Texans boasted that they would vote for an egg-sucking yellow cur dog before they would ever cast their ballots for a Republican candidate. Only the transformation of the Democratic party during the Depression of the 1930s with which a significant number of Texas Democrats disagreed and subsequent factionalism and feuding within the party opened the door for the long-discredited Republicans.

The Twin Pillars of Texas Politics

The distrust of government and dread of highly centralized power in a remote national capital which underlay the 1836 revolution against the Republic of Mexico served as cornerstones of Texas's political culture for a century thereafter. Residents regarded government as a necessary evil whose dangers had to be constantly guarded against and limited its size, cost, and power whenever possible. Adherents of Jacksonian Democracy, they resisted the growth of federal authority in favor of state and local programs viewed as more representative and easier to control. So strong were these beliefs that Texas chose secession and war in 1861 rather than accept the Republican party's promised use of federal power to create a national economic system and prevent the geographic expansion of slavery. Experiencing large, expensive, and active government for the first time during the Reconstruction era, Texans reacted with a vengeance in the aftermath, restricting it in every way possible under the Constitution of 1876, and accepting new laws and initiatives only when convinced of their absolute necessity. Only when the Great Depression ravaged the state in the 1930s were Texans willing to accept significantly larger government in both Austin and Washington, D. C.

The absolute dominance of the Democratic party was the other foundation of Texas politics. With the Republican party discredited by the Civil War and Reconstruction experiences, the state witnessed unbroken Democratic rule in the years following "redemption." When discontent with the status quo surfaced from time to time, it found expression in either third parties or factional infighting within Democratic party ranks. On only one occasion was a Republican presidential candidate able to carry the state of Texas. Herbert Hoover's victory in Texas in 1928 was, however, more of Texans' rejection of their party's nominee, Al Smith of New York, because of his Roman Catholicism and opposition to prohibition than an embrace of the Republican party. When the greatest economic depression in American history broke out shortly thereafter and Hoover was unable to engineer a quick recovery, Texas voters had yet another reason for remaining Democratic. Only against the backdrop of this traditional political culture and the absence of two-party competition is it possible to understand the reaction of Texans to the New Deal and the resulting bifurcation of the Democratic party in the 1930s and 1940s which proved the birth pangs of a viable Republican opposition in the Lone Star state.

The Great Exception: The Depression and New Deal

Though sheltered temporarily by its distance from the nation's financial centers and economic mainstream, Texas could not escape the ravages of the Great Depression beginning in October, 1929. Banks failed, crop prices plummeted, and unemployment climbed slowly but steadily as the deflationary spiral deepened. Five-cent-a-pound cotton and nickel-a-barrel oil became inescapable facts of life. State and local officials, watching helplessly as government revenues shrunk, simply did not have the financial resources to meet the unprecedented demand for relief, much less to underwrite massive public works programs to lower unemployment and promote recovery. Political leaders were forced to turn to Washington, D. C., for help despite the traditional fear of government. The state's exceptionally powerful congressional delegation, working with Vice-President John Nance Garner and Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) chairman Jesse Jones, made Texans consistent winners in the appropriations scramble of the early New Deal. Jones's RFC and the Federal Emergency Relief Act pumped nearly $50 million into the state in 1933-1934 alone. Farmers received more than $44 million by 1936 under the Agricultural Adjustment Act while various federal agencies financed and/or constructed public buildings, hydroelectric dams, highways, parks, and playgrounds. Spending levels testified to both the successful efforts of political leaders and the new relationship with the national capital. While state and local authorities were spending $80 million between 1933 and 1936 on direct assistance and work programs, the federal government contributed $351 million.

While the majority of Texas Democrats gratefully accepted the infusion of federal moneys, a small but vocal minority, organized as the Jeffersonian Democrats in 1936, labeled the New Deal socialistic and opposed the president's reelection bid. Tracts such as Roosevelt's Red Record warned voters that, if unchecked, the administration's program would ultimately destroy private enterprise and self-government. Given the peril, a return to Republican rule was preferable to four additional years of Roosevelt from which the country might never recover. The Jeffersonian Democrats, however, had little if any impact on the November balloting in Texas which the president swept by a seven-to-one margin. Their insurgency nonetheless testified to an ideological rift within Democratic ranks which any presidential miscalculation could well exacerbate. This mistake came almost immediately.

Democratic Dysfunction and Factionalism

The president's ill-fated court packing scheme, submitted to Congress in February, 1937, without prior consultation and agreement with either party leaders or legislative powers, drove a wedge between moderate and conservative factions which quickly escalated into open warfare. Lyndon Johnson, the young state administrator of the National Youth Administration program, successfully made the effort to redirect the court's philosophy the centerpiece of his initial congressional campaign. By contrast, Vice-President Garner, Representative Hatton Sumners, and Senator Tom Connally argued that the plan was unconstitutional and, according to Sumners, a prelude to dictatorship. The defection of such powerful figures sealed the bill's defeat. More significant in the long run, it signaled the end of the sense of crisis which had unified party ranks and temporarily muted Texans' traditional fear of big government and centralized power.

Roosevelt's effort to pack the Supreme Court was, however, only the straw that broke the camel's back for a number of conservative Texas Democrats. Such officials and party leaders had an increasingly long list of grievances and fears by 1937 regarding Franklin Roosevelt, his New Deal program, and the transformation of the Democratic party at the national level. Feeling the worst of the Depression had passed, they argued for controlling spending, balancing the federal budget, ceasing attacks on big business interests, and halting efforts in support of labor unionization. They were particularly in fear that FDR and the New Deal would launch a civil rights program to attack racism as practiced in the South. For them, the sit down strikes launched by the Congress of Industrial Organizations in the automobile and rubber industries were communism pure and simple. Yet the president refused to move forcefully with troops against these unlawful seizures of private property. Further, Roosevelt and his liberal supporters seemed committed to boosting federal spending to cope with the recession of 1937-38, forcing higher wages upon the business community, and increasing the power of the federal government at the expense of states and localities.

While the administration pushed an increasingly meager legislative agenda and halfheartedly tried to purge the party of its most conservative elements in the 1938 nominating primaries, Texas voters turned to the colorful but reactionary W. Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel to succeed Governor James V. Allred. Conservatives were in open revolt by 1940 when Roosevelt broke with tradition and pursued an unprecedented third term as president. Though he carried the state in November, the shouting matches and fistfights between Roosevelt supporters and those backing the candidacy of John Nance Garner at the party's state convention in Waco the preceding April were omens of even more bitter struggles ahead.

As Americans plunged into the war effort at home and abroad in 1942, the disintegration of the once dominant Democratic party coalition and the increasingly conservative political trend in Texas became unmistakable. Governor Coke Stevenson, in partnership with Lieutenant Governor John Lee Smith and the state legislature, restricted expenditures, decried federal price controls and rationing programs, implemented controls on labor unions, and defended white supremacy when racial strife broke out in Texarkana and Beaumont. Perhaps nowhere was the heavy hand of the conservative camp more evident than at the University of Texas at Austin. Frustrated in an earlier attempt to purge four economics professors whose ideas it considered too liberal, the university's Board of Regents (who were appointed by the governor) fired popular President Homer T. Rainey in 1944 when he protested its decision to remove John Dos Passos' USA from sophomore English reading lists. When the board came under severe criticism for its action, its most reactionary members accused Rainey of tolerating communist teachings, coddling a group of homosexual faculty members, and favoring the admission of Negroes to the state university.

Emboldened by success at the state level, conservatives attempted to purge Texas's congressional delegation of its most progressive members in 1944. The Committee for Constitutional Action, dispensing funds solicited from oil interests in Dallas and Houston, bankrolled primary campaigns against Wright Patman, Lyndon Johnson, and Sam Rayburn, who had assumed the speakership of the House of Representatives in 1941. One-time legislative clerk and political gadfly Buck Taylor assailed Johnson with charges of financial impropriety, favoring Negro equality and an end to the state's white primary, and misrepresenting the nature of his military service in World War II. Taylor also sought to link the incumbent with the massive wartime bureaucracy and increasingly unpopular wage and price controls. While Congressman Johnson regarded Taylor as a nuisance rather than a serious challenger and easily won renomination, the well-financed and mean-spirited attacks convinced him that the political situation was likely to degenerate even further.

Conservatives attempted as well to deny President Roosevelt the support of Texas voters in his bid for reelection in 1944. Operating under a strategy devised by State Democratic Executive Committee chairman George Butler in consultation with Governor Coke Stevenson and others, anti-Roosevelt forces packed the state convention in May, enacted a platform which condemned the "Communist controlled New Deal," and selected uninstructed delegates to the national nominating convention in Chicago. Catching Texas New Dealers unprepared, the Butler-dominated convention named a slate of anti-administration presidential electors and tabled a motion requiring them to cast their votes in the Electoral College for whichever candidate carried Texas in the general election. In essence, then, electors were free to cast the state's twenty-three electoral votes for the Republican nominee or a third party candidate even if, as expected, Roosevelt was the overwhelming choice of Texas voters. When loyalists led by Austin attorney Alvin J. Wirtz reversed these actions at the second state convention in September and substituted a slate of electors friendly to the president, conservatives assumed the name "Texas Regulars," organized a third party structure, and asked voters to write in the name of any Democrat other than Franklin Roosevelt. Though the president swept to a four-to-one triumph, the internecine warfare had now escalated to the point where reconciliation was no longer possible.

Warring Democrats and the Emergence of the Republican Party

Over the next three decades, conservative Democrats, alienated from a national party they saw as increasingly liberal in its ideology and orientated towards northeastern cities, racial minorities, and organized labor, would slowly and only grudgingly abandon their party and embrace the Republican party standard. This metamorphosis occurred only in halting fashion. Enraged by President Harry Truman's embrace of civil rights in 1948 and his Fair Deal proposals to continue the New Deal revolution of his predecessor, many segregationist Texas conservatives cast their ballots in that year's presidential election for Strom Thurmond, nominee of the States Rights Party more popularly known as Dixiecrats. In 1952 and 1956, the conservative camp, led by Governor Allan Shivers, threw its support to World War II hero and Republican nominee Dwight David Eisenhower. Twice the incredibly popular Eisenhower carried the Lone Star State because of ticket splitting behavior. Conservatives would vote for the Republican presidential candidate against his Democratic rival while still casting their ballots for conservative Democrats in all state and local races.

Only when John Tower, a political science professor from Midwestern University running as a Republican, won a seat in the United States Senate in a special election in 1961 were disgruntled conservative Democrats convinced of the electoral viability of the Grand Old Party. This opened the floodgates for the abandonment of the Democratic party standard. In the intervening years, Republicans have enjoyed greater and greater success, encouraging party switching. Swelled by disaffected Democrats, the Republican party has grown tremendously and enjoyed numerous victories at the polls. Only one Democratic presidential candidate has carried Texas since 1968. William P. Clements ended the Democratic stranglehold on the Governor's Mansion in 1978 and was reelected again in 1986. Today, Texas is represented by two Republicans - Phil Graham and Kay Bailey Hutchinson - in the United States Senate. George Bush, Jr. holds the governorship and Republicans are poised to assume majority control of the state legislature in the days ahead. The emergence of the Republican party in Texas after a century of exile in the political wasteland holds tremendous implications for the future of the state but its roots lie in the history of the Great Depression and the New Deal.

© L. Patrick Hughes, 1999