The Legacy of ’94, Part 1 – The Tipping Point

Twenty years ago Texas, like the rest of the Old South, operated as a single-party democracy.  If you had ambitions to serve your community as a judge, or a county clerk, or a city councilman, or a school board trustee, you joined the Democratic Party.  Like a majority of other Southerners you might be uncomfortable with the national party’s positions on a whole host of issues, but it didn’t matter.  Abortion, welfare, and arms control had nothing to do with being Justice of the Peace.

The only local elections that mattered were the Democratic primaries.  The only candidates on the Republican primary ballot would be running for Governor or federal office.  In a few locations there would be candidates for state legislature.  Across vast swaths of the Old South, Republican downballot races would be completely empty with the exception of a few professional candidates – the kind of guys who slept in their cars and lingered on the courthouse square wearing incoherent sandwich boards, protesting something or other.

The Democratic Party’s embrace of the Civil Rights movement had begun a long erosion of southern support that began with the Goldwater campaign in 1964 and gained momentum with each Presidential election.  By the Reagan era, it was clear that this shift was approaching a tipping point.  Another factor would send it lurching over the edge.

Reagan, in a decisive shift in Republican tactics, had chosen to embrace and aggressively politicize a marginal group of religious fundamentalists.  The Reaganities treated these folks as cannon fodder.  In old GOP bastions like Illinois and New York fundamentalists were a curious oddity; patronized, poorly understood, and confined to the sidelines.  In the South, where there was almost no local Republican organization, they rapidly became The Base.

Throughout the eighties, activists fanned out across the galaxy of fundamentalist churches, seeking to educate and politicize a growing constituency that was traditionally alienated from politics.  It was not an easy sell.  It’s hard to imagine now, but prior generations of fundamentalists and evangelicals viewed politics as a corrupting influence.  They were suspicious of temporal power, preferring to focus on the spiritual.  They were brought to the table primarily by the cynical manipulation of one issue, abortion.

By the fall of 1994, the sands had shifted beneath the old political order and practically no one in mainstream politics recognized what was coming.  The almost non-existent competition for spots on the Republican ballot, the increasingly sophisticated organization of politicized fundamentalists, and the growing national tide in favor of the GOP would produce a shocking win, with unexpected collateral effects for the country and the Party.

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