Friday, October 7, 2022 Oct 7, 2022
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POLITICS The Early Line

By Jim Atkinson |

The interesting thing about the Texas GOP primary is that the Democrats may decide who wins it.

At a gathering of Texas Democrats in Austin three weeks ago, where politics, naturally, was the major topic of conversation, I noticed that nobody was talking presidential politics. I can be somewhat innocent about these matters, so I asked a friend about it. He looked over the crowd and patted me on the shoulder. “We’ve been through a lot,” he said sadly. “First, Hill. Now, Carter. Next, Kennedy.” He paused, still surveying the room. “It’s not very much fun being a Democrat in Texas this year.

“Incidentally,” he said with a wink, “that doesn’t mean we haven’t made our choices.” He lifted the lapel of his blazer and revealed a gaudy red, white, and blue button with stars on it. It said John Connally.

One of the cruelest realities of politics is that things can, and mostly do, change in four years. I remember sitting with some Democrats on election eve in 1976 and hearing them gloat about how they’d not only won the battle, but the war. The battle, of course, was to get any Democrat back into the White House; the war was to do so by way of Texas and the rest of the South – where Democratic strength had been eroding since the Eisenhower years. Jimmy Carter’s victory, they said, was less important than the fact that Texas and most of the rest of the South had returned to the Democratic fold – aborting GOP dreams of forging a new national majority there.

At the time, such claims seemed inargu-able. Though Carter’s victory over Ford in Texas was by a scant 100,000 votes, it represented a significant shift in the state’s presidential voting habits. Texas had become a virtual Republican stronghold in presidential races; since 1952, GOP votes in presidential elections increased more than 100 percent. In some urban counties, like Dallas, they increased tenfold. Carter’s victory here, based largely on his Southern Baptist roots, restored an estimated 900,000 of those votes to the Democratic column, causing Democrats across the state to brag that the good old days – when the Democratic Party was politics in Texas – were back to stay.

Today, the same Democrats aren’t bragging; they’re talking about why they just might vote in the Republican primary on May 3. Carter, they say, has proved to be a worse mistake than George McGovern. (“At least we didn’t elect McGovern.”) For myself, I can think of nothing more poignant than a President who gets himself elected principally on the claim that he knows nothing about Washington politics, and then proceeds to prove it.

The result is a bolder Democratic turncoat. It used to be that “crossing over” was a closet affair: Defecting Democrats would sneak into the voting booth at the crack of 7 a.m., pull the lever for Eisenhower or Nixon, and mumble the rest of the day about whom they voted for. Not this year. Already half a dozen Dallas County Democratic officeholders have announced they are switching to the GOP; large numbers of Democratic precinct chairmen and – of ail things – county and state judges are expected to do the same. And though a recent Texas Monthly poll revealed that, if an election were held today, Carter could beat, say, John Connally, it’s clear that a lot of Democratic voters are hedging their bets. For one thing, Carter’s mandate in the poll was a measly three percent – miserable for an incumbent this early in the primary season. For another, 34 percent of the independents polled (“independents” being a euphemism for Democrats with a high tendency to cross over) preferred neither Carter, Kennedy, nor Brown – meaning they’ve already made up their minds to vote in the Republican primary.

The prospect of a massive Democratic crossover makes the May 3 Republican primary an even more intriguing horse race. For months, national analysts have pinpointed the Texas primary as vital to the Republican nomination. For Ronald Reagan, it will test whether support has eroded in a state he swept in 1976; for John Connally and George Bush, it will measure whether they can pass muster with a home-field advantage. But with large numbers of Democrats involved, the primary is actually much more: It will be an early opportunity for Reagan, Connally, or Bush to begin building a Southern coalition for the November general election. If Democratic support can be built this early, the thinking goes, it can woo support in the South this fall, making the GOP nominee the front-runner when the general-election campaign begins.

The Reagan Scenario

If there’s a front-runner in the Texas primary at this point, it has to be Ronald Reagan. He decimated Gerald Ford here in 1976, carrying 68 percent of the vote statewide and sweeping all 100 delegates. Most of Reagan’s organization is still in place, and because of the structure of the Texas primary, the best-organized candidate has to be favored. (Texas Republican delegates are alloted on the basis of popular vote in each of the state’s 24 congressional districts; a candidate carrying a district by more than 50 percent is awarded all three of the district’s delegates. A candidate winning by a plurality is awarded two delegates; the runner-up gets the third.)

The Reagan organization in Texas is a wondrous machine. They’re experts in direct mail and phone banks, in “getting out the vote.” In primaries, this can be crucial. There is little time to air issues or create controversies; the voter’s decision is often based on the last canvasser he talked to, rather than the candidates’ stands on tax reform or foreign affairs. As one Republican observed recently, “If nothing else, Reagan will get a lot of votes just because people voted for him last time. Primary voters vote out of habit.”

Curiously, the Reagan organization’s strategy in Texas seems to be to disavow the front-runner label. Director Steve Dougherty says the campaign will be satisfied with a “solid second to Connally. We’re not kidding ourselves. This is Connally’s home state.” The ploy is as old as politics itself: The Reagan people know a victory in Texas might be crucial; the former California governor’s stunning sweep in 1976 virtually launched his near-miss bid for the party nomination. A less impressive showing this year might imply to party members that Reagan is, as some have suggested, a candidate whose time has come and gone. By conceding Texas to Connally early, the Reagan people obviously hope to downplay the importance of the Texas primary to the nomination. In effect, they are saying look, if we win, fine; if we don’t, it won’t really matter.

The big intangible in the Reagan candidacy is, of course, his age. He is a marvel-ously preserved 68, but still 68. This probably won’t matter much as an issue, but its effect on Reagan’s campaign style could be telling. Were the primary a statewide popular vote – the so-called “beauty contest” – a candidate like Reagan could spend all his time in Dallas and Houston and probably carry the state. But because Texas voting is by congressional districts, the candidate essentially runs 24 separate campaigns. A district like Dallas’ 3rd has Abetween 60,000 and 100,000 hard-core Republican voters; some districts in South and East Texas have as few as 3000. But each district has three delegates. In the Texas primary, the candidate who spreads himself the thinnest has the best chance.

I tend to agree with Richard Reeves and a number of other national columnists that Reagan’s age has affected his campaign style. He seems to have grown lazy and almost uninterested in politics. It’s as if he’s had enough and is making one last try only for the sake of his followers. This could make a difference on the most basic level of campaigning: A candidate with the verve and energy of John Connally can hit three coffees, a luncheon, a press conference, and a fund-raising dinner in four different districts in one day; Reagan might be able to manage only a luncheon.

A second incalculable is what effect Reagan’s obvious philosophical moves toward the center will have on his loyal followers. After all, he built his political career on being the rightwinger’s rightwinger, a kind of secular theocrat for a conservative middle class tired of the centrist Republicanism of Nixon and Ford. He was always fond of the Uncompromising Specific Program, such as the controversial $90-million tax-relief proposal he espoused during the ’76 primary. Though a majority of such proposals proved to be exaggerated or ill-conceived, they appealed to Republican voters weary of vague rhetoric.

But in this season’s early primaries, Reagan has softened his conservatism. His positions on emotional issues such as Salt II are politely moderate and more than a little vague. The strategy is obviously to attempt to nullify the moderate appeal of Connally and Bush, to convince middle-of-the-road voters that Ronald Reagan is tough, but reasonable. It may accomplish that, but more than one analyst has wondered whether, in the process, Reagan will lose his base of righter-than-thou conservatives. It’s no accident that John Connally has had a good deal of success in recruiting campaign workers here from the ranks of Reagan’s ’76 organization. Increasing numbers of Reaganites are beginning to wonder just what their man stands for, a fact vividly reflected in Reagan’s surprisingly weak showing among Texas Republicans in the polls. The Texas Monthly poll showed Reagan capturing the loyalty of only 30 percent of the voters who identified themselves as Republicans. That’s got to worry the Reagan people in a state their candidate swept just four years ago. In attempting to broaden his appeal, Reagan may have broken a cardinal rule of politics: Whatever else you do, dance with who brung ya.

The Connally Strategy

Whatever erosion has taken place in Reagan’s support here is likely to be to the benefit of John Connally. Connally led Reagan in the Texas Monthly poll by a meaningless three percent overall, but his support appears to be building. He’s raised a shameful amount of money – almost four times as much as Reagan – and he’s the logical recipient of that precious Democratic crossover. Make no mistake about it: Connally hasn’t run for office since 1966, but he’s still got his followers. Anybody who consistently racked up between a million and a half and two million votes as governor is bound to have a residual base somewhere.

Connally’s strengths will be in rural areas, where voters remember him as a Democratic governor and county courthouses still control voting patterns. His weakness, if any, may be among rank-and-file Republicans in the state’s larger cities. Most Republicans agree that Connally is an attractive, dynamic candidate who seems to be saying the right Republican things. But he was a Democrat; as with Reagan’s age, the effect this will have is hard to measure. Connally did show surprisingly well in the Texas Monthly poll among Republicans; in fact, he out-polled Reagan by 10 percent. But Republicans are a pious breed: They tend to think the only way to become a Republican is to be born one. When it gets down to it, they may opt for the logic that has emerged in a number of other primary states: Connally looks like a winner, but the party just can ’I nominate a former Democrat, who grew up under the tutelage of Lyndon Johnson.

A bigger problem for the former governor is momentum. Coming in a “healthy” second, as he did in the recent Florida straw poll, isn’t going to cut it. If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a hundred times: Con-nally has got to win some of the early primaries, preferably Southern ones, to have a chance in Texas. This isn’t going to be easy, since the Reagan people have made it clear they’re going to try to wrap up the nomination as early as April. If Connally comes into Texas with a series of second-and third-place finishes, it is unlikely he will carry the state. It would only confirm what a lot of Republicans already secretly suspect: The former governor can’t translate all his pulpit-pounding appeal into votes.

If, however, Connally comes in with a couple of wins under his belt – say Florida or North Carolina or Alabama – he will have a good shot at a majority of Texas’ 80 delegates. His problem then will be that anything other than a sound victory over Reagan and Bush could completely kill his candidacy. The one inviolable rule of primary politics is that you have to carry your home state – no if’s, and’s, or but’s. If Connally manages only a split here, it could affect support in subsequent primaries, most notably California.

The Bush Long Shot

The real mystery in the race is former Texas Congressman George Bush. Despite his Texas roots, Bush showed up a poor third in the Texas Monthly poll, with only 13 percent overall. But a lot of reasonable Republicans are beginning to see him as a possible contender in the race. He may show well in several Northeastern primaries, and he has inherited much of former President Gerald Ford’s organization in the state. Moreover, because he’s seen as neither the giant (Reagan) nor the giant-killer (Connally), he can afford to be a distant third at this stage.

Early on, a lot of Republicans wondered why Bush got into the race in the first place. His ratings in the polls were low, his public appearances lackluster, his posture not so much low-key as seemingly uninterested. Somehow, in the course of losing a heated senate race against Lloyd Bentsen, and shuffling from an envoyship to China to the National Republican Committee to the CIA, he seemed to have lost what politicians call “the stuff.” His stands on issues were tentative; when he did decide to get tough, his voice took on the shrillness of a politician trying too hard.

Now it appears that at least some of that was conscious strategy. Like Jimmy Carter in 1976, Bush obviously understands that there can be an advantage to being the dark horse. You don’t have to win, for one thing, and because the front-runners have to concentrate on the big primaries, like New Hampshire, you can spend more time organizing the smaller states – which, after all, award delegates just like anybody else. The Bush people have already done this in Iowa, and it’s a safe bet they’ll do it with the Arkansas caucus in February. Because it’s one of the few early Southern primaries, Arkansas could go a long way toward legitimizing Bush in Texas.

If Bush is even moderately successful with this piecemeal approach in the early primaries, he will only need for John Con-nally to stumble early to become a full-fledged contender. As long as Connally stays in the race, Bush doesn’t have a chance. But if he stumbles early – and a lot of analysts think he will – Bush would go from a distant third to a respectable alternative in Texas. This is a role Bush would probably be comfortable with. His soft-spoken, moderate posture on the issues would likely attract a good number of Democratic crossovers; though Reagan has softened his ideology, he couldn’t compete with Bush’s unique ability to be for the ERA and against abortion at the same time. He could also probably get some mileage out of being the only Republican’s Republican in the race – a problem Reagan, the former liberal Democrat, shares with Connally.

Few in the Bush camp are willing to say their man could carry a majority of the state’s delegates. But if he could come out with a decent share, say 20 to 25 percent, then he could go on to California with some new hope. By merely surviving, and not trying to win every primary, he could probably last until the convention. At that point, his impeccable party credentials, youthful appearance, and moderate politics could at least force uncommitted delegates to give him a long hard look.

One problem with all the speculation is that the outcome of the Texas Republican primary depends largely on how Jimmy Carter and Ted Kennedy are faring. If Kennedy is the front-runner on May 3 – which I doubt – the conservative Democratic crossover so crucial to Connally might stay on the Democratic side in another infamous “stop Kennedy” move. That would tend to improve Reagan’s chances. But if Carter is leading by then, the Democrats are likely to cross over in droves. That has to help Connally – if, in fact, he’s still in the running.

The Democratic primaries can further complicate things if they pressure Texas Republicans to vote for the man they think can win in November. If Kennedy is leading most of the early primaries, it has to help Connally: Reagan’s age would become more of an issue when contrasted with the senator’s youthfulness. If Carter is the front-runner, the possible impact is less clear. It would probably help Reagan, but it could help Connally, too: Republicans might worry that if Carter is leading in the early primaries, he could carry the South in November – unless he were opposed by another Southerner.

All most analysts can predict is that the primary will produce a split, possibly as even as Connally 35 percent, Reagan 35 percent, Bush 20 percent, also-rans 10 percent. If so, Connally would likely be dead, a victim of not carrying his home turf. Some feel it would greatly benefit Bush, by eliminating the other Southerner from the running and increasing his profile by default. But others feel Reagan would be the real winner, even if he halved the delegates with Connally: He would have eliminated his chief competitor, kept himself intact, and might have clear sailing all the way through California.

In any event, it is clear that the TexasRepublican primary can make or break allthree candidates. The irony of that is notlost on Republicans: Only 10 years ago, theRepublican primary in Texas was considered about as important as the Democraticprimary in, say, Kansas. The further ironyis that it has become a highlight of theprimary season largely because a lot of theDemocrats are expected to participate. Andthat could produce the biggest irony of all:that the next Republican President of theUnited States could well get his most important push from a bunch of TexasDemocrats.