The Republican Party of Texas has maintained a solid grip state power for decades. But when it began, shortly after the Civil War, it was a minority party of Unionists. The party has grown and changed in many ways over the intervening years.
Wayne Thorburn is a former executive director of the Texas GOP, and author of the book, “The Republican Party of Texas: A Political History.” He told Texas Standard there hasn’t been a book about the party since the 1960s, and much has changed in the world and in the party since that time.
Thorburn identifies four turning points for Republicans in Texas, beginning with the election of Dwight Eisenhower as president in 1952.
“[That election] basically made it acceptable for people in Texas to vote for a Republican presidential candidate,” Thorburn said.
Eisenhower carried Texas in 1952 and 1956 elections.
Later, in 1961, Texans elected John Tower to the U.S. Senate. Thorburn says Tower’s victory showed Texans that a Republican could win a statewide race.
Then, Bill Clements became the first Republican elected governor of Texas in 100 years, when he won in 1978.
“That brought in a whole slew of appointees and other individuals that got credibility who later could run as candidates for public office,” Thorburn said.
And the election of George W. Bush as Texas governor in 1994 is the fourth GOP milestone. Bush defeated incumbent, Democrat Ann Richards.
“From  on, Republicans have won every statewide race, and it’s been basically a one-party state since 1996,” Thorburn said.
Like politics in the United States generally, polarization is commonplace in Texas today, resulting in less collegiality among elected officials. Thorburn says much of that breakdown in cooperation stems from disagreements among Republicans, beginning when former House Speaker Joe Straus chose to work with House Democrats when more conservative GOP members objected.
“It depends upon the leadership of the party, and whether or not they’re willing to work with the other side,” Thorburn said.
Thorburn says the initial growth of the Texas Republican Party starting in the 1950s came from its identification with the middle class, both in cities and suburbs.
“It was a party that was concerned about the future,” Thorburn said.
More recently, candidates like Donald Trump have focused not on the future, but on recapturing what they believe has been lost, he says.
The Democratic Party’s values and policies have changed a lot over the years, too, Thorburn acknowledges. He notes that after the Civil War, Democrats advocated a traditionalism that sought a return to the culture of the pre-Civil War era. But that’s not what Democrats stand for today.
“It was the Democratic Party in history that brought in the poll tax, that brought in the white-only primary,” he said.