Lawrence Olsen discusses the presidential primaries and what they mean to Texas this election cycle.
So the primaries are now done (with a handful of runoffs pending for July 31, 2012), and here is the civics lesson to tell you how your one, lonely vote can really make a difference. It is a small narrative about a very, very close race and had one of the gentlemen been on the losing side of this squeaker, Texas’ change from being a blue state to a red state might have had a different trajectory.
When the historians write about the evolution of Texas from a twentieth century blue state to a state whose twenty-nine state-wide offices have since 1998 been held exclusively by the Republican Party there are several figures who will figure prominently: US Senator John G. Tower; William P. Clements, the first GOP governor; of course, the Bushes (41 and 43), whose history is so recent you are not likely to need a recounting (but email me if you want the details); and the hugely successful campaigns by Ronald Reagan in Texas in 1980 and 1984, the last of which reverberated positively for the Republicans further down the ballot than ever before.
The focus for this civics lesson, however, is Phil Gramm. Gramm's relentless advocacy of the GOP included using his power of gentle persuasion to induce former conservative Democrats at all levels of Texas government to jump right in the Republican pool with him because the water was fine. And his bona fides as a convert were beyond question because he was one himself.
After Gramm migrated to Texas A&M as an economics professor he became interested in politics. Never accused of being shy, he decided in 1976 to challenge popular incumbent US Senator Lloyd Bentsen. A conservative Democrat, Bentsen had ousted the liberal warhorse Ralph W. Yarborough in 1970, and having made big strides in his first term in the Senate, he was among many who offered themselves up as possible Democratic nominees to challenge newly minted (and unelected) President Gerald W. Ford in the 1976 presidential election. Bentsen did not fare well in the presidential race but Texas Democrats favored him significantly over upstart Democrat Gramm.
Gramm returned to the classroom, licked his wounds, and awaited his next chance. And by golly, it came right along as his local Congressman Olin E. “Tiger” Teague decided, after thrity-two years of outstanding service on Capitol Hill, to retire. His tireless advocacy and chairmanship of the Science Committee had been a real boon to his beloved A&M.
A donnybrook ensued for CD 6 (which stretches southward from Dallas and Tarrant Counties to Brazos County), and when the smoke cleared, the frontrunner was former Metroplex television personality Ron Godbey. Gramm made the runoff, just edging out a twenty-six year old man named Chet Edwards. Edwards had been an assistant on Teague's staff in Washington and had graduated from high school in Houston. Edwards missed the “playoff” spot by 185 votes of 83,000 cast. In the runoff a month later, Gramm beat Godbey 53/47 percent, and Godbey never surfaced again politically.
The Gramm story is fairly familiar but some readers may have forgotten some of it. One of the reasons Gramm was so successful in gaining converts of former Democrats was because of his personal dramatic story. After being elected to three terms as a Democrat, he became a leader in the U.S. House for President Reagan’s (another former Democrat) tax cuts. While being accused of many things (including being a spy for the other side), Gramm resigned from the U.S Congress in 1982 to force a special election, which he filed for and won easily as a Republican. And then two years later (was this guy born under a certain star or what?), Senator Tower announced he was stepping down after 24 years in office. Gramm won the Republican primary (one of his foes being Ron Paul) and then beat Democratic nominee Lloyd A. Doggett of Austin, a former state senator and State Supreme Court judge.
Among Gramm's D-to-R conversions was a certain former Aggie yell leader who was elected to the Texas House of Representatives as a conservative Democrat (and whose father was a Democratic county commissioner). Of course, that was guy was later elected Ag Commissioner in 1991, and in 2002 he was the first College Station alum to be elected governor, Rick Perry.
I know that all who read this article voted in the recent primaries. But if you happened to be out of the country during the early voting and on the day after Memorial Day, you still can vote in the July 31, 2012 runoffs. (And if somehow, your eighteen-year-old granddaughter has just reached the voting age, she can register to vote for that runoff by June 30, 2012.) Sometimes, the most profound political period can all hearken to a mere 182 votes.