History of Political Parties in Texas

Even though the U.S. Constitution and the Texas Constitution make no mention of political parties, they have been a part of government and politics from early on.  At the federal level, U.S. political parties formed in the 1790s, developing out of the disagreements that existed between federalists, who favored a strong central government, and anti-federalists, who were leery of a strong central government and favored local, popular control.  By the time Texas was annexed by the United States, political parties had become dominant forces in national government and politics and had designed structures to organize and mobilize voters for elections, including party machines (organizations that support a political party and secure voters for candidates).

For much of Texas’s history as a state, one party has controlled state government.  There have been many times when one political party has both a government trifecta (holds the governorship and a majority in both chambers of our state legislature) and government triplex (holds the governor, attorney general, and secretary of state offices) in our state.  The party in control, however, has changed over time — where Texas was once dominated by the Democratic party, it is now dominated by the Republican party.

Personalities, Not Parties (1836-1845)

Texas was sparsely populated.  For this reason, Mexico began to incentivize Texas settlements by granting land contracts to empresarios who brought Anglo-American settlers to Texas during the 1820s.  Many of these empresarios and the Anglo-American settlers they brought with them had ties to the early U.S. Democratic party:

“As early as February 25, 1822, with the formation of the Texas Association in Russellville, Kentucky, individuals interested in land speculation came together to secure land grants in Texas. The Texas Association drew its membership from professionals-merchants, doctors, and lawyers-in Kentucky and Tennessee. Many of these men were also close friends of Andrew Jackson and had strong ties to the Democratic party. Likewise, most of the settlers in Texas were either from the Upper South or the Lower South and held strong allegiances to the Democratic party.” (Young, n.d.)

For context:  Following the 1828 presidential election, the Democratic party under Andrew Jackson’s leadership advocated for the common people, favored westward expansion, and opposed a national bank.

Following the Texas Revolution, many Texans continued to be sympathetic to the Democratic party; however, within the Republic of Texas, political parties had not established formal party organizations, and elections “demonstrated competition among rival factions or strong individuals . . . Personality was a dominant political force in the state” (Young, n.d.).

Democratic Dominance (1845-1952)

“. . . from independence in 1836 through the presidential election of 1952, the Democratic party in Texas was the only viable party in the state.  It dominated politics at all levels.” – Young, n.d.

Annexation through Civil War (1845-1865)

Many of the Anglo-American settlers in the Republic of Texas were sympathetic to and affiliated with the Democratic party; however, political parties had not formally organized and assumed an active role in Texas elections.  By the presidential election of 1848 (the first U.S. presidential election in which Texas was a state), however, “Contests between factions evolved into a more defined stage of competition with the development of the Democratic party in Texas as a formal organ of the electoral process” (Young, n.d.).  The Democratic party faced opposition from the Whig party, the American (Know-Nothing) party, and the Constitutional Union party, and personal loyalty continued to shape state government and politics.  Nevertheless, “partisanship developed slowly but steadily” (Young, n.d.).  By the mid-1850s, the Democratic party had put formal mechanisms of party discipline in place within Texas, including the convention system’s role in recruiting and training candidates for office.

Democratic dominance in state politics solidified leading into the Civil War:

“In the years after 1854 the ongoing upheaval in national politics influenced the party. In the process Texans moved away from an earlier identification with Jacksonian nationalism and became closely associated with the states’-rights goals of the lower South . . . During the Civil War, the Democratic party in Texas became closely associated with the extreme proslavery wing of the Democratic party in the Confederacy, and partisan activity came to a halt.” (Young, n.d.)

Reconstruction: A Republican Intermission (1867-1874)

Following the Civil War, the Democratic party in Texas split between unionist Democrats and secessionist Democrats.  During this period, the Democratic party began to reorganize itself both nationally and within the state, becoming a predominantly white southern party.  Unionist Democrats combined with the Free-Soilers to form the Republican Party, which became the party of business, the middle-class, and newly enfranchised Africa Americans.

In 1867, the Republican party “secured many county and state offices when federal military officers removed [Democratic] incumbents as ‘impediments to Reconstruction’ and replaced them with Republicans”, which “gave Republicans control over voter registration and placed party loyalists in positions to aid local party development” (Moneyhon, n.d.).  By 1869, the Republican party had gained control of state government, partially “as a result of the split among Democrats but more as a result of congressional Reconstruction nationally” (Young, n.d.).

Republican control was short-lived: by 1869, different factions of Texas Republicans had emerged – the Conservative Republicans and the Radical Republicans – and started fighting internally, creating division within the party, and by 1872, the Democratic party had regained control of the Texas legislature and, with the ratification and adoption of the Texas Constitution of 1876, removed the remaining influence of the Republican party by limiting the powers of the state, reducing state services, and limiting the state’s taxation power.

Late 19th Century

Throughout the late 1800s, the Democratic party remained the major political party by focusing on concerns from the Civil War era and encouraging candidates loyal to these causes through the convention process.

Rapid economic and social change amidst the Industrial Revolution led to the rise of protest movements and minor political parties within the U.S.  During this period, the Democratic party continued to face serious challenges from other political groups.  While the Democratic party survived these challenges and maintained a heavy presence in Texas government and politics, these challenges shaped the Democratic party.  Notable challengers include the Greenback party, which ultimately forced the Texas Democratic party to start focusing on economic problems within the state, the Farmers’ Alliance, which forced the Texas Democratic party to adopt a platform that supported the abolition of national banks and the regulation of businesses (this is when the Railroad Commission was created), and the People’s party (also known as the Populist party), which resulted in the Democratic party adopting various items from the populist platform.

Progressive Era (1900-1920)

“Texas did not become a real one-party state until after 1900, when the Republican party sank into insignificance and minor parties largely disappeared” (Political Parties, n.d.).  The emergence of Texas as a one-party state, however, did not mean that differences of opinion did not exist – rather, factions within the Democratic party emerged, and “Texas voters came to look upon the Democratic primary as the real election, because its nominees were largely unopposed in the general election and because Democratic factionalism in the primaries in reality substituted for party politics” (Political Parties, n.d.).

During the first two decades of the 20th century, the Democratic party split into two factions: progressives, who favored moral and cultural reforms (including prohibition, or laws preventing the manufacture and sale of alcohol), and those who opposed progressivism.  During this period, personality also played an important role, as factions within the party formed around individuals such as Governor James E. “Pa” Ferguson.  Progressive Democrats united in opposition to him.  Once he was impeached and removed from office, his successor – William P. Hobby, Sr. — worked with the Texas legislature (controlled by progressive Democrats) to enact the progressive agenda of prohibition, women’s suffrage (i.e., the right to vote), and reforming election laws.

Roaring ’20s

“For Texas Democrats the decade of the 1920s was a bridge between the ethnocultural issues of the Progressive Era and the economic concerns of the Great Depression and the New Deal” (Young, n.d.).  During this time period, Texas’s Democratic party began to focus on business progressivism and creating an expanded and more efficient government, taking up issues like highway development, prison reform, education reform, industrial expansion, economic growth, and the Ku Klux Klan.  Two progressive Democratic governors were elected during this time period: Pat Neff and Miriam “Ma” Ferguson.  Their success in translating the progressive platform into government action, however, was limited:

Despite Pat Neff’s gubernatorial administration (1921–25) and its attention to the cause of business progressivism . . . the legislature was not willing to accept all of Neff’s ideas. The result was a mixed record on business progressivism . . . the presence of Ma (Miriam A.) Ferguson as the leading anti-Klan candidate further weakened the progressive Democratic forces in the state. However, electing Mrs. Ferguson did have one ameliorative affect on Texas politics, namely the elimination of the Klan as a political force.” (Young, n.d.)

Leading into the 1928 presidential election between Republican candidate Herbert Hoover and Democratic candidate Al Smith, Texas’s Democratic party began to split in response to prohibition laws that had been passed during the previous decade, with wet Democrats favoring a dismantling of prohibition and dry Democrats advocating to maintain prohibition.  “Some of the state’s most ardent Democratic supporters of prohibition put principles above party and worked for the Republican nominee Herbert Hoover in the general election rather than support the Catholic wet candidate, Al Smith.” (Young, n.d.).  Hoover also gained the support of the Ku Klux Klan (which was less influential than in previous years), some Texans in the oil industry, and many fundamentalists.

Hoover became the first Republican presidential nominee to win Texas.  “At the state level, however, almost no change took place. The state Democratic party remained in the hands of conservatives, whose views of the role of government and fiscal policy were almost indistinguishable from those of Republicans” (Moneyhon, n.d.).

New Deal-WWII

The New Deal initially resulted in harmony and unity within Texas’s Democratic party as the state sought to bring about economic recovery; however, but the late 1930s, factions re-emerged in reaction to the national Democratic party (this time between liberal, New Deal Democrats and conservative Jeffersonian Democrats).  This division intensified as Franklin D. Roosevelt ran for his third presidential term.  In 1938, conservative Democrats began to re-enter the scene in state government with the election of W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel as governor.  Internal fighting within the party continued until World War II, when “attention to foreign policy . . . temporarily slowed the battles between the warring factions” (Young, n.d.).

In 1944, political tensions in Texas heightened in response to two events:

  • The U.S. Supreme Court declared Texas’s white primary law, which (as the name suggests) only allowed white voters to participate in the primary election, unconstitutional in the case Smith v. Allwright.  Because the “real” politics in Texas up until this point occurred not in the general election but rather in the primary election, this significantly changed who could meaningfully participate in state politics.
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt’s decision to run for his fourth presidential term “heightened tensions between the Roosevelt and anti-Roosevelt wings of the party . . . [and] led conservative Texas Democrats to join with the American Democratic National Committee, an organization formed to defeat the president . . . and arranged for the placement on the November ballot of an independent slate of electors who would never vote for FDR” (Young, n.d.).

These events demonstrated that a growing number of Texans favored conservative politics, regardless of whether those views aligned with the Democratic party’s state platform.  Texas’s Democratic party took note; “actions including the appointment of conservative businessmen to state boards and commissions and the passage of a right-to-work law that Texas governors, all Democrats, implemented during the 1940s reflected the dominant conservatism of the state” (Young, n.d.).

Two-Party Competition (1950s-1994)

Following the presidential election of 1828, Texas’s support for Republican presidential candidates continued to grow; however, outside of the presidential election, the Democratic party maintained a stronghold over Congress and state government . . . that is, until the 1950s.

By the end of the 1940s the Democratic party in Texas had split at least three ways-into a conservative wing that usually controlled state politics, a liberal wing that had supported the New Deal and that later championed the rights of women, the working class, and ethnic minorities, and a group in the middle that shifted back and forth between the two extremes. By the middle twentieth century the Texas Democratic party was riven by factional strife. The liberal-conservative Democratic split also aided the development of a viable state Republican opposition. (Young, n.d.)

Leading up to the 1950s, support for Republican party candidates in Congressional and state elections did not grow; however, the sources of Republican votes changed.  Texas’s Republican Party no longer had a strong African American base and instead garnered most of its support from the Panhandle region, counties with oil and gas interests, and urban counties, “where economic conditions and general prosperity produced a heterogeneous community with middle-class, professional, and business groups to offer support for the party . . . provided the greatest number of Republican votes” (Moneyhon, n.d.).

The Republican party entered a transitional era after 1950 that lasted until 1978.  This period was marked in part by increasing strength at the polls.  This growing strength was first seen in presidential elections, with Republican presidential candidates consistently winning Texas’s electoral votes.  Texas Republicans were elected to serve into the U.S. House of Representatives (Alger, 1954), the U.S. Senate (John G. Tower, 1961), and governor’s office (William P. Clements, 1978).  “In addition, urban centers sent more Republicans to the state legislature after a federal court ruling in 1972 abolished multimember legislative districts in the state’s cities, thus ending the ability of conservative Democrats to control county politics” (Moneyhon, n.d).  For the most part, however, the Republican party’s “Statewide election success was not paralleled at the local level, either in district and county offices or in the state legislature.” (Moneyhon, n.d.).

Division within the Democratic party continued as liberal Democrats pushed to establish a liberal Democratic party in Texas; however, despite this division, there was “little growth in the number of [conservative] Texans who actively identified with the [Republican] party at the state level . . . Though voters demonstrated increasing independence from their traditional ties to the Democratic party, they did not firmly identify with the Republicans” (Moneyhon, n.d.).  Some conservative Democratic voters began to realign their party identification, and by the mid-1960s, 37% of Texans who said they were once conservative Democrats had left the Democratic Party and joined the Republican party.  New conservative voters also began to identify with the Republican party.  What ultimately led to the rise of the Republican party as a viable contender to the Democratic party in state government and politics, however, was the urbanization of Texas:

“The party’s growing strength was partly a natural result of the shifting demography of Texas. As late as 1940 the majority of Texans lived in rural areas, but by 1950 the urban population had expanded to 59.8 percent of the state’s population, and by 1980 urban dwellers accounted for 79.6 percent of the total . . . As these regular Republican strongholds expanded, the party’s power in state elections rose as well.” (Moneyhon, n.d.). 

The 1970 election (which was a midterm election in which members for the 92nd U.S. Congress were elected) signaled the emergence of a competitive two-party system in Texas, and Clements’s election as governor in 1978 solidified the two-party system in state government.

The strength and size of the Republican party continued to grow, and by the early 1990s, about one third of the state’s voting eligible population identified as Republicans.  In response, the Democratic party “encouraged the development of a more moderate leadership for party machinery and pushed some individual Democratic candidates to try to appear more conservative than their Republican challengers” (Young, n.d.).  The Democratic party’s attempt to regain strong control of state government – or, at the very least, maintain the two-party system in Texas – by appealing to moderate and conservative voters ultimately failed.

Republican Dominance (1994-present)

“At the beginning of the 1990s, some analysts concluded that Texas had not only developed a vigorous two-party system but that the state also had become primarily Republican. After a hundred years as a minority party, the Republicans had become the majority.” – Moneyhon, n.d. opens in new window

The Republican party had grown into a strong political force in Texas by the early 1990s.  The early 1990s was a period of party realignment, or a transition period when a party system dominated by one of the two major parties is replaced by another system dominated by the other party.  In 1992, “59 of 150 House members and 13 of 31 senators were Republicans” (Moneyhon, n.d.).  Then, in 1994, the Republican party “regained the governor’s office, retained the office of agricultural commissioner, gained all three seats on the Railroad Commission, and picked up two congressional seats” (Young, n.d.), ushering in an era of Republican dominance.

Republican party dominance over the past few decades resembles the Democratic party dominance that existed in Texas during the early to mid 20th century.  The Republican party routinely controls most positions in the state’s plural executive and both chambers of the Texas legislature (although there is clearly still competition from the Democratic party, as the Republican’s majority in both chambers of the 87th Texas Legislature is slim, similar to the Democratic party’s majority in 1992). Republican voters tend to be more engaged – and show up at the polls – more often than do Democratic voters, particularly when it comes to primary elections:

“In 2014, without a presidential race topping the ballot, 1.36 million Republicans came to vote in the primaries. At the same time, only 560,033 Democrats turned out. The numbers have been like that for years. They vary depending on whether candidates are competitive, what issues are on the ballot and so on. But with a few notable exceptions, more Republicans than Democrats show up for primary elections in Texas . . . The Democratic primaries have plenty of contests, but at the state level they don’t feature people who have, at least so far, exhibited the kind of charisma or passion needed to get the party’s voters to the polls.” (Ramsey, 2018)

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