TEXAS IS NO longer a windswept table-top populated by cowboys and a few thousand chicanos. It now boasts two of the nation's fastest growing urban areas, the NASA Manned Space Craft Center, the Astrodome, and, of course, all those oil companies. It has a burgeoning population of over 11 million, 13 per cent black, and 15 per cent chicano. And, with 26 electoral votes. Texas ranks fourth among the season's top political prizes.
Traditionally, Texas has been Democratic. But a Democrat in Texas can be anyone from liberal state representative Francis "Sissy" Farenthold, runner-up to Tom Eagleton in the balloting for the Democratic vice-presidential nomination, to former governor John Connally, Nixon's former Secretary of the Treasury who now heads Democrats for Nixon. "Conservative" is the key word in Texas politics; it is a land of "conservative" Democrats.
Ever since they managed to wrest control away from the Republican Reconstructionists in the post-Civil War days, the conservative Democrats have had a hammer-lock on state politics. Although its specific interests have changed over the years, the Texas political elite has become more sophisticated in its dealings rather than more responsive to the needs of the diverse Texas constituency.
The decade of the sixties saw this Texas elite riding high in the saddle, with Connally in the governor's mansion and Lyndon Johnson in the White House. Johnson gradually became more liberal, at least in his domestic policies, while Connally moved even farther to the right as the champion of big business. But both men, in their time, exercised a lucrative control over state government that was made possible by their sharp minds and their self-confidence--as businessmen born to rule.
Johnson and Connally were polished politicians, adept at their art, and in that way much unlike their successors, Gov. Preston Smith and his crew, who bumbled their way into a widely publicized stock scandal. As the leader of the Dirty Thirty, a group of "suicide" liberal legislators, "Sissy" Farenthold was able to expose some of the corrupt, clandestine practices of the Smith group. Last spring Farenthold lost a run-off for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination to Dolph Briscoe, a conservative of the Connally line, by a margin of 55-45. Briscoe will win easily on November 7, but Farenthold's showing was the best ever by a Texas liberal.
Whether this bodes well for McGovern's chances of carrying the state is as yet uncertain. A Daniel Yankelovich poll taken August 25-September 12 showed Nixon leading 71-18, but since that time, both McGovern and Shriver have toured the state. An October 20 poll cited by the McGovern-Shriver state campaign headquarters showed Nixon leading by a margin of 52-38, which, according to state campaign chairman Donald O'Brien, marked a ten point gain for the South Dakota senator in a little over a week.
"I feel as I have since the nomination: Texas is winable, but it will be very close," Farenthold said in a recent interview. "This year has not been unique because of John Connally and the Democrats for Nixon. Texas is definitely a two-party state in November, though not in the spring (when state elections are held)." In my run-off for governor, there were almost two million votes cast, and on that same day only 60,000 votes were cast in the Republican run-off," Farenthold added. "Now you know it's not going to be like that on November 7 because of change-overs."
Except for the year of the Lyndon Johnson landslide, presidential contests in Texas have been excruciatingly close. In 1960, Kennedy carried the state by a mere two per cent, while Humphrey won by a margin of only 1.2 per cent. Party loyalty goes a long way in Texas, but it seems to stop just short of the White House. In order to capture the state, McGovern will need strong support from the traditionally Democratic minority groups in the state, as well as from newly registered voters.
"There's the black vote, which needs to be high, and of course, the Mexican-American vote, too," Farenthold explained. "But most importantly--and I think this is the key to Texas politics--McGovern needs the rural vote, which I did not have. You just don't carry Texas without rural support."
UNTIL 1960, a majority of Texans lived outside of the state's urban areas. With the influx of big business led by the nation's major oil companies, this balance rapidly shifted. Today, rural counties account for only about 30 per cent of the vote in Texas, but these districts are still considered "swing" areas. "They've always been solidly Democratic, but in recent years, especially in (former U.S. Senator) Ralph Yarborough's case, there's been some migration," explained John C. White, state Commissioner of Agriculture and co-chairman of the Texas McGovern-Shriver campaign. "Like the people in the urban areas, they're not as concerned as they should be about farm programs and rural development programs."
"Actually, rural Texans tend to be a little bit more basically patriotic than Democrats in other parts of the country," White added. "People there tend to remember the Depression which hurt the rural areas very badly. They're not anti-welfare, but they believe that people ought to work. In some ways, they may not be as well informed as people in other areas."
"Still, there is the wheat scandal, and we do call it a scandal down here, which had a very negative effect on President Nixon," White said. "This is an early wheat harvest belt; our farmers lost millions of dollars. Of course, (Secretary of Agriculture Earl L.) Butz said that the farmers gambled and lost, but the feeling of our farmers is that they were the only ones who had to gamble.
In making an appeal for the Texas farm vote, McGovern will have to unite a host of desparate elements under his campaign banner. Texans in the panhandle region show mid-western Republican influences while East Texas is heavy Wallace country; Southwest Texas is a land of rugged individualists who tend to vote very conservatively. Much of the vote in these areas will probably go to Nixon. South Texas, however, has a large Mexican-American population. Although LaRaza Unida Party has not endorsed McGovern, the South Dakotan can still count on carrying the Rio Grande Valley counties: LaRaza does not yet control a large enough portion of the votes. "What LaRaza does is it cuts down on that enthusiasm," Farenthold said recently. "The key would be for Ted Kennedy to come down."
It would not hurt McGovern's chances if Lyndon Johnson "came down" as well. Thus far the powerful former president seems content to sit back on his ranch and let his white hair grow. Although he announced early in the campaign that he was supporting the entire Democratic slate, Johnson has adopted a Moynihanesque policy of "benign neglect" as far as the presidential race is concerned. Perhaps Johnson feels that actively supporting a man who so vociferously opposed his administration's policies would be going just a little too far. Johnson may sense quite rightly that his own influence in the state would suffer if he were to back the man who represents what the Republican Platform Committee has described as a "radical clique within the Democratic Party.
Other Texas Democrats have been less close-mouthed about the presidential race than Johnson. Former Johnson aide Larry Temple is heading Texas Democrats for Nixon, while Connally runs the national effort in Washington. Connally's group, however, is composed mainly of conservative businessmen, not unlike those who contributed to the fund used to finance the Watergate break-in. "I really feel that those people would be voting the same way without Connally," Farenthold said last week. "I think he's reflective of the way many people vote, but I don't think he brings people in."