Since Rick Perry has surged to the front of the GOP pack, questions have been raised about his past membership in the Democratic party, which ended in 1989. Ron Paul recently posted a pretty hard-hitting web video blasting Perry for having backed Al Gore in 1988, and Joe Scarborough – MSNBC’s token Republican – made some snarky comments about Perry last week.

Is there anything to this criticism?

I don’t think so. Let's remember that Perry is not the first former Democrat to run for the Republican nomination. He's not even the first from Texas. He's the third. John Connally ran in 1980, and Phil Gramm ran in 1996 -- both were former Democrats.

Beyond this, a solid understanding of the South’s political transformation over the last century clarifies why a conservative like Perry could support Gore in 1988 and then run as a Republican 24 years later.

The core point to keep in mind is that the South did not become Republican overnight. Its transformation has taken decades and indeed is still ongoing. While Tennessee voted Republican in 1920 and several other states (including Texas) did so in 1928, it took a lot longer for the GOP to infiltrate the state and local levels. Why is that?

For starters, Perry was born in 1950, when there were still lots of bad memories about the Republican party in the South. The older folks back then had heard horror stories from their parents or grandparents about Republican carpetbaggers and scalawags– the (often corrupt) GOP officials who ran the region during Reconstruction. Beyond that, the GOP was most strongly identified with the Great Depression, while the Democrats were associated with FDR and the New Deal, which channeled lots of resources into the South. Meanwhile, Southern Democrats sat atop key committees in Congress, and were able to make sure the South got more than its fair share. (And if you ever wondered why so much of the space program is in the South, well…Lyndon Johnson of Texas was one of its biggest boosters!)

That’s vital context to remember. It’s one thing for a national hero like Dwight Eisenhower, who himself was born in Texas, to win support in Dixie, and quite another for people to start pulling the lever for local Republican candidates, especially when their Democratic representatives were doing so much for them.

What this meant in turn was that elite political actors in the South did not view the Republican party as a practical vehicle for their ambitions. So conservatives, moderates, and liberals would all crowd into the Democratic party, while local Republican candidates were just not to be taken seriously.

So for the first presidential election that an ambitious guy like Rick Perry was eligible to vote for – in 1972 – he probably did what a lot of Southerners did: register Democrat then vote for Richard Nixon.

As late as 1982, the Democrats still held more than 70 percent of all Southern congressional districts. In Texas, they held 76 percent of the state house and 84 percent of the state senate. So, when Perry ran for the legislature in 1984, of course he ran as a Democrat. He’d have been a fool to run as a Republican.

In the 1990s we see the beginning of the end of this political schizophrenia, where the South votes Republican for the White House (and sometimes the Senate), then Democratic for everything else. The GOP took a majority of the Southern congressional seats in 1994, and also won its first Southern state legislative houses. The process has continued ever since, but even now there are a handful of old style Southern Democrats still floating around the House – like Dan Boren of Oklahoma and Mike Ross of Arkansas. Even the deep red state of Alabama did not elect a Republican legislature until 2010, and the GOP has never won control of either house in Arkansas or Louisiana.

So, if you’re a conservative Democrat in Texas in 1988 of course you are going to support Al Gore in the primaries! Remember, Gore was much different back in the 1980s – when he consciously positioned himself in roughly the same place as Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, as a moderate who could appeal to voters inside and outside the South. The serious alternatives to Gore that year were Michael Dukakis and Jesse Jackson, so backing Gore was a no-brainer for a politician like Perry.

Perry switched parties in 1989, which might strike one as a little late in the game. He certainly wasn’t the last conservative to leave the Democratic party, but he wasn’t the first, either. Does that suggest he’s just a fair weather Republican?

I don’t think so. It’s a mistake to view the South as a monolithic region in terms of its politics. Obviously, there are huge racial differences in the region, but even whites have historically been divided across multiple socioeconomic categories. One was the elite planter-lawyer-doctor-merchant class, the “Bourbons,” who ran Southern politics up until about a half century ago. Another category consisted of the downscale, hardscrabble “Jacksonian” farmers who were the most eager backers of the populist insurgency in the 1890s. And most recently we’ve seen the rise of a “New South” middle class that is based on the energy, defense, and tech industries and that has a lot in common with the Northern GOP.

In each Southern state, there were differing mixtures of these and other groups, and the political alliances also varied on a state by state basis. Over time, all three of these groups have worked their way over to the Republican party. The first was the New South middle class, which is why the first solidly GOP House districts in Dixie (outside Appalachia) were in places like Dallas, Houston, and Tampa. Barry Goldwater won the elite Southern class in 1964 because it was the most staunchly segregationist; it then went for Wallace in 1968 and did not vote Republican consistently until after voting rights disappeared as an issue. The most recent entrant to the GOP coalition is that hardscrabble class of old Jacksonians.

Perry’s central Texas home of Haskell County probably falls into this last category. The populists did well here in 1892, the county voted for Hubert Humphrey over Wallace by a 3:1 margin in 1968, and it did not begin consistently voting for Republican presidential candidates until 2000. So it’s really not a surprise to me that Perry didn’t jump ship until after he planned to leave the state legislature.

None of this suggests that attacks on Perry for his Democratic past won’t be successful. They could be, in large part because the complicated history of Southern politics is not very well understood. However, the truth is that Perry’s past in the Texas Democratic party is not really a surprise at all, and frankly doesn’t tell us much of anything about him, as the Southern party was home to conservatives, moderates, and liberals for generations.

Load More