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The New California

In Republican politics, it’s Texas.

Aug 29, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 46 • By TOD LINDBERG
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Whether he wins the nomination or not, Rick Perry’s August charge into the top echelon of GOP presidential hopefuls marks at least this turning point: In national Republican politics, Texas is the new California.

Texas Longhorn Photo

The new face of the GOP

Back in the day—say, the 1960s through the 1990s—California was the jumping-off point par excellence in making a bid for the Republican presidential nomination.

The reasons were both obvious and subtle: With a population topping 37 million, the state is the nation’s largest. Since the 1970s, California’s huge economy has ranked no lower than eighth and as high as fourth against the nations of the world.

The state was an acknowledged trendsetter not only in culture, through the vast reach of Hollywood, but also in social trends and, especially, in politics. You could make a pretty good case that “the 1960s” began with the “Free Speech” movement at the University of California at Berkeley in 1964-65. Howard Jarvis’s Proposition 13, a successful 1978 California ballot initiative to limit property tax increases, was the beginning of the modern “tax revolt,” which Ronald Reagan would ride to the presidency in 1980.

California has been at the forefront of the issue of illegal immigration, both in terms of numbers of illegals entering and the political backlash against their presence. The marquee event was the state’s Proposition 187 in 1994, a law (subsequently found unconstitutional in federal courts) denying illegal immigrants access to such public services as education and health care. In 1996, California crystallized the debate over racial preferences by approving Proposition 209, which banned consideration of race, sex, or ethnicity by public institutions, most notably the state’s university system.

Then there were the intangibles: From Jed Clampett to Victoria Beckham, California was the place you ought to be. The year-round perfect weather of San Diego, the glitter of Hollywood and L.A., tech central in Silicon Valley, the progressive mecca of San Francisco, and the allure of wine country: Add to that the Central Valley and the Inland Empire, some of the most productive agricultural land in the world, and the attraction was overpowering. 

And for a long time, California was a state in which a Republican could do well at the polls, though not automatically. Richard Nixon was a congressman, then briefly a senator before Eisenhower picked him as his running mate in 1952. Ronald Reagan was a two-term governor. Pete Wilson, who entered the 1996 race as a top-tier contender for the GOP presidential nomination but fizzled out after throat surgery left him literally unable to speak, was twice elected to the Senate before resigning to run for governor in 1990.

Since then, however, California’s reputation as the avant garde of politics has been much in decline. The state’s economy has fared poorly, and its public finances have done even worse. The GOP has all but lost its competitiveness running statewide. Arnold Schwarzenegger might have extended the state’s pride of place as a GOP launchpad—except for his constitutional disqualification from seeking the presidency, not having been born in the United States.

What was a bit unclear as California was in decline, however—until last week, that is—was that any clear successor was emerging. One is. It’s Texas.

Texas is booming. Its population increased by just over 20 percent from 2000 to 2010, about double the national rate (which was about the same as California’s). In 2009, not a very good year, the Texas economy was just under $1.16 trillion, which ranked worldwide just behind Russia. Notwithstanding Democratic pundits’ efforts to pooh-pooh Texas’s economic success, its job growth barely hiccupped during the Great Recession. Within about a year of the onset of the financial crisis, Texas’s total employment found its bottom at a level about the same as that at the end of 2007—much better in percentage terms than any other state’s job-loss record—and quickly resumed a rate of growth similar to that from 2002 to 2008. Put it this way: If Barack Obama had Texas’s employment numbers nationally, he would be a shoo-in for reelection.

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