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Morning Jay: Does it Matter that Perry Was a Democrat?

6:00 AM, Sep 9, 2011 • By JAY COST
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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.

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