REAGAN’S COMEBACK: FOUR WEEKS IN TEXAS THAT CHANGED AMERICAN POLITICS FOREVER
By Gilbert Garcia
Trinity University Press, $25.50, 210 pages
While this book’s subtitle is overly expansive, no one can deny that Ronald Reagan’s victory in the 1976 Texas Republican primary saved his presidential nomination campaign and opened the way for the Republican Party to dominate politics in the Lone Star state.
It was a remarkable election in many ways. By that time, Texans had become used to considering Republican presidential candidates, but they still voted solidly Democratic for state offices and legislators.
If it hadn’t been for one Democrat, there might never have been a Texas presidential primary in 1976, and Ronald Reagan might have faded into history. That year, one-term Sen. Lloyd Bentsen wanted to run for president. His key supporters had commissioned a poll that had found 67 percent of Texans liked the idea of a presidential primary in 1976. Bentsen consulted with Democratic legislators, suggesting they pass legislation the next year for such a primary.
They passed a bill that was tailor-made to help Bentsen. It even allowed him to run for re-election to his Senate seat while running for president. Early disappointments in the presidential sweepstakes, however, persuaded Bentsen to scale back his candidacy in the primary to that of “favorite son.” He was a bland campaigner, and Jimmy Carter was beginning to gobble up delegates elsewhere. By Election Day, many conservative Democrats had crossed over to vote Republican - for Ronald Reagan.
Until that time, the Republican Party in Texas was run by a small, clubby “establishment” headed by its one major elected official, Sen. John Tower. They were solidly behind President Ford for the nomination.
A few Texans had other ideas. Ray Barnhart, described by the author as “a brash, cantankerous 48-year-old entrepreneur” and Ernest Angelo, the soft-spoken mayor of Midland, became the leaders of the Reagan movement in the state. Recruited as co-chairmen were activist Barbara Staff and Jimmy Lyon, head of an independent bank. They were convinced that the stars and planets were aligned for a Reagan victory, given pent-up conservative dissatisfaction with the Republican establishment and conservative Democratic dissatisfaction with Bentsen.
This dovetailed with a major change in Reagan’s strategy. He and his staff arrived in Racine, Wis., late on Monday, March 22. By then, he had lost New Hampshire, Florida and Illinois. North Carolina, from which we had just come, did not look promising.
Campaign manager John Sears put forth a bold plan: Stop campaigning in Wisconsin, go back to California, raise money for a half-hour nationally televised speech, then work on the May primaries, which would favor Reagan - beginning with Texas on May 1. This is what happened. Jimmy Lyon, the loyal conservative banker, lent the campaign the money. Reagan’s speech was broadcast on NBC and raised well over $1.25 million.
Back on the ground in Texas, Mr. Barnhart and Mr. Angelo were building a grass-roots network of Reagan supporters, intent on supplanting the ever-cautious establishment with energetic conservatives. Author Gilbert Garcia brings out the drama in the race and gives us lively, colorful portraits of players - Mr. Barnhart, Mr. Angelo, Ron Paul (the only Texan member of Congress to endorse Reagan), current Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Tower, among others.
Reagan won all 100 Texas delegates in the primary. Mr. Garcia says, “Without Reagan’s 1976 blowout, the American conservative movement would have lacked a catalyst, a unifying force.” From it, Texas has become a Republican state with clear majorities in both legislative chambers as well as statewide elected offices.
The author also thinks this grass-roots takeover of the Texas Republican Party 36 years ago was the template for the successful development of the Tea Party movement.
There are some errors in the book, but none is major. The author says that when Reagan first campaigned in Texas he was making “foreign policy and America’s military strength the focus of the campaign.” He calls this a new theme. It wasn’t. It had been field-tested beginning with Reagan’s arrival in Florida on March 5. From that day forward, there was a daily insert of new specifics on these twin issues in his stump speech. By the time he first campaigned in Texas, they had become the dominant themes.
One small correction: Mr. Garcia identifies Deaver & Hannaford Inc. as a law firm. It was a public affairs/public relations firm, the one that managed Reagan’s public program after he left the governorship and in whose suite he had his own office for five years.
Despite these glitches, “Reagan’s Comeback” is an absorbing read for anyone interested generally in politics and particularly in the elements of Ronald Reagan’s success.
Peter Hannaford was co-director of issues and research in Ronald Reagan’s 1976 campaign. His latest book is “Reagan’s Roots: The People and Places That Shaped His Character” (Images From the Past, 2011).