WASHINGTON D.C. (AP) – When President George W. Bush left office in 2009, taking his Texas twang and sagging poll numbers with him, skeptics said he took something else: the state’s political clout.
Without a Texan in the White House, the logic went, and with Democrats in control of Congress, the Lone Star State would lose some luster. Gone, for sure, were decades of Texans like House speakers Sam Rayburn and Jim Wright or Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson ruling the roost. In Washington there was talk of Texas fatigue and new power centers.
Turns out, it was a little premature.
After three years and a midterm election sweep by the GOP, Texas is once again a force in the nation’s capital. Texans lead key committees in the House of Representatives. They run the GOP’s campaign arms in the House and the Senate. They are ascending the ranks of leadership in both chambers. And soon, thanks to a U.S. census report that shows surging growth, there will be more of them here.
Tally it all up and it’s clear Texas’ footprint is growing in Washington, not shrinking.
“After President Bush left the White House there was this notion that somehow Texas had faded,” said Sen. John Cornyn. “I think people’s judgment was a little premature.”
Cornyn, who is serving his second term, leads Texas’ resurgence in the Senate. As chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the national fundraising arm for Senate campaigns, he helped recruit and financially back the GOP’s newcomers. He is reprising his role as Republicans eye flipping the Senate in 2012 when 23 Democrats will defend their seats. Cornyn also recently announced he would seek the GOP’s No. 2 spot in the Senate in 2012, when Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., retires next year.
In the House, a new Republican majority has meant much more influence for Texas.
Cornyn’s counterpart in the House is Rep. Pete Sessions, a Dallas-area congressman who will also reprise his role in charge of House Republicans’ campaign efforts ahead of 2012 elections. Other Texans are also moving up the ranks: Rep. Jeb Hensarling was elected by his colleagues as the GOP Conference chairman, the fourth ranking member in House leadership, earlier this year. Texas Reps. Ralph Hall and Lamar Smith serve as chairmen of the House Committees on Science, Space and Technology and Judiciary, respectively.
“Whatever disenchantment with the state might have emerged in the past, it doesn’t have much of a shelf life when you get down to the realities of political realities,” said Bruce Buchanan, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
Size matters, in other words, and Texas is only getting bigger. Earlier this year the U.S. Census Bureau announced that Texas would gain four congressional seats in 2012, a development that will not only increase Texas’ power, but diminish the clout of some of its larger state rivals in the House.
“It’s another byproduct of our growth. People vote with their feet,” Cornyn said.
If the state is fully ascendant now, Texas certainly plowed some lows in recent years. It began in 2005 with the resignation of Tom DeLay as House majority leader after he was indicted — and later convicted — on felony charges related to corporate campaign donations. Democrats swept to power in 2006, shoving much of the state’s GOP congressional majority out of power.
Then, as Bush prepared to leave office in 2008, something more peculiar happened. For the first time since 1972, four years after President Lyndon Johnson left office to go home to Texas, none of the state’s renowned breed of ambitious politicians — bar a quirky, longshot in Rep. Ron Paul — mounted a realistic bid for the presidency or was on either party’s ticket.
Texas had not only lost a large measure of its power, but seemingly some of its renowned swagger in Washington.
That could never last for long, Buchanan said.
“Texans constantly get in one kind of trouble or another, but they always bounce back,” he said. “It has to do with its ambitious political culture and the laws of large numbers.”
Texas’ power has not returned to its pre-DeLay, pre-Bush heights, never mind years gone by when Johnson kept an iron grip on the Senate or Rayburn presided over the House. But the state’s influence is growing again — and so is its bravado.
“You could never keep Texas down very long,” said Matt Mackowiak, a GOP political operative who has run various races and worked for members in the delegation. “By virtue of its size and commerce and all of that, Texas is a leader and it always will be.”
Or, as Cornyn puts it: “We’re a state of 25 million people in a country of 300 million . The fact of the matter is Texas has always sort of been pulling the wagon.”
Beyond the sheer numbers, observers say there is something else about the state — a certain irrepressibility in its character.
“You never really get tired of Texas,” said John Pitney Jr., a former Republican congressional aide and a professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna college in California.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)