Look to Panhandle conservatives to defy Texas’ shift to the far right

Up in the Panhandle, where “conservative” still means “to conserve,” there’s a living memory of and responsibility toward pioneer ancestors who settled in what was still considered Comancheria and built communities in the midst of the Great Depression and Dust Bowl.

The region is a constellation of rural communities surrounding Amarillo. To borrow a geographic depiction from author S.C. Gwynne, it’s a dead-flat, high-altitude tableland that gradually slopes down to the turreted rock towers of the Caprock, which gate a politically fabled region.

Whatever political tides have flooded Texas, they’ve continually failed to rise much higher than the Caprock. Left to their own, to think and do on their own, frequent rebellions against various Texas establishments have emanated from the Panhandle. Defiance from the prairie has often proven to be a precursor of the state’s future course.

Back in the 1952 presidential election, the region signed up as Shivercrats, helping Democratic Gov. Allan Shivers win Texas for Republican Dwight Eisenhower.

Only 16 of 254 Texas counties backed Barry Goldwater over Lyndon Johnson in 1964 — eight of which were in the Panhandle. Goldwater begot Ronald Reagan, whose primary challenge to Gerald Ford the region backed in 1976.

Amarillo state Rep. John Smithee was sent to Austin in 1984 as one of only 55 GOP members. He’s now the second-longest-serving Republican in a Texas House with 95 GOP members.

Like their predecessors, Panhandle state legislators vote their rural districts. But today they do so while maintaining passable status with a Republican Party of Texas that kowtows to suburban activists.

For voting their districts — for voting against school vouchers and Austin mandates that do little to lower local school property taxes — Panhandle lawmakers have been targeted by outside groups that recruit and fund primary opponents.

Groups like Empower Texans call themselves conservative; however, the lexical root of the term proves to be “con.” Empower isn’t interested in conserving much of anything, especially rural places and interests.

The Panhandle is virgin terrain for Empower. The furthest north they’ve gone was getting Lubbock state Sen. Charles Perry elected. But in recent weeks, the region’s been flooded with mailers and advertisements. Political machinery like the region has never seen.

Longtime Amarillo Globe-News columnist Jon Mark Beilue recently did what too few rural, midsize news organizations have done, until it was too late, when he explained Empower to his readers…


The Dallas Morning News column was written by Other Side’s Jay Leeson. The entire piece can be read here.

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