Politics

Remembering Reagan’s Big Win in Texas

“Political leaders here believe that heavy, last-minute campaigning by President Ford has cut substantially into Ronald Reagan’s early lead in Texas, turning tomorrow’s Presidential primary into a cliff hanger that they said was too close to call.”

—The New York Times, April 30, 1976

In the annals of Ronald Reagan’s long and sometimes tortuous road to the White House, there were few days quite as memorable as the day (May 1, 1976)—now some 30 years ago—that Reagan unexpectedly swept all 100 delegates in the Texas.

Republican presidential primary in his 1976 nomination contest with President Gerald Ford. Against all conventional expectations, Reagan’s Texas victory was a blowout of stunning proportions. At the time, it gave an immeasurable burst of energy to the nation’s fledgling conservative movement, while it left America’s liberal anchorman, Walter Cronkite, in virtual delicious disbelief on primary election night.

Coming on the heels of his earlier upset victory in the smaller North Carolina primary following three earlier losses in New Hampshire, Florida and Illinois, Reagan’s Texas win helped propel his campaign through to the August convention in Kansas City. While Ford ultimately won the nomination in 1976, Reagan’s better-than-expected campaign that year laid the indispensable groundwork for his history-making success in 1980 and all that followed during the eight years of the “Reagan Revolution.”

As in most other states in 1976, the Texas Republican Party establishment was fully backing Ford, the incumbent President, while only a relatively small group of dedicated conservatives were backing Reagan. Ford’s campaign had the money, the high profile endorsements, the trappings of incumbency and all the expectations of victory on its side. By contrast, the leaders of the Texas Reagan campaign, Ray Barnhart and Ernie Angelo, had to endure being labeled “extremists” and “right-wing nuts,” while putting together what was truly a classic grassroots organization. Barnhart was a former GOP state representative from outside Houston. Angelo was the mayor of the West Texas oil town of Midland.

The people they recruited to be local and regional campaign leaders and to run for delegate slots under the Reagan banner were in large measure a group of party irregulars, conservatives motivated by their dedication to the patriotic ideals and principals espoused by Reagan. For many, bucking an incumbent Republican President ran against their normally traditional instincts and carried with it severe risks of retribution and ostracism within the party ranks assuming a Ford victory, which was a pretty good bet at the time. But these were people, like Barnhart and Angelo, who were not much interested in party favors, nor were they seeking jobs or spoils in the wake of any future Republican victory. In short, they were ordinary citizens who cared about America and believed deeply that Reagan had something special to offer.

At the ground level in Texas, conservative Democrats, later to be coined “Reagan Democrats,” were a force to be reckoned with. The Reagan campaign appealed to them directly with such bread and butter conservative issues as opposing the giveaway of the Panama Canal and pounding home sharp criticisms of the Ford-Kissinger version of détente with the

Soviets.

The American Conservative Union’s independent expenditure campaign weighed in with effective TV and radio ads and a cadre of motivated 20-something YAF-type volunteers and activists, many from outside Texas, spread out across the state to organize campaign activities in each of the state’s 32 congressional districts, where convention delegates were to be apportioned in the primary on system of winner-take-all by district. One day on the campaign trail in San Antonio, Ford didn’t help himself when, in a memorably humorous faux pas, he was offered a Tex-Mex tamale and proceeded to try to bite into it without removing the inedible husk.

By primary election day, the convergence of a growing conservative state electorate with a likeable conservative candidate articulating a powerful conservative message overcame the powers of a formidable incumbent Republican President. Reagan won every congressional district and thus every district delegate.

Barnhart, who was later elected chairman of the Texas Republican Party and then appointed by Reagan in 1981 as federal highway administrator, recalled that he had learned the true measure of Reagan’s character during one incident in that early first hard-fought campaign in Texas. He said he was stunned when Reagan calmly turned down an extraordinary opportunity Barnhart had arranged for the governor to make a cameo scripture-reading appearance at W.A. Criswell’s Sunday worship service at his Baptist Church in Dallas. Criswell was an icon to more than four million Texas Baptists who Barnhart knew would be mightily impressed by a Reagan appearance

“We’re not going to it,” Reagan said. “Not do it?” Barnhart replied. “There isn’t a politician in Texas who wouldn’t cut off his arm for this opportunity.”

“You don’t understand, Ray.” Reagan responded. “My relationship with my God is MY relationship, and we’re not going to abuse it.”

Years later Barnhart recalled, “I knew at that moment there’d never be a man in politics more principled and deserving of respect.”

Sign Up