Much hoopla has been made (at least by non-Southerners) about the fact that Rick Perry, a native Texan, was, until 1989, a Democrat. It is alleged on this basis that he’s a strident liberal.
Is it true?
Not if you examine his (admittedly not flawless) record, and not if you consider his party label in context.
Since practically the founding of the Democratic-Republican Party (which was later renamed the Democratic Party), the South had been a Democratic stronghold until at least 1970s, if not the 1980s, as any native Southerner and any credible student of Southern history will tell you.
From the end of the Reconstruction Era until at least the 1970s, if not the 1980s, the South was a Democratic monopoly. The Democrats were the only electable politicians in the South. Consider Rick Perry’s native state of Texas as an example. From the end of the Reconstruction Era until 1979, Texas had no Republican governors. NONE! In 1979, TX’s first Republican Governor since Reconstruction, William Clements, was sworn in, but he lost the 1982 election and was replaced by a Democrat. He later won the 1986 election, was sworn in for a second term in 1987, and left office in 1991. During this time, in 1989, Rick Perry joined the Democratic Party, because Texas (and the rest of the South) became more winnable and more hospitable for Republicans.
Texas was hardly the only Democratic bastion in the South. All 10 other former Confederate states were Democratic monopolies until at least the 1970s as well. Louisiana had zero Republican governors from 1877 (the end of the Reconstruction Era) until 1980, when David C. Treen was sworn in. Alabama had zero Republican governors from November 1874 until January 1987, i.e. for 112 years. Arkansas had zero Republican governors from 1874 until 1967 and only one from 1874 to 1981: Winthrop Rockefeller (1967-1971). South Carolina had zero Republican governors from 1876 until 1975, i.e. for 99 years. Florida had none from 1877 to 1967 and only one from 1877 to 1987 (Claude Kirk, who held office from 1967 to 1971). Virginia had zero Republican governors from 1874 to 1970 and only three from 1874 to 1994. Mississippi had none from 1876 to 1992, i.e. for 116 years, and only two from 1876 to today. Yes, the current Governor of Mississippi, Haley Barbour, is only its second Republican Governor since 1876! North Carolina had only one Republican governor during the 1877-1973 timeframe: Daniel Lindsay Russell, who governed the state for one term, from 1897 to 1901, and only three since 1877: Russell plus James E. Holshouser Jr. (1973-1977) and James G. Martin (1985-1993). Since then, North Carolina has again become a Democratic monopoly. Georgia was the most pro-Democratic of all states: since the end of the Reconstruction era, it had zero Republican governors from 1877 to 2003, i.e. for 132 years! The only exception to this rule was West Virginia, which has had numerous Republican governors since the end of the Reconstruction Era.
And it wasn’t just governorships that were unwinnable for Southern Republicans. Other statewide offices, including Senate offices, were also unwinnable. Take Georgia as an example again. Georgia elected its first Republican Senator since the Reconstruction Era, Mack Mattingly, in 1980, during the Reagan Revolution, and he served only one term. The second one, Paul Coverdell, was elected in 1992, and the third one, Saxby Chambliss, was elected in 2002. Moreover, Chambliss is the first-ever Class 2 Senator elected in Georgia (Mattingly and Coverdell were Class 3 Senators). That means that from the end of the Reconstruction Era until 1981, for 104 years, Georgia had NO Republican Senators or Governors, and only one from 1877 to 1993.
Rick Perry’s registration as a Democrat was a matter of political necessity, not of ideological choice. From the end of the Reconstruction Era until at least the 1970s, if not the 1980s, the South was a Democratic monopoly. During that time, if you wanted to be a viable candidate for a statewide office in the South, you HAD to be a registered Democrat. If you wanted to be have any serious chances of winning a statewide office, you HAD to be a registered Democrat. During that time, Republicans running for any office in Southern states had just as hard a time as they now have in today’s Democratic bastions like Illinois, New Jersey, and Wisconsin. Since the 1980s, the South has become a Republican bastion, though certainly not the one that it was for the Democrats before the 1970s. But it’s ridiculous to claim that it always has been.
If you are a Southerner and still a Democrat today, that’s a troubling sign. If you are a Southerner and were a Democrat before the 1990s, but joined the GOP, you’re merely a politician who wanted to be a viable candidate for statewide office.