When Reagan Broke His Own ‘Rule’
“Vive Ole!…Vive Ole!…We Want Reagan! We Want Reagan!…Vive Ole!”
At the 1976 Republican National Convention in Kansas City, Mo., this was the rallying cry of the Texas delegation. In April of that year, just weeks after Ronald Reagan had won his first presidential primary (North Carolina) over Gerald Ford, Texas delivered all 96 of its convention delegates to the challenger. North Carolina may have kept Reagan’s insurgent candidacy alive, but Texas put him in head-to-head competition with President Ford.
At a subsequent state party meeting, the Texas Reaganites elected an additional four at-large delegates for their hero. In so doing, they showed their strong spirit by denying a delegate’s slot to conservative Sen. John Tower, the only Republican holding statewide office, because he was a Ford-backer. This passion continued to Kansas City, where they wore hats, chanted “Vive Ole!” and blew horns. Texas delegation leader Ray Barnhart and Guy Hunt, the Alabama leader (who would become governor of his state in 1986), became close friends as they worked closely on issues such as changing convention rules to require candidates to name their vice presidential choice before the balloting.
That measure, which was designed to hurt Ford, narrowly failed, as did Reagan’s challenge to Ford. He lost to the President by a close margin of 1,187 to 1,070. The rest, as they say, is history.
“Reagan’s Raiders,” as the pundits called themselves, never quit after Kansas City. In September of that year, brandishing their hats and tooting their horns, they came within a handful of votes at the state convention of dislodging Texas GOP Chairman Ray Hutchison (now married to GOP Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison) with their man Barnhart. A year later, Hutchison voluntarily relinquished the party helm and Barnhart assumed the chairmanship with ease. Under his leadership, the GOP continued to court conservative Democrats, elected the first Republican governor since Reconstruction, and laid the groundwork for becoming the dominant party in Texas it is today.
The legacy of “Reagan’s Raiders” in modern Texas politics is huge. One of them was Jim Reese, stockbroker and former three-term mayor of Odessa, who was Reagan’s Ector County campaign chairman in the 1976 primary. That same year, inspired by Reagan, Reese took on a Herculean challenge by accepting the Republican nomination against Democrat Rep. George Mahon. “Herculean” is no exaggeration: Mahon had been in Congress since 1934, had not faced a GOP opponent since 1964, and was chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee. In November, Reese astonished pundits and pols by drawing a record 46% of the vote against the venerable incumbent.
Two years later, when Mahon decided not to run again, Reese again found himself a candidate. But, because the open seat was in a district he had demonstrated was winnable by a Republican, there was strong competition for the GOP nomination. So Reese turned to Reagan for support. With an eye on the 1980 presidential nomination, the former California governor and his political team had a rule of making no endorsements in a contested primary (except for incumbents). But in this one particular case, Reagan himself chose to break that rule and support “76er” Reese over a young, first-time candidate. His name was George W. Bush.
Reagan vs. Bush
“The National Republican Congressional Committee had helped me in 1976, and I also had the support of Human Events,” beamed Reese, now 75, when I reached him at his Odessa home. “It was easy for them to convince me to run again in 1978, particularly since Mahon had decided to retire.”
The 31-year-old Bush had announced his intention to run before Reese. Raised in Midland until his family moved to Houston while he was a teenager, Bush had gone on to Yale and Harvard Business School, worked in Republican Senate campaigns in Florida and Alabama, and then relocated to Midland after his Air National Guard stint was completed in the early 1970s. New to the oil business in Midland, Bush was nonetheless from the county with the largest GOP base in the 19th District and Reese was not.
“At the Petroleum Club in Midland,” James Moore and Wayne Slater wrote in their biography of Karl Rove, “everybody was for young George.” More significantly, his father’s voluminous Christmas card list helped to get money flowing into George W.’s campaign: “Mrs. Douglas MacArthur, former CBS President Frank Shakespeare, former Ambassador to the Court of St. James Anne Armstrong, Donald Rumseld, auto executives from Detroit, oil tycoons from Houston, the whole blue-chip list was digging into its pockets and dumping money into a West Texas district,” wrote Moore and Slater.
With attractive wife Laura stumping hard for her husband and the campaign managed by younger brother Neil, Bush began breathing down the neck of presumed front-runner Reese. Moreover, the elder Bush dispatched his political operative Karl Rove to advise his son’s campaign. As Reese recalled, “I realized that it was going to take a lot of work to overcome the money and the prestige that could be marshaled against me.”
Reese contacted Lyn Nofziger, head of Reagan’s political action committee, Citizens for the Republic. “I had heard good things about Jim,” Nofziger told me, “so I sent him $1,000 [from CFTR]. This apparently created a stir in Texas because shortly thereafter, Bill Clements [who was running for governor of Texas] and his wife Rita came to see Reagan at his home in Pacific Palisades. Reagan asked me to be there. At one point, Clements [a Bush family friend and finance chairman of the elder Bush’s first Senate race in 1964] brought up the donation to Reese and told Reagan, ‘You should give another $1,000 to George W. Bush.’ I said, ‘Mr. Clements, we don’t do business that way.’ Nothing more was said about it.”
Reagan himself came to Abilene, Tex., to deliver a speech in the spring of 1978 and Reese met him there. Reese recalled, “I met with Reagan and two supporters, Mike Deaver [who traveled with Reagan during speaking dates] and Ernie Angelo [Texas Republican National Committeeman and co-chairman of Reagan’s 1976 state campaign, but also a friend of the elder Bush from Midland]. When I asked for his help, the two of them warned that, for all kinds of reasons, he should not become involved in a contested primary.”
Reagan politely listened to all three of the others in the room. “Then he asked me what he could do to help,” Reese said. “I told him that I needed his public endorsement. He agreed.”
A short time later, Reagan was in Amarillo. Reese met him there and they filmed a 30-second spot, with the Californian’s hand on his shoulder.
Reese carried 16 of the 17 counties in the primary, but Bush’s strong showing in Midland County gave him a lead of 47% to 42%, with the remainder going to retired U.S. Air Force officer Joe Hickox. In the run-off, Reese again topped the race in 16 counties, but Bush snatched the nomination once the absentee ballots from Midland came in.
The easy winner of the Democratic nomination was state Sen. Kent Hance, also a conservative. “Democrats have trouble realizing this, but when they nominate a conservative in Texas, he will always beat a Republican,” said Hance, who lost a primary bid for the Senate in 1984 to liberal Lloyd Doggett (now a U.S. House member himself) and subsequently became a Republican.
Would Reese have beaten Hance had he overcome Bush? “I don’t know,” Hance told me, “but I’m sure my margin would not have been 54 to 46.”
Perhaps the most poignant post-mortem on the ’78 race came from Karl Rove, who told reporters that the young Bush had “a bright future in politics, but it’s not out here.”
Was Reagan’s support of Jim Reese over George W. Bush for Congress a unique primary involvement?
“No, here are other cases where Reagan was involved in nomination fights,” Nofziger told me. “In ’76, Orrin Hatch, who had been one of our delegates from Utah, was running for the [GOP] Senate nomination in a contested race. We sent an endorsement from Reagan, but I never told him or Deaver or anyone, and Hatch won easily. He had these rules such as staying out of primaries. But we broke them when we could.” The Reese endorsement is unique, however, in that Reagan himself made the call.
“There is no doubt that he wanted to help his friends from ’76,” recalled Gary Hoitsma, who was a travel aide to Reagan in ’76 and later media director of the Texas GOP under Barnhart, “Left to his own devices, Reagan’s endorsement of Reese was not surprising considering that by 1978, the lines were being drawn for the eventual 1980 Reagan-Bush contest in the state.”
“I never saw George after our primary,” said Reese.”He’s doing a fine job as President. The endorsement from Reagan in the ’78 primary was, without question, one of the proudest moments of my life. It said a lot about Ronald Reagan.”