Dolph Briscoe survived a surprisingly strong challenge from Republican Henry Grover on Nov. 7, 1972, but the six-percent showing by the Raza Unida candidate made the Democrat the first Texas governor in 78 years elected without a clear majority of the votes.
State law can be confusing when it comes to choosing the chief executive. Since 1918 the two main political parties have been required to hold a runoff, if no contestant receives half of the primary vote. Not so in the general election, which has always been a winner-takes-all contest.
This rule has resulted in 11 “minority” governors, who took Texas’ top political prize without the approval of 50 per cent of the electorate. In fact, four of the first five gubernatorial races did not produce an outright winner.
When James Pinckney Henderson decided against standing for reelection in 1847, James B. Miller thought fortune finally had smiled on him. Even though Henderson beat him better than four-to-one in their two-man match two years earlier, the doctor who had opposed independence early in the Revolution thought he had the inside track.
Miller did succeed in rounding up many more votes in his second run for governor yet still came up 2,048 short. George T. Wood, a popular hero of the Mexican War, finished first with 48 percent of the ballots – 230 votes shy of the magic number.
Unlike his predecessor, Wood was only too happy to extend his stay for another two years. But a not-so-funny thing happened on the way to the inauguration.
Wood was waylaid at the polls in 1849 by Peter Hansbrough Bell, who threw his hat in the ring for strictly personal reasons. The 41-year-old Virginian nursed a wartime grudge against the governor for allegedly robbing him of his rightful share of military glory. What better way to get back at his archenemy than to beat him at his own game?
Bell did just that by grabbing 47 percent of the vote to Wood’s 40 percent. An Irish-born judge named John T. Mills accounted for the rest and kept the victor below 50 percent.
Two years later, Bell earned a place in the Texas history books by becoming the first governor to win reelection. But four opponents siphoned off enough support to restrict him to 48 percent.
Bell did not hang around to complete his second term, preferring instead to fill a vacant seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Lt. Gov. James W. Henderson held down the fort for the last 28 days of Bell’s watch before relinquishing the reins to the winner of the 1853 election.
Elisha M. Pease was the choice of barely a third of the ballots cast in the hotly contested six-man battle for the state’s highest office. (Ex-governor Wood placed third in the first of two doomed comeback bids.) More than a century and a half later, Pease’s 36.7 percent remains the record low for an elected governor.
Francis R. Lubbock did not fare much better with his 38.1 percent slice of the electoral pie in 1861. Edward Clark, who had taken Sam Houston’s place after the Hero of San Jacinto refused to swear allegiance to the Confederacy, fought tooth and nail to hold onto the governorship but lost it to Lubbock by 124 votes.
Following the Civil War and Reconstruction, elections for governor were dull lopsided affairs with predictable landslides sweeping Democratic nominees into office. That was the case in 1890 as James Stephen Hogg tripled the combined vote of his Republican and Prohibitionist rivals.
However, by the next election, the “People’s Governor,” as he is remembered today, was fighting for his political life against a dissident Democrat and Tom Nugent, the standard bearer of the People’s Party. Hogg’s popularity plummeted from 76 to slightly less than 44 percent, but the bruised and battered incumbent held on to renew his lease.
A unified Democratic Party proved to be too much for the insurgent Populists in 1894. While not quite reaching 50 percent, Charles A. Culberson did not have to break a sweat to beat the widely respected Nugent.
When the votes were counted in November 1972, no one was more surprised than Dolph Briscoe that his tally was two percentage points less than a majority. After all, 37 previous elections had been comfortable cakewalks for the Democrats.
But the South Texas rancher would not be the last “minority” occupant of the governor’s mansion. In his historic 1978 upset of Democrat John Hill, Republican Bill Clements came within 1,021 votes of a majority, and a dozen years later the Libertarian rained on Ann Richards’ victory parade by reducing her ballot share to 47 percent.
But it is the 2006 election that will have future historians scratching their heads. How could Gov. Rick Perry drop to 39 percent, the lowest ever for an incumbent, when the Democrat failed to break 30 percent?
The answer is, of course, that a renegade Republican billing herself as “one tough grandma” and an only-in-Austin character called “Kinky” together polled 30.5 percent!
“Texas Boomtowns: A History of Blood and Oil” available at the reduced price of $20.00 by mailing a check to Bartee Haile, P.O. Box 130011, Spring, TX 77393.