A Brief History of the Montgomery County Republican Party of Texas
By Dr. Walter (Wally) Wilkerson, County Chairman 1964 to Present
Republicanism in Montgomery County, Texas in the 1900s, like most counties in the southern states, suffered from the aftermath of the Civil War and the Great Depression. The Democrat Party’s dominance in Texas was overwhelming and unchallenged until the 1950s. General Dwight Eisenhower’s presidential victory in 1952, along with the patronage system of the time, created enough interest in the Republican Party to justify the appointment of a Montgomery County Chair and six Precinct Chairs. Due to the work of this organization, President Eisenhower’s 1956 victory margin in Montgomery County was 798 votes, after losing the county in 1952 by 468 votes. The County Chair, Herbert Cartright, resigned in 1957 when Eisenhower ordered Federal troops into Little Rock, Arkansas to enforce school integration, leaving a vacancy not filled until early 1962.
Nevertheless, in a 1961 special election to replace former U. S. Senator and newly elected Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson, Republican John G. Tower, an obscure college professor from Wichita Falls, carried the county with 51.5 % of the vote in his upset win of the Senate seat. This generated renewed interest in the Republican Party throughout the county.
Phillip Dickinson, a Sun Oil Company engineer, was appointed County Chair early in 1962. Under his leadership, the first Republican Primary election was held on May 5, 1962 with 38 votes cast. Shortly after the Primary, Dickinson was transferred by his company and James L. Young, a Humble Oil Company engineer, was named his successor. The Party was actively engaged in the gubernatorial campaign of 1962, won by Democrat John B. Connally. In early 1964, Young announced his departure from the county due to a transfer by the Humble Company.
The 1964 Republican Primary attracted 105 votes and Dr. Walter (Wally) D. Wilkerson, Jr., a Conroe family physician, was elected County Chair, an office he presently holds. County Republicans enthusiastically campaigned for State Representative nominee Leo T. Jones (County’s first Republican candidate since Reconstruction), Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater and Texas U. S. Senate nominee George H. W. Bush, of Houston. Goldwater and Bush ran a much stronger race in the county than they did statewide in their losses to President Lyndon Johnson and incumbent Democrat Senator Ralph Yarborough. As a result of the Goldwater and Bush campaigns, a small but permanent county GOP Headquarters was opened in 1965 at 308 Collins Street in Conroe adjacent to the much larger facility at 310 Collins Street acquired in 1994.
In an effort to build a stronger and a more competitive county Party, four Republican candidates were recruited in 1966 to challenge Democrats for three county offices and one precinct office. None polled more than 30 % of the vote, but they blazed a trail for many more candidates in future elections. The election of a county Republican officeholder was still only a distant dream.
The Party gradually grew in numbers and influence along with the county’s steady population growth for the remainder of the 1960s and through most of the 1970s. Republican candidates for national and state offices attracted increasing support, but candidates for county and precinct offices continued to be dominated by their Democrat opponents. In 1970, George H. W. Bush won the county (one of only twenty counties in the state) in his second unsuccessful bid to become U. S Senator. And in 1972, President Richard M. Nixon carried the county with over 77 % of the vote against Democrat George McGovern, beginning a string of consecutive Republican presidential victories through election 2004 in which President George W. Bush received 77.98% (104,654) of the vote against Democrat presidential candidate, U.S. Senator John Kerry.
The GOP received a big boost in 1976 when President Gerald Ford visited the county on a campaign tour through Texas during the 1976 Republican Presidential Primary contest between the President and Ronald Reagan. Upwards of 20,000 county residents crowded onto the west side of the Courthouse square in Conroe to greet the President. Following this appearance, county Republican workers and activists gathered at a reception for President Ford at the Holiday Inn. In spite of these national election victories, none of the county or precinct Republican candidates during this period polled more than 40 % of the county’s vote.
Finally in 1978, not only did Texas elect its first Republican governor since Reconstruction, William P. Clements, but the first Republican was elected to a county precinct office in over 100 years. Mrs. Pat Ruffin would soon be a Republican Justice of the Peace! This was indeed a historic event. But many more successes were later to be celebrated by county Republicans.
The first Republican County Commissioner was elected in 1980, followed by a second Commissioner (a woman) and the first Republican District Judge (and first countrywide elected official) in 1982. Republicans won a majority on the Commissioners Court and elected its first non-judicial countywide officeholder, the County Attorney, in 1984. The 1986 election was highlighted by an upset win in the County Judge’s race and a sweep of all three County Court at Law Judgeships. The Democrat Sheriff and District Attorney changed Party affiliations in 1988 and were elected decisively as Republicans. In 1990 and 1992, Republicans won all the District Judgeships in the county. Resounding victories in 1994, including strong wins by U. S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and gubernatorial candidate George W. Bush, left only one Democrat officeholder in the county. In June 1995, this officeholder announced a change to the Republican ranks. He was quoted as saying: “It was R or R; Republican or retire!”
The Republican Party’s arduous journey to create a two-party system in Montgomery County and to gain its present majority position was successful because of countless, dedicated volunteers, many determined candidates and generous, loyal contributors. In one of Stephen Ambrose’s books about WW II, he wrote of an interview with one of the soldiers who fought in the European campaign. Ambrose asked him to recall his most vivid memory of the campaign. The soldier paused, then told of a conversation he had with his grandson about the war. His grandson asked, “Granddad, were you a war hero?” And the soldier answered, “No, I served with a company of heroes!”
Montgomery County Republicans could declare,
“We served with a company of stampeding elephants!”