If Historians are looking for a key moment that redefined the American political landscape, the election of George W. Bush as governor of Texas has to be it. Nearly 20 years later, it remains a mystery to me how "Boy George" beat a very popular incumbent governor. Texas Monthly sized up the situation by saying that Ann Richards underestimated Bush, waiting until it was too late to go after him. She seemed to think that her record spoke for itself.
She was also the victim of a profound demographic shift in Texas, which turned what had been a traditional Democratic state into a solid Republican state virtually overnight and the legacy lives on with Rick Perry in his 13th year as Governor.
It was also a signal change in Republican campaign tactics, spearheaded by Karl Rove, which used "character assassination" to undermine a much stronger candidate. A technique Rove would use mercilessly in the subsequent presidential elections. The most amazing being the attempt to discredit John McCain's Vietnam war record in the 2000 primaries, and later the Swift Boat ads he helped choreograph to undermine Kerry's Vietnam war record, when it was Bush who skipped out on Vietnam by joining the National Guard, which he infrequently attended.
At the same time, Rove presented Bush as a "compassionate conservative," appealing directly to conservative religious voters without turning off mainstream voters. The result was that half-million new Republican voters pitched up in 1994, who hadn't voted in 1990, turning a gubernatorial election that was too close to call into an 8-point rout.
Of course, Molly Ivins did a great job of reporting on Bush as governor and later president, summing her thoughts up in Bushwhacked. But, it seems a forgotten chapter in the meteoric rise of the least promising of the Bush sons.