When Ray Barnhart died on May 26 at age 85, newspapers recalled his accomplished political career as Texas state representative and Republican state chairman, and his stint as federal highway administrator under President Ronald Reagan.
But there was another key role that Barnhart played that may have been more significant in changing U.S. politics: when he helped oversee Reagan's sweep in the Texas GOP presidential primary in 1976.
That victory not only boosted the Californian's credentials as the key nomination opponent to then-President Gerald Ford, but it made many Americans begin to think for the first time of Reagan as Republican presidential material.
In his book "Rendezvous With Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America," author Craig Shirley makes the case that Reagan would not have become president in 1980 had he not challenged, and barely lost to, fellow Republican Ford in 1976. If that is so, Texas -- and Ray Barnhart -- inarguably played starring roles in the campaign that was pivotal to the eventual Reagan presidency.
When former Pasadena city councilman and state legislator Barnhart agreed to co-chair Reagan's 1976 campaign in Texas with Midland oilman Ernie Angelo, they were part of a motley band of conservative political outsiders nationwide.
With a few exceptions, nearly every elected Republican and party official had endorsed incumbent -- albeit unelected -- President Ford. It was a league of insurgents throughout the various states that lined up to run the Reagan campaign.
By the time the Texas primary came around on May 1, Reagan had lost four major primaries: New Hampshire, Florida, Illinois, and Wisconsin -- and won only North Carolina. With Texans including veteran GOP Sen. John Tower and newly minted Republican John Connally in the Ford camp, it would have been no surprise if the president had defeated Reagan.
But "Reagan's Rangers," as the campaign team was referred to in press reports, had other ideas. Barnhart and his colleagues recruited eager battalions of young conservative activists who worked feverishly for their hero Reagan.
In a state with no registration by party and an open primary, a strong effort was made to woo conservatives who had historically voted in the Democratic primaries.
Much as Republican Sen. Jesse Helms and his allies did in pulling off a Reagan upset in the North Carolina primary, Barnhart and Company ran their own show in Texas, and they hit hard.
TV spots that were independent of the national campaign slammed then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for what conservatives considered weakness in dealing with the Soviet Union. Familiar Reagan themes of the Ford administration overseeing the surrender of the Panama Canal were also underscored in Texas.
But when the dust settled, Reagan not only won but did so resoundingly -- carrying every congressional district in the Lone Star State and winning all 96 delegates to the Republican National Convention.
In one fell swoop, the challenger not only came within breathing distance of Ford in terms of convention delegates but, for the first time, had people thinking about what he would do as a nominee and president.
Later, the four at-large delegate spots from Texas that were selected at the state convention were all awarded to Reagan loyalists. One of them was a physician who had just won a special election to the U.S. House from the Houston area: Ron Paul.
Reagan lost a heartbreakingly close vote to Ford at the Republican National Convention in Kansas City by a vote of 1,187 to 1,070. But, of course, he came back to win in 1980, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Later, in 1976, Ray Barnhart himself lost a tight race for state party chairman but came back to win on his second try the following year. In 1978, Bill Clements became Texas' first Republican governor since Reconstruction, and the state quickly became a bastion of Republican conservatism.
Today, Texas is the largest state that Republican presidential candidates can rely on for electoral votes. It has not elected a Democratic governor in 23 years.
If an event can be traced back to the genesis of this political metamorphosis, it was Ronald Reagan’s victory in the 1976 Texas presidential primary. And one of the key players who made it happen was Ray Barnhart, Reagan revolutionary.
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