Texas Gov. Rick Perry smiles as he takes the stage to speak to supporters at his victory party Tuesday night at the Salt Lick BBQ in Driftwood, Texas.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry smiles as he takes the stage to speak to supporters at his victory party Tuesday night at the Salt Lick BBQ in Driftwood, Texas. LM Otero/AP
Anti-Washington animus already has members of Congress up for re-election in November running scared — with some literally running for the doors.
That fear is only going to intensify after Tuesday's Republican primary in Texas, which saw longtime state politico and two-term Gov. Rick Perry easily defeat U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Tea Party-affiliated candidate Debra Medina.
Message? There are two.
One: As witnessed in other recent races across the nation, anti-incumbent feeling continues to run strong — particularly when it comes to a Washington incumbent. (Hence Perry, an only modestly popular politician, won by successfully making the case that a Washington incumbent is a worse choice than a state office incumbent.) And two: The Tea Party movement, if it wants to remain durable, needs candidates who stand a better chance of being elected.
"The message is pretty clear," Perry said after Hutchison conceded. "Conservatism has never been stronger than it is today. And we're taking our country back — one vote at a time, one election at a time."
Perry will face Democrat Bill White, the former mayor of Houston, in the general election.
Unlikely Texas (GOP) Uniter
Perry won in a "very volatile electoral environment here, and that makes his success all the more laudable," says Jim Henson, who directs the Texas Politics project at the University of Texas, Austin.
Trailing Hutchison badly in early polls, he managed to pull together fractious and disparate groups of Republicans from the business establishment, the economic-populist group that bleeds into the Tea Party, and the party's religious conservative wing, Henson says.
Perry won with a two-pronged strategy: He tied Hutchison directly to Washington and successfully stoked the historic Texas us-against-them mentality. He also benefited after a surging Medina conveniently marginalized herself on Glenn Beck's radio show by saying valid questions have been raised about whether the U.S. government was behind the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The governor deftly avoided the anti-incumbency sentiment that has been poisoning political careers this year by making Hutchison the only incumbent who mattered in the race: the Washington incumbent.
Even before Tuesday's primary victory, Gov. Rick Perry's supporters were promoting him as 2012 presidential timber. That speculation has now intensified — though he still has to get by Democrat Bill White, Houston's popular former mayor and a proven money-raiser, in a November gubernatorial matchup.
What's in store for primary loser Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, the first woman to represent Texas in the U.S. Senate? Her campaign promise to resign her seat, which she's held since 1993, never materialized. Now, many of her GOP Senate colleagues hope she stays through the 2012 end of her term.
Tea Party favorite Debra Medina finished with about 18 percent of the vote, and Tea Party candidates down ballot came up empty. Some activists are nonetheless characterizing it as a win because Medina's presence in the race affected the conversation.
It was a neat trick, considering that going into the primary, Perry faced many skeptics in his own party, a state unemployment rate north of 8 percent, a grim legislative session on the horizon, a troubled public schools system and the nation's highest percentage of adults and children without health insurance.
But he shifted the political conversation away from those problems, using his campaign to evoke a sense of home-state pride and independence at great expense to Hutchison. She remained in the Senate and took what strategists characterize as an ill-advised, hands-off course in state affairs during the race.
A recent poll showed that 82 percent of prospective Texas GOP primary voters agreed with the notion that the way the Lone Star State does things should be a model for other states.
"He tapped right into that sense of Texas pride, which is particularly strong among conservative and Republican voters," Henson says. "And he did it in a way that deflected attention away from the difficulties in Texas."
Texas political analyst Harvey Kronberg, editor of the nonpartisan newsletter Quorum, called the tactic a "fabulous diversion."
"Remember, we have a very popular bumper sticker here: 'Don't Mess With Texas,' " Kronberg says. "There's a second piece to it: 'Washington is really the enemy.' "
Without the recent roiling anger against Washington, he says, Perry's primary path could have played out very differently.
The GOP Takeaway
After Republican Bob McDonnell snatched the Virginia governorship from the Democrats, GOP leaders embraced the "McDonnell model" of winning by focusing on the economy and playing down conservative positions on social issues.
And after Scott Brown became the first Republican in nearly four decades elected as a U.S. senator from Massachusetts, the focus was on appealing to independents with a center-right message and with an outsider candidate who hinted at a bigger-tent party.
Perry's win suggests Republicans have yet another model to examine: running flat out against the Obama administration and Washington, with the notion of a very small tent party that courts the hard fringe.
"Scott Brown is everything the Republican Party here is against — pro-choice, pro-gay rights, and he says he would have supported the Supreme Court nomination of Sonia Sotomayor," Kronberg says. "But the big tent worked for him."
Not so in Texas. Perry appealed to his state's largely conservative GOP electorate as well as fringe voters by casting the president as a socialist, rejecting $555 million in federal stimulus money and standing with Tea Party favorite Sarah Palin.
At one Tea Party protest, he raised the issue of Texas secession, though he later insisted he never would advocate such action. (Leaving the Union would hit the state — and Perry — hard: A Texas newspaper recently pointed out that the amount of federal money accepted by the state has more than doubled during his tenure.)
"Gov. Perry's win further erodes the Obama administration's momentum by providing a test case for someone who runs dead-set against them. That's the model Perry provided," Henson says.
There is anger that can be harnessed. But Kronberg says the trick for Republicans nationally is to harness it without moving too far to the fringe.
In Victory, Caution
But there is danger in drawing too many lessons from Perry's win, strategists say.
Ultraconservatives are speaking with louder voices and making themselves heard in ways they haven't in a long time, says Fort Worth lawyer Steve Maxwell, who is chairman of the Tarrant County Democrats.
"I don't care if you're in Texas or in Massachusetts — if you see hundreds of billions of dollars spent and you don't see anything change in your life, it's a problem," Maxwell says. And that plays into the conservative point of view, at least in the short term.
Still, it is helpful to remember that Perry was playing not just to Texas Republicans, who are largely conservative, but to those Republicans who vote in the primary — a really conservative bunch. Maxwell and others predict problems for Republicans who take Perry's more extreme path.
And there are real questions about the durability of the Tea Party movement, Maxwell says. He adds that the national electorate is generally uncomfortable with voices from the extremes of either party, and who knows what the next few months will bring economically.
By the time the 2010 elections roll around, Kronberg says, federal bank bailout money will largely be paid back, General Motors will very likely have floated a stock issue and paid the government back much of what it owes, and there will be some resolution on health care.
"The storyline of the great socialist takeover is likely to be greatly mitigated," he says, "and you'll likely see a healthier economy, a trajectory in the right direction, and Tea Party folks increasingly marginalized."
Democrats, he says, still haven't had an opportunity to change the narrative.
Whether White, the popular Democratic nominee for Texas governor, can do it against a candidate like Perry, who has tapped into the state's independent zeitgeist, is an open question.
But, says Henson: "Just ask the Obama people how much things can change in eight months."