Texans, as everybody knows, relish nothing more than a big, bloody showdown. And the 2010 Republican primary for governor has long had Lone Star denizens licking their chops. Two-term Governor Rick Perry, the ruggedly handsome successor to George W. Bush, would be squaring off on March 2 against the state’s most popular politician, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. The two are longtime rivals for supremacy within the Texas GOP, standard-bearers of the party’s two competing wings: right and righter.
The stakes looked larger than control of the Texas GOP. With the national Republican Party reeling from the shellacking it took in 2008, Hutchison vs. Perry shaped up as a symbolic battle for the soul–and future–of the party. Hutchison, a former Houston newscaster and state treasurer, embodies the politer, Chamber of Commerce style of conservatism. Nominally prochoice, she’s long talked about building a more "inclusive" party–one that could continue to dominate in a minority-white state. Perry, a Christian conservative ideologue, lucked into the gubernatorial job by serving as lieutenant governor when the US Supreme Court appointed his mentor to the presidency–and he’s since shown no interest in giving it up, though he is the longest-serving governor in state history. If he prevailed over Hutchison, who in early 2009 led him by as much as twenty-five points in early polling among likely GOP voters, it would be a victory for the more rock-ribbed "whiter and brighter" wing of the party.
It was gonna be a humdinger. But, as tends to happen in Texas, several funny things have occurred to shift the race in unexpected directions. First, Perry catapulted over Hutchison in the polls after making himself an MSNBC laughingstock–and talk-radio hero–by going all George Wallace at last year’s Tax Day tea party rallies, bellowing "states’ rights, states’ rights, states’ rights!" and flirting with the notion that Texas might respond to President Obama’s "socialism" by seceding from the Union. Meanwhile, Hutchison fumbled her way through 2009. The lowlight: she announced that she would resign from the Senate in October or November to run full time for governor–and then, with her poll numbers sagging, she informed Texans last fall that she would stay in the Senate after all and campaign part time for governor, because she had discovered a solemn duty to stay put and defeat healthcare reform and cap-and-trade legislation. The message: I want to be your governor, kind of.
The funniest twist of all? The long-anticipated two-person race has–almost overnight–turned into a three-person free-for-all, with a first-time candidate, a Ron Paul apostle named Debra Medina, riding a grassroots tea party movement from obscurity into contention. Medina, whose two campaign planks are "state sovereignty" and abolishing property taxes (in a state that already has no income tax), has managed the considerable feat of staking out a place to the right of Perry. From 4 percent in November’s polls, Medina had surged by early February to within striking distance of Hutchison and a spot in a likely runoff with Perry. Perry’s cry for "states’ rights" has proven no match, on the vast far right of the Texas GOP, for Medina’s call, at a now infamous "Sovereignty or Secession" rally, for the "tree of freedom" to once again be "watered with the blood of tyrants and patriots."