Texas Hold 'em, Tea Party Style
The day before the Perry-Palin spectacle, in the working-class North Texas town of Cleburne, a few hundred folks assembled in the front lot of the Forrest Chevrolet dealership, situated along a butt-ugly stretch of industrial highway, waiting for hours in a cold, whipping wind, waving yellow "Don't Tread on Me" flags and cheering any mention of their newly minted hero.
Few Texans had ever heard of Debra Medina before the January 14 GOP debate. No surprise there: her only elected office has been chair of the Wharton County Republican Party. But, given the opportunity to face off with Perry and Hutchison, Medina immediately established herself as the real deal for right-wing Texans. While the senator equivocated and the governor mugged for the cameras and came across as ill informed and ill prepared, Medina--a sturdy-framed, plain-faced home schooler who runs a small medical-billing business in South Texas--dished up red meat for the Republican right in a straight-shooting and surprisingly confident manner that made her a folk hero overnight.
A debate panelist, noting that Medina was known for carrying a handgun in her car, asked her if she also carried it into the grocery store when she went shopping. "I'd like to, but I don't," Medina responded. When Perry nervously evaded a question about what federal programs he'd like to nullify, Medina said matter-of-factly that she would start with healthcare reform if it passed. Throughout the debate, she offered a simple but consistent message, oft-repeated: "restoring true private property rights and gun ownership."
Medina immediately shot into double digits in the polls. It didn't hurt a bit when she subsequently characterized Perry as a "jumpy, fidgety frat boy" or when, before the second debate, she issued a press release calling the governor's claims of fiscal responsibility "bullshit." When she gave another poised, pointed performance in the second (and final) debate, Medina began to edge toward Hutchison in the polls.
The third-wheel campaign has clearly benefited from Perry's and Hutchison's expensive crossfire of attack ads. "She's telling all of Texas how bad he is, and he's telling all of Texas how bad she is," Medina says. "And I'm going, Yeah, they're right. They're both bad."
Medina's platform is as thin as her political experience. But in the tea party universe, there's nothing so appealing as someone who's never held office--and never had to grapple with, or vote on, complicated issues that don't align perfectly with a straight-up ideology. Medina's answer to almost every problem is automatic: leave it to the free market. At a Dallas forum on the first Saturday in February, before she made the journey to Cleburne, Medina was asked what she'd do to improve the state's wretched public schools. Easy: "We have to have the courage, I think, to tear down the sacred walls that we've erected around the public school monopoly and force competition into that."
And what about her proposal to replace property taxes with sales taxes, another audience member asked. Wouldn't that hurt lower-income folks? "Well, everything is regressive," Medina answered. Food and medicine, she suggested, might be exempted to avoid "creating a taxing structure that is oppressive."
All of which, in the twisted world of tea party Texans, makes her a populist. And while Perry's populism is transparently calculated, and Hutchison's is nonexistent, Medina speaks straight to the guts of disaffected Republicans.
At the Chevrolet lot in Cleburne, she showed how it's done. If "we get government off the backs of Texans," Medina said, "we're not gonna have an economic crisis. We're not gonna have an energy crisis. We're not gonna have an immigration crisis."
"Do not allow the seeds of fear and doubt to take root in your life," Medina told the cheering guns-and-camo crowd. "This is a time unlike any other time in our history, where we're gonna stand up and accomplish a revolution without shedding a drop of blood." Unless, of course, bloodshed becomes necessary.
Medina also has an independent streak that alternately perplexes and delights her fans. She supports a moratorium on death sentences in Texas. She talks at length about her disgust with the border wall running through South Texas, which "does nothing but consume private property and waste resources." She speaks passionately about bringing her husband's fellow Hispanics into the Republican fold, saying that Perry's failure to do so "almost makes me cry."
The occasional deviations from Republican orthodoxy don't appear to bother Medina's fans. Her lack of poll-tested positions is what draws them to her. "It's that sense of honesty," says Antoinette Walker of Dallas. "Don't tell us everything is roses," Walker says. "If somebody says it's all nice, and this is the best state--it's a lie. It's a lie."
While Perry will likely withstand Medina's challenge, her candidacy is shifting the Texas GOP even further right. But the state as a whole is moving in the opposite direction, thanks largely to demographic shifts. While John McCain carried Texas in 2008, the State House of Representatives--which had gone whole-hog Republican earlier in the decade--was nearly recaptured by Democrats, who now dominate the state's fast-growing, rapidly diversifying urban areas. In 2010 the Republicans will probably hold on to Texas. But the internecine war among the tea party crowd is a grim omen for the party's long-term future. If Rick Perry isn't right enough for Texas Republicans, they're headed straight off an ideological cliff.