Texas Hold 'em, Tea Party Style
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."
So Texas Republicans' choice on March 2 is now between right, righter and rightest. Thanks to Medina's growing support, a runoff in mid-April is almost guaranteed, since you can't win the nomination without more than 50 percent of the vote. Awaiting the tattered victor in November will be the strongest Democratic candidate the state has seen since the late, lamented Governor Ann Richards: Bill White, a former under secretary of energy in the Clinton administration and popular mayor of Houston. White, who'd originally been campaigning to replace Hutchison for her Senate seat, announced his switch to the governor's race just after Thanksgiving. Since then, he has out-fundraised both Hutchison and Perry as he cruises to a near-certain landslide victory in the Democratic primary over Farouk Shami, a Palestinian immigrant and hair-care mogul. And then Medina tripped over her momentum the second week of February, telling Glenn Beck that she wasn't convinced the 9/11 conspiracy theory of involvement by the US government had been disproven. The novice candidate quickly began damage control, saying that of course Muslim terrorists had attacked the World Trade Center. But to many, her comments to Beck and the right-wing guru's quick dismissal of her were sure signs that Medina was nuts--and that her ability to build beyond the hard-core right of the base might be limited.
Confused? Welcome, then, to the head-spinning world of Texas politics, circa 2010. Molly Ivins once famously called the state the "national laboratory for bad government." Just as aptly, you could call it America's home of political lunacy. And it's never been more loony than it is right now, especially on the Republican side.
Shortly after 3 pm on Super Bowl Sunday, far out in the right-wing suburbs of Houston, Rick Perry and Sarah Palin--fresh from her palm-reading appearance at the National Tea Party Convention--took the stage to wild stomps and cheers from a nearly all-white crowd of thousands in a multi-high school arena. Palin, lavishly decked out in a black velvet coat and red suede boots, was on hand to shore up Perry's flagging support among tea party types, whom he'd been losing to the upstart Medina, and to amplify the central themes of his campaign: Washington is the worst, and Texas is the greatest!
Perry, warming up the crowd for Palin, cut right to the chase: "Do you want a leader who loves Texas and all it stands for?" he asked. "Or do you want a creature of Washington who tears down Texas at every turn?"