Texas Hold ’em, Tea Party Style

Texas Hold ’em, Tea Party Style

Debra Medina has come from nowhere to threaten a runoff in the GOP gubernatorial primary.


BRANDON THIBODEAUXDebra Medina speaks to supporters at a February 6 rally in Cleburne.

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?"

From the beginning of his campaign against Hutchison, Washington-bashing has been Perry’s main script. His campaign has been dedicated to painting Hutchison as a "creature of Washington," while he shines as the stimulus-rejecting, Texas-first rebel preventing her from bringing big-spending socialism to Austin.

"Fact is," Perry hollered, "Texas is better off than might near any state I can think of." Campaign videos that had been playing on large screens behind the stage had been making that very case, touting the state’s high ranking as a "business friendly" destination (no great surprise, given its low taxes and nearly union-free labor force). While unemployment has risen sharply in Texas over the past two years, it’s still lower than the national average–another statistic Perry trumpets at every opportunity. And the state managed to balance its budget in 2009–another thing Perry boasts about, even though the federal stimulus money that he fiercely protested was the only thing that kept Texas in the black.

By all other measures, Perry’s tenure as governor has been disastrous for the state. The high school dropout rate has climbed to nearly 30 percent. More than one-quarter of Texans have no health insurance. Thanks to a flurry of deregulation Perry pushed through the legislature, Lone Star Staters pay some of the highest utility and homeowners’ insurance rates in the country. Compared with Perry, George W. Bush was a raving liberal as governor.

None of which mattered a whit to the suburbanites who’d come out to see Sarah and cheer Perry’s tea party-lite message. Introducing Palin, Perry stuck to his theme: "I doubt there is a political figure in our country who gives liberals a bigger case of hives," he said. The folks were delighted by this. "If Keith Olbermann were here today, I bet his head would explode," Perry said, chuckling merrily. "I’m sorry–that image just really tickles me."

Palin–reading from a written script–faithfully echoed Perry’s "Washington bad/Texas good" theme, saying that his re-election would "send Washington a message about how things can be done right." The choice is between "the Texas way or the Washington way," she said. "When Washington came calling, he told ’em thanks but no thanks," Palin said, referring to the stimulus funds, which of course came anyway.

This was the message that had lifted Perry above Hutchison throughout 2009. But while Perry still wows ’em in the well-off burbs, he is hardly the ideal candidate for down-and-dirty tea partyers, who see him–with plenty of justification–as a "corporate-handout, say-one-thing-and-mean-another candidate," in the words of Phillip Martin, a blogger for the popular liberal Burnt Orange Report.

"Perry has been able to tap into the anti-government movement that has existed in Texas for a long time," Martin says. "But that support is a mile wide and an inch deep."

Hard-core right-wingers long ago caught on to the fact that Perry’s campaigns have been heavily financed by big corporate interests, most notably the state’s powerful home-building lobby. And the excesses of his Texas Enterprise Fund, a $363 million "job creation" fund that has doled out huge chunks of money to Perry campaign contributors like Countrywide Financial, the disgraced subprime-mortgage megalith, have been widely reported. The governor suffered another embarrassment in January, when the Dallas Morning News reported on a campaign program in which Texans were being paid to set up "Perry Home Headquarters" and round up folks who’d commit to voting for him. One of the most profitable operations, netting $13,440, was being run by an El Paso woman with a rap sheet including a felony drug conviction and a misdemeanor assault.

Hutchison, who has never offered a convincing rationale for her campaign, has been unable to capitalize on Perry’s foibles. Her occasional breaks with the right–supporting Roe v. Wade, voting to expand the Children’s Health Insurance Program, backing some forms of embryonic stem cell research–have made the senator look downright "pink" to many in the Republican base.

Hutchison is most popular with moderates–not with the folks who’ll turn out for a Republican primary. After spending much of 2009 losing ground to Perry with her halfhearted campaign, she had a chance to regain her footing when the candidates met for two televised debates in January. But the senator was tripped up, on both occasions, by the same direct question: would she support overturning Roe v. Wade?

In the first debate, January 14, Hutchison’s repeated refusal to answer yes or no prompted gales of derisive laughter from the audience. In the second debate, conducted January 29 without an audience, she was shown a video of her comedic turn–and again refused to answer the question. She had fallen straight into Perry’s trap, sounding like a compromised Washingtonian.

"Hutchison has tried to be a big-tent Republican, at least in Texas terms," says Harvey Kronberg, a longtime state-government observer who publishes the online Quorum Report. "Talk-radio doesn’t want her, tea parties don’t want her. The base of the party doesn’t want to be a big tent."

All of which should have Perry sitting pretty. Except that, out of nowhere, a far purer champion of the tea party right has arisen.

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.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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