Politics & Policy

Interesting Times in Texas

Texas's Independence Day election was a free-for-all -- and that's just within the GOP.

Students at the University of Texas celebrate March 2, Texas Independence Day, with a traditional tea toast. But there was a different kind of tea party in Texas this Tuesday, with the high-profile gubernatorial primary between Gov. Rick Perry and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison complicated by a libertarian-leaning wild-card candidate, Deb Medina, who emerged from the Ron Paul/Tea Party nexus.

Perry was expected to beat Hutchison handily and did so. The question was whether he’d clear the 50 percent mark, and thereby spare himself the burden of a runoff against Hutchison. He did that, too, but the number that Texas political junkies were watching all night was Medina’s.

“Perry was confident going in he’d clear 50 percent,” says one well-connected Austin insider. “Kay’s people were worried. But what everybody was really interested in was the Medina factor. If she hits the 20s, that creates a very interesting change in the Republican landscape, potentially. In the last cycle, the Ron Paul folks had about 10 percent of the vote in Travis County [Austin and its environs], but they ended up with one-third of the voting strength at the convention, at the senate-district level. Medina comes out of that movement. If she hits 20 percent, then that could mean that the Ron Paul people have a significant voting strength at the state convention, which will pick the party leadership. And who knows what they’ll do with that?” In the end, Medina came in with a respectable 17 percent.

Despite all of the talk about Texas values vs. Washington values, most Texas observers say the Perry-Hutchison race was about old-fashioned political values: ambition and seniority. Senator Hutchison thought it was her time, and Governor Perry thought his wasn’t up yet. “The big issue between Kay and Rick,” one conservative activist said, “was Kay’s not being Rick.” Hutchison struggled to articulate a theme for her campaign, alternating between allegations of incompetence and charges of cronyism. Perry is far from uniformly popular in Texas, but then so is Hutchison. In the end, the race came down to tactics and talent as much as issues and ideology.

“The campaign has been amazing in that Rick’s folks ran circles around Kay,” the conservative activist went on. “Rick on TV vs. Kay on TV — it’s ridiculous how much better he is. His grassroots were better than Kay’s,  and so was his online activity. There was hardly anything from Kay online, whereas Perry’s folks have been busy there. They created an application for folks to donate their Facebook status to his campaign, so at four in the afternoon yesterday, the first 15 items on my news feed were from Perry’s campaign.”

Still, the Medina insurgency has caught the attention of Texas Republicans. Typically, a Ron Paul–type candidate might have expected to get 5 percent of the vote. Medina was polling around 20 percent going into election day, and she might have done better if not for a disastrous interview with Glenn Beck, during which she showed herself open to 9/11 Truther conspiracy nonsense. She later tried to back away from that grievous misjudgment, but the damage was done. It was an unfortunate development: Like her or not, Medina ran a very issue-oriented campaign emphasizing states’ rights, the Tenth Amendment, and tax reform — specifically, replacing the property tax with an expanded sales tax.

Medina’s 17 percent is no joke for an outsider candidate. “She did a lot better than you’d expect,” says one Texas Republican. “There’s a very strong Tea Party element, and there’s a brewing tax revolt here.” While Texas has no income tax, it has relatively high property taxes, and the legislature has been slow to reform those taxes, which are used to fund both state government and the public schools. Legislators have been trying to put off action on taxes until after redistricting, hoping to put the issue off till 2013. But Texas taxpayers are not happy with the status quo, and they’re pressing for reform.

That has added to the generally anti-incumbent mood of this cycle. A number of Texas legislators have drawn unexpected primary opponents and ended up in closer races than they were expecting. “The legislators ignore the tax issue at their peril,” one observer says. “There are state house members who spent a lot longer sweating the returns than they thought they would have to. Folks who had not been challenged in ten years had primary opponents.”

In addition to the Tea Party insurgency, there was also a quiet establishment-Republican counterinsurgency, with secular-minded moderates challenging Religious Right candidates for seats on the state board of education. There’s a feeling among many Texas Republicans that the education board has gone a bit too far and is spending too much time talking about sex and evolution, thereby tarnishing the Republican brand in the eyes of to middle-class moderates. In fact, the chairman of the board, Don McLeroy, who had not faced a serious challenge for a decade, lost to lobbyist Thomas Ratliff. McLeroy describes himself as a young-earth creationist. Ratliff described him as “a little bit frightening.” Between the Tea Partiers, the Paulists, and the Establishment Counterinsurgency, it’s shaping up to be an interesting season for Texas politics — a season in which it is blessedly easy to forget that there is a Democratic party.

– Kevin D. Williamson is a deputy managing editor of National Review.

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