The Texas GOP Governor's Race: Three's a Crowd

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Bob Levy / AP; Pat Sullivan / AP; Michael Stravato / AP

From left: U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, Texas Governor Rick Perry and Debra Medina of the Tea Party

Texas politics is becoming curiouser and curiouser. Take the case of U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, the Texas Republican who has consistently been re-elected with record numbers. She is now seeing her lead in the state's gubernatorial race go down a rabbit hole — and the contest is on the verge of being usurped by a candidate supported by the Tea Party.

In February 2009, Hutchison, who had her eye on going home from Washington to run for governor, held a 56% to 31% lead in the Rasmussen poll over Republican incumbent Governor Rick Perry. A year later, Rasmussen has Perry at 44%, Hutchison at 29% and Debra Medina, a little-known county party chairwoman and a member of the tea party movement, at 16%. Medina, a former nurse who runs a small medical-billing company near Houston, has seen her share in the Rasmussen poll of likely Republican primary voters rise dramatically from 4% in November, with a recent boost from two good performances in debates among the three candidates. This week, a poll of 423 probable Republican primary voters by Public Policy Polling (PPP) has Hutchison in a virtual tie with Medina when the poll's 4.8% margin of error is considered: 39% for Perry, 28% for Hutchison and 24% for Medina. A relatively new polling organization, PPP made one prescient recent call: it predicted a 51%-to-46% win by Republican Scott Brown in the stunning Massachusetts Senate race; the final was 52% to 47%.

"The big question for Debra Medina is whether there's enough unhappy voters out there for her to get into a runoff with Rick Perry," says Dean Debnam, president of PPP. "That would rank up there with the results of the Massachusetts Senate election as an early shocker in the 2010 political season."

A major factor in Hutchison's fall in the polls is widespread discontent with Washington among likely Republican voters. Hutchison's storied 17-year career — she is ranked as one of the 30 most powerful women in the country by Ladies' Home Journal — and her success in bringing home the bacon has become a liability. When poll respondents were asked whether they trust Austin or Washington politicians more when it comes to problem solving, 78% said Austin, and just 3% picked Washington. It is a point Perry pounds home in his ads.

But political observers say it is not only Hutchison's Washington ties that are affecting the polls but also the campaign she has run. "The fatal flaw has been this sense of entitlement," says Harvey Kronberg, editor of the Austin-based Quorum Report, a political newsletter that chronicles Texas politics. Case in point: "I am coming home to give leadership to Texas," Hutchison has said in numerous interviews across the state, noting that she stepped aside from making a bid to be the state's 48th governor to allow Perry to run for another term in 2006.

Hutchison also has ignored the counsel of Texas election experts, according to Kronberg, opting to follow outsider campaign advice and tried to cast herself to the right of Perry. "You are never going to get to the right of Perry," Kronberg says. While Hutchison has a high conservative ranking — the American Conservative Union gives her a 90% lifetime rating — she is labeled a moderate on issues like abortion and stem-cell research. Unlike Perry, whose secessionist talk made news, Hutchison eschews red-meat rhetoric and favors prim suits and soft-toned speech.

Hutchison also brought out big guns like former Vice President Dick Cheney to vouch for her conservatism, while Perry responded with a rally headlined by Sarah Palin. But when former President George H.W. Bush and several other Bush-family insiders endorsed Hutchison, the event underlined Hutchison support among what one Perry adviser calls "country-club Republicans."

Meanwhile, Medina has been rising in the polls. In January, she raised $145,000, almost as much as the $190,000 she raised in all of 2009. Medina's debate performance projected a "calm, calm, consistent message that resonated with folks opposed to abortion, for gun and property rights and opposed to the state tax system," says University of Houston political scientist Richard Murray. Medina is tapping into the grass-roots tea party movement and her experience as a campaign worker for Republican Congressman Ron Paul, who is credited with fine-tuning Internet fundraising. Next week, on Feb. 15, the anniversary of the adoption of the Texas state constitution, Medina will hold an online "money bomb" — the same tactic that brought more than $1 million into Brown's campaign in January.

Until this week's PPP poll, Texas political observers expected Medina only to be a factor that would force a runoff between Perry and Hutchison. (To win outright, a candidate must garner more than 50% of the total vote.) According to Murray, Medina afforded voters an instrument to vent with a protest vote; they would then make their choice between Perry and Hutchison in a runoff. But it now appears Medina may be cutting into Hutchison's vote. Some are now speculating about a Perry-Medina runoff.

With her newfound prominence, Medina quickly found herself in controversy. On Glenn Beck's radio show on Thursday, she was asked if she subscribed to the theories of U.S. government involvement in the 9/11 attacks. She said, "I think some very good questions have been raised in that regard, there are some very good arguments, and I think the American people have not seen all the evidence there, so I have not taken a position on that." Afterward, Beck declared that he was writing her off and taking another look at Hutchison, who quickly attacked Medina for even hinting that anyone other than al-Qaeda was behind the 2001 attacks. Medina responded, "I have never been involved with the 9/11 truth movement, and there is no doubt in my mind that Muslim terrorists flew planes into those buildings on 9/11." She explained that Beck's question surprised her "because it's not relevant to this race or the issues facing Texans. It is not a vehicle for the 9/11 truth movement or any other group."

In any case, a year ago, Hutchison was being touted as a sign of what lay ahead for the GOP in a political landscape changed by the election of President Obama. "If Hutchison can beat Perry in a GOP primary dominated by conservatives, it may indicate that some of the activists have gotten the message," says political analyst Larry Sabato. "To be governor of Texas and to win as a moderate conservative Republican, she becomes a very hot property ... She'll automatically become a prospect for Vice President." But that was a year ago, before tea became a tonic for conservatives across the country.