How Rick Perry Turned Around the Battle for Texas

  • Share
  • Read Later
From left: Bob Levey / AP; Michael Stravato / AP; Bob Levey / AP

From left: Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, Debra Medina and Governor Rick Perry

Washington has always been bad in the eyes of Texas, but more so nowadays than ever. And so the Lone Star State's governor, Rick Perry, wrapped up his bid for the GOP gubernatorial nomination with an ad that played several times on the final night of the Olympics just to make that point. In front of a large Texas flag, he opened with the simple statement: "Washington is broken." And exhibit No. 1 of how bad Washington had become in his eyes? Fellow Texan Kay Bailey Hutchison, the senior U.S. Senator who was once the prohibitive favorite to succeed Perry in Austin.

As Texas heads into the primary on Tuesday, polls show Perry with a double-digit lead over Hutchison, who a year ago was herself sitting on a double-digit lead over Perry. A week before the election, the Feb. 24 Rasmussen poll had Perry at 48%, Hutchison at 27% and Tea Party activist Debra Medina at 16%. Other polls echo those results. Rasmussen also polled voters who had already cast their ballots during the early-voting period, and Perry led 49% to Hutchison's 24% and Medina's 20% — tantalizingly close to the 50% Perry will need to avoid a runoff.

What happened? "She misread the voters and the ground shifted under her feet," says Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. In a recent New York Times story, the Senator mused that she had been hoping the "November Republicans" — a reference to the moderates she has relied on for support in the past in a state with no party registration — would turn out and vote in the primary. But her campaign appears to have misjudged the tectonic political shifts of the past year.

Hutchison has tried to emphasize her conservative credentials and to portray Perry as a governor flush with too much power and surrounded by cronies. But getting to the right of Perry, especially when her issues were stale, proved difficult, Jillson says, and her cause was not helped by the confusion last year over when she would quit her Senate seat to focus entirely on the governor's race. Even as the primary election approached, it was still not clear when Hutchison would step down. She had previously said she would leave Washington in October or November, no matter the outcome of the election, but her staff said last week she could stay until January to ensure the defeat of the Obama Administration's health care bill.

That indecision has helped the Perry campaign relentlessly pin the Washington label on the Senator, dubbing her Kay "Bailout" Hutchison for supporting the bailout bill for the banks. The latest online video ad released by the Perry campaign casts Hutchison as the "Earmark Queen" to the music of Abba's "Dancing Queen." Hutchison has said her work for Texas in bringing home funds for the state should be "celebrated and appreciated," but Perry has tapped the zeitgeist and run an astute campaign, according to James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas.

Hutchison also lost some anti-Perry votes to Medina. A former Ron Paul for President volunteer, Medina climbed out of obscurity thanks to good performances in the debates and her Tea Party connections. But after some impressive showings in preliminary polls, she appeared to have flatlined as election day drew closer. Her lack of money — just under half a million dollars compared to Perry's $16.7 million and Hutchison's $19.7 million — plus her comment on the Glenn Beck radio show that some of the conspiracy theorists who see the federal government's hand in the 9/11 attacks "have some good arguments" have cost her, Jillson says. Medina is insisting the polls are not picking up her strong grass-roots support, and the question on Tuesday will be just how close Medina comes to Hutchison.

Ironically, Hutchison won her Senate seat in a crowded, bruising 1993 special election to replace then U.S. Senator Lloyd Bentsen by running on an anti-Washington platform. Ever since, she has won handily in re-election bids and has enjoyed high approval ratings, although, as Jillson notes, she has run afoul of the Republican Party's conservative wing, which is very active in primary politics. A few years ago she was booed at an appearance at the state convention over her perceived softness on abortion issues. Now, Jillson says, this election "will write the last paragraph in her Wikipedia entry."

While Hutchison avoided primary challenges and subsequent conflict with primary voters thanks, in great part, to the power of incumbency, Perry has cultivated the conservative right ever since switching to the Republican Party as a state legislator in 1989. He also tuned into the Tea Party movement long before others sensed its influence, Henson says. Last April 15, Perry made headlines worldwide when he mused publicly at an Austin Tea Party rally that Texas might secede if Washington continues its "oppressive" ways. He also embraced the movement to reaffirm the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution defining state's rights.

While the secession remark drew derisive commentary, particularly beyond Texas, Perry is mining a historically rich Texas vein of independence. (Coincidentally — and helpfully for Perry — primary day on March 2 is also Texas Independence Day; Hutchison has tried to play on the coincidence with a "declare your independence from Perry" tour.) It is no accident that his final week on the campaign was dotted with economic-development press conferences and talk of balanced budgets in contrast to Washington ways. That message of Texas resiliency and fiscal conservatism resonates with Texans of both parties. A recent poll by the Texas Politics Project found 88% of Texas Republicans believed that the Texas state government was a good model for the rest of the country — even 33% of Democrats agreed.

On the final weekend of the campaign, both Perry and Hutchison were stressing their Texas roots. Hutchison, a fifth-generation Texan and a Daughter of the Republic of Texas, sat astride a quarter horse, wearing a black Stetson as she rode in the Houston Rodeo parade. Her cowboy boots were decorated with the word Senator. As for Perry, he spoke to the Texas State Rifle Association Saturday. "Texas is just a sensible place to live. It's a sensible place that takes sensible approaches to issues like gun rights," he said. "We treat our citizens like adults in this state. Too bad Washington doesn't take that approach."

Perry had words on his boots too as he campaigned across West Texas in the final days. They were emblazoned with the rallying cry issued by Texans guarding a cannon during a key battle for Texas independence 174 years ago: "Come and take it."