- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Texas’ barb-filled Republican primary battle between incumbent Gov. Rick Perry and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison may or may not end Tuesday, kicking off a heated election season of high-profile intraparty clashes as both parties try to answer key questions about themselves heading into November.

From Arkansas, where Sen. Blanche Lincoln drew a primary opponent Monday in what is shaping up to be a test of the direction of the Democratic Party, to Pennsylvania and Florida, where top-tier Democrats and Republicans already are engaged in nasty intraparty battles for Senate seats, the acrimony is sure to escalate.

In Texas, the big question in the Republican gubernatorial primary has turned from “Can Mr. Perry fend off Mrs. Hutchison” to “Can he beat her badly enough to prevent protracting the testy contest in a runoff?” Just as important is whether “tea partiers” will make their presence felt.

Mr. Perry, who assumed office in 2000 after George W. Bush won the White House, is dominating all the polls, but unless he garners 50 percent of the vote, the fight will continue - something the state’s Democrats would relish.

Some GOP officials aren’t hiding their anger over what they see as the temerity of Mrs. Hutchison’s challenge to Mr. Perry.

“Personally, I am ticked, and I know that I am not the only Republican activist who is, that she has cost Texas Republicans an immense amount of campaign money,” Bill Crocker, a Republican National Committee member from Texas, told The Washington Times. “Kay has risked injuring the leader of our November ticket for no good reason, at least no reason she has ever articulated. Most people do not think that she will ever resign her Senate seat, another failure to keep her word.”

Although Mr. Perry nearly threw away his credibility with conservatives in what many of them saw as a nanny-state order by the governor to vaccinate all schoolgirls against a sexually transmitted cancer-causing virus, he has survived as the favorite of the right, even over libertarian-leaning Republican Barbara Medina, who is also in the race.

“Kay Bailey Hutchison is the least desirable from a tea party viewpoint,” said local tea party leader Eric Bruechner.

“Barbara Medina does have a tea party following, but in our eyes, Perry is just as much a tea party favorite as Medina,” said Mr. Bruechner, 51, a veterinarian by profession who spoke with a cell phone pressed to his ear as he and his wife, Barbara, were out feeding his 19 cows and a bull on his spread 120 miles east of Dallas, not far from Texarkana.

Mr. Perry entered the final weekend with a strong lead in the polls - he averaged a 16-percentage-point lead in five recent surveys - and his ads have painted Mrs. Hutchison’s 17 years inside the Beltway as an extreme liability.

On her campaign bus, Mrs. Hutchison told the Associated Press that Mr. Perry’s strategy has been effective. “It definitely has made it more difficult for me,” she said. “I didn’t think that people would buy that because I’ve been so effective for Texas.”

In a Rasmussen poll, Mr. Perry has a six-percentage-point general-election lead over former Houston Mayor Bill White, the likely Democratic nominee. But the same poll shows that Mrs. Hutchison would walk over Mr. White with a nine-percentage-point advantage. The situation is reversed for Mrs. Medina, who would lose a matchup with Mr. White by 10 points.

Nobody knows for sure how important the tea party vote is or who will benefit from it.

“The tea partiers are an unknown quantity, but I have to believe they are included in the polls [and] are the reason … Medina has more that a single-digit percentage,” Mr. Crocker said.

But Texas GOP Chairman Cathie Adams said Mr. Perry will benefit because “many tea party people are on his side.”

Mrs. Adams, having endorsed Mr. Perry before she became Texas GOP chairman, has stuck with that endorsement, even though party chairmen under normal circumstances are expected to stay neutral in primaries.

Toby Marie Walker, co-founder of the Waco Tea Party, said none of the more than 100 local tea parties in Texas endorses candidates, but she thinks a majority of activists will vote for Mr. Perry.

She got started in the movement “after watching the TARP, bailouts and stimulus bills pass through Congress. I don’t believe we are headed towards socialism - we have slid right past that into corporatism.”

Tea party power also will be at stake in other key Republican primaries this year, and the marquee battle is the race for Florida’s open Senate seat. Gov. Charlie Crist, the early front-runner for the Republican nomination and the general election, has watched as former state House Speaker Marco Rubio, a darling of the tea party movement, has surged.

Florida primary voters don’t go to the polls for nearly six more months, but that is already the bloodiest battle on the map. Mr. Crist and Mr. Rubio are exchanging charges of apostasy and misuse of party power.

In Arizona, Sen. John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, is facing a challenge from the right as former Rep. J.D. Hayworth has jumped into the primary race.

Meanwhile, Democrats have their own battles as liberals recruit candidates to push incumbents to the left. In Arkansas, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter announced Monday that he will challenge two-term incumbent Mrs. Lincoln in the Democratic primary.

“Bailing out Wall Street, with no strings attached, while leaving middle-class Arkansas taxpayers with the bill. Protecting insurance company profits instead of patients and lowering health costs. Gridlock, bickering and partisan games while unemployment is at a 25-year high. Enough is enough,” Mr. Halter said in a Web video announcing his bid.

But Mrs. Lincoln, who was already facing an uphill battle against several Republicans, said Mr. Halter and Republicans are beholden to ideological special interests and she has become “the rope in their tug of war.”

“Unfortunately in today’s Washington, my common-sense, bipartisan approach has left me the target of both extremes, even within my own Democratic Party,” she said.

In Pennsylvania, Sen. Arlen Specter fled the GOP last year to avoid losing a primary. But his welcome among Democrats wasn’t particularly warm - he has drawn a stiff primary challenge from Rep. Joe Sestak, a second-term Democrat and retired Navy rear admiral.

Primaries often are governed by special turnout and victory rules, such as Texas’ requirement that the winner take 50 percent of the vote. Democrats and independents are free to cast their ballots in the GOP race. If no candidate garners 50 percent, the top two will have a runoff on April 13.

Since conservatives vote in disproportionately large numbers in Republican primaries, Mr. Perry has had a popular image of being to the right of Mrs. Hutchison. Hutchison supporters say images and reality don’t match in this case.

“Kay is a conservative Republican who has been demonized because she happens to work in Washington,” said lawyer and former Harris County GOP Chairman Gary Polland. “Gov. Perry attacked her over her supporting the bailout and now he criticizes her for pork-barrel spending. Yet 46 percent of the Texas budget comes from the federal government.”

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