- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 4, 2010

Anti-spending Republicans are jubilant over “tea party” darling Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s surprise first-ballot defeat of Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in Tuesday’s fiercely contested Republican gubernatorial primary.

They see Mr. Perry’s outright win, after a campaign tying his rival to the failings and free-spending ways of Washington, as a good omen for tea-party-backed insurgents challenging establishment or incumbent Republicans in so-called “soul of the party” primaries in California, Arizona, Florida and elsewhere.

Mr. Perry now faces a well-financed challenge from Democratic candidate Bill White, the mayor of Houston, but his decisive win Tuesday means he will avoid an expensive and time-consuming runoff with Mrs. Hutchison and can focus on the general election campaign.

Most Texas political watchers had expected a runoff, with Mr. Perry not seen as getting the 50 percent majority in a three-way contest with Mrs. Hutchison and conservative activist Debra Medina, whom many described as the tea-party movement’s favored candidate.

Mrs. Medina, who never held elected office before, did manage to get an extraordinary 20 percent of the vote in the Republican primary, in which Democrats and independents were allowed to cast ballots. However, Mr. Perry apparently received the bulk of the tea-party vote, and he and Mrs. Medina racked up more than 70 percent of the votes cast in the primary.

Eric Bruechner, who heads the Mount Pleasant Texas Tea Party, said “Medina’s votes were nearly 100 percent from the grass-roots tea-party movement,” while Mrs. Hutchison’s party base consisted mostly of so-called RINOs - Republicans in name only.

“The tea-party influence will be much larger across the country than anyone predicts,” Mr. Bruechner said. “If the Democrats push through [President Obama’s health care plan], that will have an exponential effect on the tea party’s influence across the nation.”

Extrapolating from the Texas vote to the national midterms this fall can be tricky.

“Once again, just like we saw in Massachusetts, this election was a rejection of all things Washington,” said Brett Mechum, executive director of the Arizona Republican Party. “While in the last election cycle, people were clamoring for ‘change,’ this election cycle people want ‘competence’ in their elected leaders.”

Added Republican presidential campaign adviser Paul Erickson: “The lesson to future GOP primary candidates this year is simple: Fiscal conservatism rules the day. On matters of spending, look to your left and to your right - if you see anyone to your right, move or die.”

Mr. Perry, already the state’s longest-serving governor, bucked what polls say is a national anti-incumbent sentiment, pointing to the relatively strong Texas economy and his solid conservative credentials.

“The 2010 is going to be about incumbents, but not all incumbents,” Waco Tea Party co-founder Toby Marie Walker told The Washington Times. “If they have served well, they should be OK. We don’t want to get into a mentality of throwing the baby out with the bath water - Rick Perry is a good example.”

But Mr. Perry’s tea-party credentials and his tack to the right in the primary set up an intriguing contest with Mr. White in the November general election. Political oddsmakers - and the Democratic Governors Association - see the contest as highly competitive, and the Democrats’ best chance in years to capture a major statewide office in Texas.

Mr. Perry, with veteran Republican consultant David Carney directing strategy, won rave reviews for the discipline of his campaign, while Mrs. Hutchison went through a major staff turnover and proved to be an at times awkward suitor to the tea party and to many traditional Republican conservatives in Texas.

But Mrs. Medina’s strong third-place showing was also a reason for pause in Republican circles, with some fearing that tea-party activists around the country might be inspired to rethink their stated intention not to form a third party.

Republicans hope not.

“A third party is not a practical option,” veteran California Republican consultant Sal Russo told The Washington Times. “The tea-party movement is focused solely on economic and government reform issues, which make it a powerful movement, but not a political party. It can effectively change the politics in the country by being the deciding factor in the upcoming election in 2010 and then in the presidential election in 2012.”

Mr. Russo said he thinks “most tea party supporters will see the wisdom of that strategy and oppose the small minority that will waste time with minor candidates and fruitless third-party efforts.”

“Perry won because he was the best candidate [and because he] adjusted his agenda long enough ago to suit the political climate and not so soon as to be perceived to be obviously pandering,” said former California Republican Chairman Al Cardenas.

He said Mrs. Medina’s support was about what he expected in a Republican primary, but tea-party candidates will have a tougher time in the general election.

“I don’t know of a single state where tea-party candidates can win a federal seat unless they are the Republican nominee,” Mr. Cardenas said.

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