The showdown between Governor Rick Perry and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison was supposed to be one of the cycle’s defining primaries. Yet, not only has the race been tame by the standards of what is to be expected when two towering politicians who personally dislike each other go head-to-head, but Hutchison now finds herself in danger of being knocked out of the runoff by Debra Medina, a conservative close to the Tea Party movement.
PPP’s new survey of the race shows Perry at 39%, Hutchison at 28% and Medina at 24%; among self-described conservative voters, who represent more than 70% of the cycle, Hutchison comes in third. While no other pollster has found a similar result, Rasmussen’s latest survey (released 10 days ago) did find Medina enjoying with the most momentum: the 14% she received in that poll was her highest result to date.
(A reminder: The primary will take place on March 2nd, which is in just 3 weeks. The two top vote-getters will move on to an April 13th runoff.)
Who is this woman who is now going toe-to-toe with a sitting Senator? Medina served as the Republican Party’s county chairman Wharton County, a small county in Southeastern Texas. A major participant in the Tea Party protests, she is also a libertarian activist who helped organize Texas’s Campaign for Liberty, an organization of Ron Paul supporters launched back in 2008. We all know Paul supporters tend to be very engaged, which allowed the congressman to get surprisingly strong results in a number of presidential contests two years ago; Rand Paul’s success in Kentucky’s GOP primary also testifies to Paulites’ success at promoting their members of their camp - and they seem to have done the same to Medina over the past few weeks.
In 2008, ultra-conservative (and secessionist) Larry Kilgore challenged John Cornyn’s hold on the GOP’s Senate nomination; he received 19%. Medina is running a higher profile campaign, which suggests she could build on that base of support for an anti-establishment contender and thus grow enough to make it to the runoff.
But here is the twist: Logic would dictate that Medina would grow at Perry’s expense. The governor has been trying to channel conservative voters’ anger towards the anti-federal government, most notably last year when he suggested Texas might secede. While Hutchison has been touting her own conservatism, she represents a comparatively mainstream Republicanism that makes for an uneasy fit with Medina and Perry’s rhetoric.
What does it say about the GOP electorate’s ideological profile that Hutchison (who can hardly be called a centrist) has been so marginalized that the primary has room for two more conservative options? What to make of the fact the hard right’s split is threatening to relegate Hutchison to third place rather than giving her an opening? Does this reflect voters’ disdain about Hutchison’s relative moderation or does it speak to conservative anger towards all federal officials, however conservative their voting record might be?
I should nuance that point: Perry is himself an incumbent who has attracted plenty of criticism from all sides, and his best effort to portray himself as an outspoken conservative don’t make him any less of an establishment figure. In fact, he is the longest serving governor in the country, which leads to the obvious question as to whether we should have expected him to easily win over Tea Partiers’ support in the first place. In the context of a two-way race with Hutchison, conservative activists are obviously likely to side with the governor, but perhaps we should not be surprised that the same people who are blasting Hutchison’s support for the 2008 bailout plan are also looking for an opportunity to bail on a fellow insider who has led the state for a decade.
Who Republicans nominate will obviously impact how much of a chance Houston Mayor Bill White has of scoring an upset in the general election. Polls show Hutchison scoring larger margins against White, while Perry is under 50%. The latest Rasmussen poll had Medina with a slight lead over the Houston Mayor. Given her low name recognition, that speaks to how uphill a climb White will face against any Republican, but it does look like his prospects depend on Hutchison losing the primary.
The sudden focus on Medina comes as two other GOP primaries are getting tougher along similar insider/outsider lines.
In Indiana, former Senator Dan Coats got a taste of the difficulties he might face in the Republican primary, as John Hostettler and Marlin Stutzman welcomed him to the race by blasting his connections to Washington. “If there’s one group people are more disenfranchised from than Washington politicians, it’s lobbyists,” Stutzman said. “Sen. Coats has probably been back to Indiana fewer times than Sen. Bayh has and has those questionable relationships. If you’re trying to contrast with Sen. Bayh, why would you go with Sen. Coats?” While Coats will be favored to win the GOP primary, such attacks could undermine his credibility along the very same lines Democrats plan to use in the general election, thus introducing a narrative Evan Bayh would later have an easier time working with.
In NY-23, Doug Hoffman might strike again: The man who drove Dede Scozzafava out of November’s special election declared he could mount a third-party bid once again if he loses the Republican nomination Assemblyman William Barclay. Indeed, Hoffman is simultaneously running to represent the Republican Party and Conservative Party lines on the November ballot; with Conservative Party Chairman Mike Long sounding certain Hoffman will represent them, the businessman is leaving the door open to taking advantage of that if he does not get the GOP’s.
That would be different from last year’s events in one major way: A major rationale of Hoffman’s candidacy was that Scozzafava had not been selected by the district’s Republican voters but rather by a committee of party leaders - an argument he will not be able to make if he loses to Barclay. From Democrats’ perspective, however, there is no difference: A Owens-Barclay-Hoffman general election would be a repeat of the scenario that played out last fall, a major boost to Rep. Bill Owens’s hopes of securing a full term.