Rick Perry rides Tea Party wave to victory in Texas

Wednesday, March 3, 2010 - 4:44pm

"Don't Mess with Texas" has long been the informal motto of Texas - and Gov. Rick Perry promptly adopted it as the slogan for his resounding win in last night's GOP primary vote. "From Driftwood, Texas, to Washington D.C., we are sending you a message," Perry told his victory rally. "Don't mess with Texas!"

Perry handily defeated his main primary challenger, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, by a 13-point margin, and his 51 percent share of the vote meant that the two heavy hitters in Texas politics wouldn't have to weather a run-off later this summer.

Hutchison was a harder sell to the state's fiercely conservative GOP base. For most of the past year, restive Texan conservatives have converged with the anti-Washington Tea Party insurgency on the right, spurring the state's GOP primary field to one-up each other in a "more outsider than thou" fashion.

Perry positioned himself early on as a Tea Party sympathizer, turning out for the movement's first organized protests of the stimulus law last April 15. He kept the theme front and center in his campaign ever since, railing against federal meddling in state affairs and stirring up anti-tax rallies across the state with veiled references to the idea of reviving secessionism in the proudly independent "republic of Texas."

"Be loud and be consistent and keep sending the message to Washington," Perry said in a CNBC interview at the time. "We're an independent lot and we'd just assume Washington not be mortgaging our future."

Perry further sealed his standing with the state's social conservative base by endorsing ballot initiatives promulgated by the state Republican party to curb abortion procedures and promote Christian religious displays in public buildings.

Hutchinson, meanwhile, has been a U.S. senator for nearly twenty years. In an anti-Washington political climate, Perry was able to capitalize on her Senate record, even though she had voted against the second bank bailout bill and the Obama stimulus package. On the campaign trail, Hutchinson tried to dramatize her home state by retiring her Washington power suits for jeans and cowboy hats . But such symbolic flourishes proved an awkward fit, as did her efforts to lambast Perry for rampant cronyism in Austin, and to decry the state's 30 percent dropout rate among high-school students as a failure of Perry's governing vision.

Hutchison also faced an uphill climb in one of the issues that is expected to work against incumbents in most other major races: the economy. Texas' oil-based economy has coasted relatively unscathed through the national recession, which allowed Perry to claim credit for sound economic policy-making, and took the sting off his highly publicized refusal of stimulus-backed unemployment benefits last year.

Indeed, the rightward tilt of the state's GOP electorate permitted another Tea Party insurgent to mount a respectable run without serving as a spoiler to Perry's similarly themed campaign. Debra Medina, a darling of the far right, recently made headlines for questioning the government's involvement in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but came in with about the same 16 percent showing that polls registered prior to her gaffe. It was a good night for Tea Party-affiliated candidates further down the slate, as well; one such insurgent defeated an ally of the Texas House speaker, and another forced a runoff in a Legislature race.

The New York Times spoke to Susie Bradley, a voter in Texas, who seemed to sum up the electoral vibe that catapulted Perry to an easy victory: "I wanted to send a big message to Washington with all the trillions of dollars they are spending that we don't have and ruining the future of our children and grandchildren."

Next up for Rick Perry: former Houston Mayor Bill White, in a race for the statehouse that many Democrats appear to feel confident about. Maybe they can capitalize on a little-known factoid regarding the "Don't Mess With Texas" slogan - it owes its modern coinage to a 1986 anti-litter campaign originated by the state Department of Sanitation. That's right: The clarion call of Texas independence was the handiwork of a state government bureaucrat.

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