The swirling force of Texas politics

Washington Ties Make for a Big Loser in Texas

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    NEWSLETTERS

    TK
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    Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison lost the GOP primary to Gov. Rick Perry.

    Winners: Texas Gov. Rick Perry and "tea party" anger. Losers: Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and anybody else tied to Washington.

    Take note, House and Senate members up for re-election or running for governor this fall: Your connections to the nation's gridlocked capital -- and particularly your votes for the Wall Street bailout -- could be debilitating.

    Tuesday's GOP primary in the Texas governor's race showed as much.

    Texas Republicans sent these messages, Perry said: "Stop messin' with Texas!" and "Quit spending all the money!"

    The race pitted the public's fury at Washington against its anti-incumbent fervor. And it turned out that Republican primary voters hated Washington more than they did incumbency. They nixed Hutchison, an indisputable capital insider after 16 Senate years, in favor of keeping Perry -- even though he's Texas' longest-serving governor, in his 10th year at the helm.

    Perry, who became governor when George W. Bush left office, is seeking an unprecedented third four-year term. He will face Democrat Bill White, the former Houston mayor, this fall in a race that Democrats and Republicans alike expect to be competitive.

    Underscoring its belief that White can win, the Democratic Governors Association already has given him $500,000. More is expected to follow as Democrats portray White "as an outsider who can bring people together," according to a DGA memo, and use Perry's long tenure against him.

    That strategy failed for Hutchison.

    The GOP matchup had been expected to be a suspenseful clash of Texas titans.

    But it was hardly that in the final weeks. Perry successfully painted Hutchison as the epitome of everything that's wrong with Washington and effectively played to animosity fueling the "tea party" coalition over excessive federal spending. It didn't help Hutchison that their images played into his message: He's down-home Texas, with a swashbuckling style. She's every bit Washington, from her polished appearance to her Senate-tinged vernacular.

    To be sure, Texas GOP primary voters are a tiny part of the nation's electorate -- and a very conservative sliver at that. But the outcome teased out important lessons for Republicans and Democrats ahead of November's midterm elections.

    Among them:

    --Washington is toxic. So is a vote supporting the 2008 Wall Street bailout, at least in Republican primaries.

    Much of the public's anger is directed at the nation's capital over budget-busting spending, including the financial industry rescue. Perry seized on that rage to define race as a referendum on Washington -- and Hutchison as nothing more than an extension of it and a purveyor of fiscal waste. Perry, thus, prevented the race from being defined as a referendum on his near decade in office.

    His campaign tagged the senator as "Kay 'Bailout' Hutchinson," hammering her over federal money she secured for Texas over the years and depicting her as deeply entrenched in Washington. All that nationalized the race; local issues largely took a back seat.

    "It definitely has made it more difficult for me," Hutchison said. "I didn't think that anyone could turn my success in producing results for Texas into a negative." But that's just what Perry did.

    --Republicans can capitalize on the antiestablishment "tea party" coalition.

    Watch out, Democrats. Perry was among the first Republicans to craft his candidacy around the anger of this loose network of conservative-libertarian voters who criticize what they call a big-government, big-spending Democratic agenda. He proved that Republicans who embrace antiestablishment views can attract these voters without turning off the GOP base.

    Although the incumbent governor, Perry ran as the outsider. He secured an endorsement and a campaign appearance from "tea party" darling Sarah Palin. Hutchison got the same from former Vice President Dick Cheney, and nods of approval from former President George H.W. Bush as well as the state's major newspapers.

    Perry also embraced the cause of state sovereignty and suggested that Texans might get so fed up with Washington that they would want to secede.

    Still, "tea party" support in principle doesn't always translate into ballot box victories.

    Conservative activist Debra Medina, who was considered the "tea party" candidate, didn't get enough votes to force a runoff. But Republicans and Democrats alike would be wise to take note that a whopping 19 percent of Republican primary voters backed her.

    --To take advantage of the electorate's anti-incumbent inclination, challengers may have to give voters a clear reason to choose them instead of incumbents.

    Hutchison's primary pitch seemed to be that it was her turn to be governor. She made that argument right up until the election, saying at a polling place, "Gov. Perry is trying to stay too long."

    But she never seemed to be able to articulate to voters why Perry didn't deserve another term and why Texas Republicans should upset the status quo: Two popular Texas Republicans in positions of power, one in Austin as the governor, one in Washington as a senator.

    Republican primary voters simply didn't buy Hutchison's complaint that Perry had overstayed his welcome.

    And why would they?

    Texas has seemed to weather the recession better than most states. Its budget isn't nearly as bad as others. And its unemployment rate trails the national average.

    With that backdrop, Texas Republicans dismissed the notion that Perry was to blame for their woes and, instead, gave him credit for the state being in better shape than others.

    In the end, they rejected change -- and Washington.