Rick Perry: Taming the Tea Party
By Ashley Cruseturner
Last week in Texas, Rick Perry registered a definitive triumph in the Republican gubernatorial primary, capturing 51 percent of the vote in a fiercely contested three-person race. His comfortable victory offers a unique window into the upheaval currently roiling American politics.
When Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison decided back in 2008 to challenge Rick Perry for the governorship, she emerged as the favorite to unseat an incumbent who, seemingly, had overstayed his welcome and appeared vulnerable. The senator, poised, proven, and enormously popular, confidently entered the contest on an intimidating winning streak—unbeaten in five statewide races dating back to 1990.
Throughout much of 2008 and 2009, “Kay,” as she is affectionately known all over Texas, consistently out-polled the purportedly dull-witted and unprincipled “Governor Goodhair.” By the close of the contest, every major Texas daily and a whole host of Lone Star heavyweights (including President Bush-41, Barbara Bush, Dick Cheney, and Nolan Ryan) endorsed the challenger to no avail. When the voters finally cast their ballots, Senator Hutchison found herself not only in second place but twenty percentage points off the leader.
What happened to Kay?
The ubiquitous analysis denouncing Perry for cynically depicting the longtime Texas stalwart as a “Washington insider” reveals only a partial truth. Of course, the Perry campaign gleefully projected unhappiness with Washington onto Kay Bailey Hutchison—but, more significantly, the senator walked into the punch.
Hutchison, whose shrewd instincts normally serve her well, egregiously misjudged the seismic shift in American politics underway during this election cycle. Senator Hutchison initially positioned herself as a moderate—intent on casting Governor Perry as a troglodyte conservative out of step with an emerging Texas and precariously susceptible to a charismatic centrist Democrat. Her thoughtfully crafted strategy of 2008, however, fell absolutely flat in the 2010 climate.
Did the Tea Party movement resurrect Perry?
Yes and No. In reality, the race featured a bona fide Tea Party candidate, Debra Medina, who persistently excoriated the incumbent governor as a pseudo-conservative—unreliable on state sovereignty and hopelessly addicted to high taxes, big spending, and politics as usual. Attractive, articulate, and an accomplished woman in her late forties, Medina struck many observers as a stouter version of Sarah Palin.
As the long-awaited showdown between Perry and Hutchison fizzled, the over-achieving everywoman surged from complete obscurity to second place on the strength of her inspired performance in a series of statewide-televised debates. By the end of January, national media outlets were suddenly clamoring to query the former Wharton County Republican Party chairperson. Old Texas hands contemplated a Medina-Perry runoff, a formerly unimaginable prospect that was rapidly lurching toward plausibility.
But, alas, March 2, Texas Primary Day 2010, arrived as an anticlimax: Hutchison, 30.3; Medina, 18.5; Perry 51 percent.
What happened to the Tea Party challenge?
In the end, Medina’s meteoric rise in the primary led to national recognition, which, ironically, derailed her upstart campaign with corresponding swiftness. During a fatal February interview with Glenn Beck, Medina bizarrely refused to repudiate the “9/11 Truther” paranoia. In one excruciating moment, the anti-establishment insurgent came away mortally punctured and careening wildly out of control—her campaign for mainstream Republican voters in Texas effectively dead.
An Aside: this incident embodies an innate problem with the Tea Party as currently configured. Too much of the activism and enthusiasm centers around irrational grievances: misplaced anger at the Fed, a simmering frustration over “bailouts for Wall Street bankers,” or, even worse, a fundamental alienation with modern American government—so pronounced that adherents can easily imagine their own elected leaders conspiring to perpetrate dastardly deeds against fellow citizens.
Virtually leaderless and bereft of coherent, defining, and unifying principles, the movement is inherently unstable. The justifiable collective angst over sustainability and a federal government out of control remains the source of the amorphous apprehension that animates the movement. But the looming crisis that all of us dread is difficult to articulate and even harder to mobilize around with anything resembling party disciple or uniformity. The Tea Party tumult remains a significant but still mysterious and untamed force on the political horizon.
Some savvy political observers sympathetic to the conservative cause worry that the Tea Party might even present an obstacle to Republican resurgence. The Tea Party influence, they warn, might split the conservative vote come general election time (the fear of wildfire Tea Party third parties). Or, if co-opted into the main of the Republican Party (presumably the preferred alternative), radicals might possibly push the GOP too far toward the fringe during the primaries and produce unelectable nominees.
What happened in Texas last week ought to lessen some of those fears.
Without a doubt, the Governor had courted the Tea Party patriots back on April Fifteenth when he erroneously suggested Texas possessed a special right of secession—and, in fact, earned instant celebrity and credibility with the national movement. However, the Governor never gained traction with the Tea Party crowd within Texas. While the Medina candidacy helped to divide the considerable anti-Perry forces, any assertion that Perry succeeded as the darling of the Tea Partiers misrepresents the truth.
Why did Perry win?
The most persuasive answer in this case happens to be the simplest. Texas dramatically emerged an island of stability in a tumultuous sea of uncertainty. Rick Perry happily ran for reelection as governor of arguably the most prosperous and fiscally responsible state in the Union and positioned himself as the embodiment of responsible, conservative, business-friendly government.
Detractors will argue that the Governor takes too much credit for the miraculous Texas prosperity—but that is how the game works. In fairness, his opponents would have merrily castigated him for mismanagement, if the economic fortunes of the Lone Star State had fallen into distress during his watch?
Under his leadership, Texas stands out as a welcome oasis of robust growth and fiscal stability in the midst of a desolate national economy. For this reason above all others, his appeal to orthodox conservatives, plain Republicans, and center-right independents is vastly enhanced.
Amusingly, the triumphant governor suddenly enjoys a newfound national stature after a decade of leading the country’s second most populous state in relative anonymity. His compelling argument for rehire in Texas may prove equally intriguing to national Republicans in search of a candidate with a conservative message and track record of success (and great hair). Regardless, his ability to disentangle and then, presumably, unify the convoluted strains of conservatism in Texas ought to serve as an encouragement and a welcome model for anxious Republicans across America.
Ashley Cruseturner teaches American history at McLennan Community College in Waco, Texas.