Riding on wave of anti-Washington anger, Gov. Perry wins Texas GOP primary without a runoff

By Kelley Shannon, AP
Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Gov. Perry beats Hutchison in Texas GOP primary

AUSTIN, Texas — Riding a wave of growing anti-Washington anger, Texas Gov. Rick Perry easily dispatched Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and a challenger backed by some in the tea party movement Tuesday to once again become the Republican nominee for the state’s top office.

Speaking shortly after Hutchison called him to concede, Perry continued the attack on the nation’s capital that powered him past the state’s senior senator, slamming Washington on spending, job losses, the heath care debate and for “trying to impose education standards” on Texas.

“From Driftwood, Texas, to Washington, D.C., we are sending you a message tonight: Stop messin’ with Texas!” Perry said to a throng of cheering supporters at the famous Salt Lick barbecue restaurant in Driftwood, just outside of Austin.

With more than 90 percent of precincts reporting, Perry led with 51 percent to Hutchison’s 30 percent. Perry managed to avoid a runoff even though nearly one in five voters cast ballots for the third candidate — Debra Medina, a GOP party activist who has strong libertarian leanings and supporters in the tea party movement.

Medina raised relatively little money and told talk show host Glenn Beck there were “some very good arguments” that the U.S. was involved in the 2001 terrorist attacks, yet she still managed to win over scores of voters who might have otherwise sided with the deeply conservative Perry.

She might have done better had Perry not identified with the same anti-Washington sentiment just as the tea party movement was taking off a year ago — and jumped aboard. He spoke to tea party activists on April 15, 2009 — federal income tax filing day — and in response to a question by The Associated Press even flirted with the idea of Texas seceding from the Union.

“I think he sensed at that early date that there was a very strong feeling that Washington was going too far in taxation and regulation,” said longtime Republican consultant Reggie Bashur.

“A lot of people did not understand, including myself, the growing resentment, the growing opposition in the state toward Washington, D.C.,” Bashur said. “I think the governor and his team recognized and became a leader in the anti-Washington movement. And movement I think is the appropriate word. It was in its infancy then.”

Perry will face former Houston Mayor Bill White, who easily defeated Houston hair-care magnate Farouk Shami and five other Democrats to win his party’s nomination for governor and immediately turned on Perry.

“Today, the Texans who cast their votes … sent a clear signal,” White said in Houston. “Texas is ready for a new governor.”

White saluted the two Republicans who challenged Perry for the GOP nomination, saying he admires their courage for taking on a “career politician” who knows every “trick in the book.”

Already the state’s longest-serving governor, Perry hammered Hutchison for her ties to the nation’s capital as he pressed hard for a third, full four-year term. He criticized her votes in favor of bailing out troubled financial institutions when George W. Bush was president; Perry’s spokesman called her “Kay Bailout.”

Hutchison said last week she tried to remind voters that she always fought for Texas values in Congress, but admitted during an interview that Perry had succeed in sticking her with a Washington label.

“I think the senator tried to focus on Texas issues and what she would do to lead Texas into the future. And I think she was just overtaken by a wave of anti-Washington sentiment that all members of Congress are being swept up in,” said Hutchison spokeswoman Jennifer Baker.

“Her record is conservative. It was unfortunate that there was that national anti-Washington sentiment that overtook the race and took the focus off Texas issues.”

Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, said Perry’s campaign “honed in on where the Republican election was and defined Hutchison in a way that she couldn’t escape on the other.”

“She never recovered,” Henson said. “Her campaign never managed an effective response … and the timing turned out to be horrible for her.”

Hutchison conceded to Perry fairly early Tuesday evening, appearing well prepared to end what had been a heated, multimillion-dollar fight between the party heavyweights.

“We have fought valiantly for our principles, but we did not win,” Hutchison told supporters in Dallas. “I will work with Gov. Perry and our fellow Republicans to keep Texas strong in the future.”

Medina, in brief comments to reporters, swiped at Perry: “I’m very disturbed by the numbers we are seeing in the campaign tonight. I think there are many around this state … who are very disappointed in the work he has done for Texas.”

Hutchison kept other politicians guessing for the past year about when she might step down from the Senate. Initially she said she would leave by the end of 2009 to concentrate full time on her race for governor. But later she decided to stay awhile, saying she needed to fight President Barack Obama and the Democrats on their health care legislation.

Her continued presence in Washington gave Perry more ammunition to use against her in his Texas campaigning as he continued to paint her as a Washington insider. Last week, she said again that she would leave some time after the conclusion of the health care debate.

Byron Egan, a 40-year friend of Hutchison, said he was surprised she came out so early, but hopes she doesn’t quit the Senate.

“She has influence there. She has seniority,” said Egan, who attended the University of Texas at Austin. “Each vote she makes in the Senate is important for Texas. We need her to stay.”

Associated Press writers Jim Vertuno in Driftwood; Ramit Plushnick-Masti in Houston; and Danny Robbins, John McFarland, Schuyler Dixon and Linda Stewart Ball in Dallas contributed to this report.

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