The expected clash of Texas titans never quite lived up to expectations in the GOP primary for governor: During the past year, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison has watched a 25-percentage-point lead evaporate and transform into a double-digit advantage for Gov. Rick Perry.
Now, she’s basically conceding she’ll finish second to Perry, with a tea party-powered upstart, Debra Medina, adding an element of intrigue to the March 2 primary.
In the governor’s race, and every other contest on Tuesday’s Texas ballot, the magic number for candidates is 50 percent plus one. That’s what’s needed to avoid a runoff round April 13. With former Houston Mayor Bill White expected to roll up an easy victory in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, most eyes will be on the Republican side, which includes several notable congressional contests.
Here are POLITICO’s five things to watch Tuesday.
The bruising, high-profile primary fight for governor triggered an eye-popping early-voting pace among Republicans, setting up the Lone Star State to potentially exceed turnout reached in the 2008 presidential primary.
In the first week of early voting alone, estimates from some of the largest counties showed that twice as many Texas voters cast ballots as four years ago. An early-voting analysis provided by Austin-based Ryan Data & Research found that 33 percent of the people who have voted so far in Dallas County haven’t voted in a GOP primary during the past three election cycles.
That number grows to 38 percent in San Antonio’s Bexar County. While some of this can be attributed to tea party-movement energy for Debra Medina, as new voters flood the process, the assumptions about their impact on the race for governor have changed.
Analysts initially viewed higher turnout as a boon to Hutchison, whose supporters were thought to be less passionate or less motivated to vote. But recent polling, based on bigger turnout models, continues to show Perry soaring.
“Nobody is polling only past GOP primary votes as might have been done in other years. Everyone is polling all voters and asking if they would vote GOP this year,” said GOP consultant Craig Murphy.
Murphy says it’s a mistake to assume that a significant portion of these voters are Democrats crossing over to cast ballots for Hutchison.
“They are solid Republican voters who crossed over to vote in Rush Limbaugh’s Operation Chaos, who voted Democratic just once in the last election,” Murphy said, referring to Limbaugh’s strategy to prolong the epic 2008 Democratic presidential primary fight by urging Republicans to vote for then-Sen. Hillary Clinton.
Perry’s consultant David Carney agrees, boasting in a memo that “as of Thursday, the governor leads in all subgroups. including first-time GOP primary voters.”
Medina’s staying power
Both Perry and Hutchison got a break when Medina recently failed to immediately repudiate a theory that the U.S. government may have played a role in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Yet despite the slip, the former nurse and home-schooler continues to poll just below 20 percent — and it appears her support has both a ceiling and floor. It also looks as if she doesn’t disproportionately hurt Perry or Hutchison since she pulls in voters from both camps.
“That destroys her role as both a player and a spoiler,” observes Murphy. “She is hamstrung. Most candidates like her start with the dream of winning, then move on to a dream of making the runoff and then finally end with the dream of affecting the outcome of the election. She seems to be in a position that, no matter how well she does within a possible range, she cannot achieve any of those three things.”
Even if she falls short on those goals, if she can put a respectable showing on the scoreboard, look for her to claim a moral “movement” victory. In any case, analysts don’t expect her to fade away.
“I think if Sen. Hutchison resigns her seat, Medina will get in that race for Senate. I think she’s got the bug,” predicts lobbyist and consultant Bill Miller. “And she gets in with a base. So if you have four or five or six candidates in there, she’s got a real advantage.”
Ron Paul’s percentage
Rep. Ron Paul, the anti-establishment libertarian whose political DNA infuses the tea party movement, has seen it turn on him. Three tea party-oriented candidates are trying to oust the veteran Republican congressman on the basis that he’s lost touch with his 14th Congressional District and is more concerned about his national notoriety and another pipe dream campaign for the presidency.
“I think there’s a lot of people in the district who feel like they are not well-represented. He’s a popular guy nationally, but when it comes to being in the district with his constituents, he’s hardly ever seen,” Texas GOP precinct chairman Jim Webb told POLITICO.
Despite the grumbling, there’s little doubt Paul will win a 12th term. The question is whether he’ll win the nomination outright with more than 50 percent or be forced into a runoff. If a Conservative Political Action Conference straw poll victor like Paul — who has built a career out of trying to shrink the size and scope of government — is held to a modest mid-50s winning percentage, it might serve as a flashing sign of caution for other GOP incumbents facing tea party-oriented challengers.
Who gets a shot at Chet?
Sitting in a solidly Republican district where Sen. John McCain carried 67 percent of the presidential vote in 2008, Texas Democratic Rep. Chet Edwards is virtually guaranteed another challenging reelection bid.
He’s beaten back aggressive Republicans before, but his winning percentage in the Waco-area district narrowed to just 53 percent two years ago against an underfunded, little-known GOP opponent. Mix in a much worse environment for the Democratic brand this time around, and the GOP nomination in the 17th Congressional District is suddenly a much more valuable commodity.
Edwards’s 2008 opponent Rob Curnock is vying for a rematch, but this time he faces four other competitors — almost certainly ensuring a runoff because no candidate is likely to clinch an outright majority.
Businessman Bill Flores, the favored candidate of the National Republican Congressional Committee, has tapped his personal wealth to build a sizable fundraising advantage. But given his low name identification, he isn’t expected to clear the 50 percent hurdle against Curnock, developer and veteran Chuck Wilson, Texas A&M professor Dave McIntyre and nurse Timothy Delasandro.
Observers say the real race in this muddled GOP field will be for second place to advance to the April runoff. Either way, whoever survives this five-way shootout is likely to offer a stiff challenge against the 10-term congressman.
The baker’s dozen
With 254 counties, Texas is anything but homogeneous. Republican primary voters, on the other hand, are a bit more so. Insiders will be eyeing the 13 most populous GOP voting hubs, most of which will have results trickling in within the first hour after the polls close.
That includes Hutchison’s home turf of Dallas County, as well as Bexar County (San Antonio), Harris County (Houston) and Tarrant County (Fort Worth) — all home to between 1 million and 3.5 million people each. Add in GOP strongholds like Collin and Denton counties (north of Dallas), Fort Bend and Brazoria counties (the Houston area) and Williamson County (north of Austin), and the winner will become readily apparent.
While Hutchison’s Dallas-Fort Worth base is where she’ll need to roll up significant numbers to have a shot, Perry’s campaign isn’t counting on any one metro area.
“We do not anticipate much regional difference, so we’re not looking for one county but, rather, the overall vote,” said Carney, Perry’s consultant.
Perry’s team appears confident, leaking a memo to the Texas Tribune over the weekend that predicts the two-term governor will avoid a runoff and go on to handily dispose of White in November.