Debra Medina was hardly the ideal candidate in Tuesday's Republican primary: She didn't raise much money and came under fire for suggesting the U.S. might have been involved in the Sept. 11 attacks. Still, she won nearly one out of every five votes, harnessing some support in the nascent tea party movement.
The growing influence of the movement could be seen in the GOP primary, but Medina, who got 18.5 percent of the overall vote, wasn't the biggest winner. That was Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who avoided a runoff with U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, winning 51 percent of the vote, in part because of his own push for tea party sympathizers.
"There's a growing movement afoot, but it's really more of an attitude at this point than it is an organized effort," Perry pollster Mike Baselice said Wednesday of tea party voters.
Baselice, who tracked GOP voters in the four weeks leading up to the primary, found that 61 percent of those who said they share all the views of the tea party movement voted for Perry, not Medina. Medina took 24 percent of those votes, and Hutchison had 15 percent.
That analysis was backed up Wednesday by tea party activists who weighed in on the race, which now shifts to the fall general election. Perry will run against the Democratic nominee, ex-Houston Mayor Bill White, who handily disposed of six opponents in his primary.
"A lot of people wanted to attribute Debra Medina's campaign to the tea party. On balance, I think most of them were leaning toward Perry. I think it's significant that he avoided the runoff," said Greg Holloway, a board member with Austin Tea Party Patriots.
He acknowledged that Medina — a gun-toting, libertarian-leaning businesswoman from Wharton — appealed to discontented Texans. Medina fought her way into the two televised debates with the better-known Perry and Hutchison and held her own, boosting her statewide following.
"People really liked her view that government in general had become too big and wasn't responsive to the people," Holloway said.
Phillip Dennis, founder of Dallas Tea Party, said even with her third-place finish Medina "did a pretty remarkable job without a name and no money running against two well-known opponents." Dennis, who would not reveal who he voted for because his group does not endorse candidates, said Medina's position as a government outsider and her fiscal conservative stance helped attract conservative voters.
"It didn't drive enough, did it?" he said. "I know the Glenn Beck episode cost her. It cost her with some tea party members."
That "episode" was an interview with radio talk show host Beck on Feb. 11 in which she said there were "some very good arguments" that the United States was involved in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. She later tried to back away from the statement.
Baselice, the Perry pollster, found that as more Republican voters heard or read her remarks about 9-11, the more her support tapered off or dropped.
Holloway, the Austin-based tea party activist, said those statements "hurt her a lot."
Meanwhile, other factors came into play.
The Republicans' intense competition spurred voter participation, including some traditional Democrats who said they crossed over party lines to get in on the high-profile GOP election. The GOP saw a primary turnout of 1.48 million voters, a record for all Texas Republican primaries dating back to 1970, the earliest year for which state records are available.
Perry hammered away at an anti-Washington theme aimed at veteran senator Hutchison.
And Hutchison created some problems of her own. She never left the Senate to campaign full time in Texas, even though she said she would. She also failed to gain much traction on issues she was trying to use against Perry, such as Texas' high school dropout rate.
Hutchison, who has still not said when she will leave the Senate, won only 30 percent of the vote. She has said she will leave after the health care debate is over.
Tea party voters were influential in other Texas races as well. A Republican ally of Texas House Speaker Joe Straus in East Texas, Rep. Tommy Merritt, lost to a conservative tea party activist. Another committee chairman under Straus' Republican leadership is heading into a runoff with a GOP tea party candidate.
Describing herself as "David against two political Goliaths," Medina framed her campaign as opposition to big government and in favor of individual liberties. She advocated elimination of property tax, protection of gun rights and nullification of "federal mandates in agriculture, energy, education, health care, industry, and any other areas D.C. is not granted authority by the Constitution."
She said she wouldn't rule out seceding from the United States; Perry also flirted with the idea of secession after a tea party rally.
Longtime Texas Republican consultant Reggie Bashur said Perry identified the anti-Washington sentiment just as the tea party movement was taking off in early 2009. He said the governor sensed a strong anti-Washington feeling among voters.
Perry summed up that theme in a television ad he used heavily in the final days of the campaign. In the ad, Perry talks of the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which speaks to the powers of the states. Perry says it "is supposed to keep Washington from messin' with Texas."
(This version CORRECTS spelling of `Hutchison' throughout.)
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