Thanks to Perry, Texas gubernatorial race could get pretty weird

Can the incumbent governor tea party his way to reelection, or is he leading his party to disaster?

Topics: 2010 Elections, War Room, Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Tex., Rick Perry, Tea Parties, Texas,

You might assume that Texas politics would still be a wild and woolly business, full of eccentric candidates who’d pull all kinds of crazy stunts to squeak by each other. Like how Lyndon Johnson lost one stolen election for the Senate and, having learned his lesson, probably stole the next one himself. Or like Gov. Lee “Pass the biscuits, Pappy” O’Daniel, the flour-peddling model and namesake for the politician character in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” But modern Texas has settled into a situation of relatively quiet Republican dominance. Despite the best efforts of novelty-singer and 2006 independent gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman, there hasn’t been a genuinely close general election for a Senate seat or the governorship since the mid-1990s.

But this year, Texas looks like it’s getting back to its old self. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison is going through with a long-anticipated run for governor, which sets her up for a major run-in with incumbent Gov. Rick Perry in the Republican primary. Hutchison has amassed a lot of support from the GOP establishment, but Perry is burnishing his right-wing credentials to a fine gleam. (In case you were wondering, he landed Sarah Palin’s coveted endorsement back in February.)

This weekend’s New York Times Magazine will run a piece by Robert Draper on the race. Frankly, Draper leaves Perry looking like something of a buffoon. This is the governor, after all, who started talking about Texas’ right to secede from the union earlier this year. Perry suggested that Lino Graglia, a conservative legal scholar, would back up his view, so Draper called Graglia. Said the law professor,  “No, I don’t think there’s any basis to that claim.” In the article, Perry also expresses a fantasy about Sam Houston running for president in 1860 and beating Abraham Lincoln. This would, Perry claims, have prevented the outbreak of Civil War. No word, of course, on slavery.

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This guy has actual bizarre policy ideas, though, not just Confederate reenactment fantasies. Perry claims that last year’s economic panic was overblown, and the only necessary response to the financial meltdown was to “cut the spending, cut the taxes,” instead of passing any emergency bailout. Judiciously, Draper comments, “Most economists might take issue with the governor’s sentiment. Then again, economists are unlikely to decide the outcome of the Texas primary.”

Perry’s flirtation with the far right is the basic rationale for the candidacy of the comparatively moderate Hutchison. As she puts it, “I’m in it to save our party.”

And that’s just the issue. Perry, with his talk of states’ 10th Amendment rights and his accusation that the president is “hell-bent on socialism,” is as prime a specimen as you can find of tea party influence on the GOP. He’s a politician who’s trying to go as far as possible into right-wing fantasy world while still actually running a state.

Of course, there are some repercussions for acting like that. Assuming that he survives Hutchison’s challenge, Perry will have to put in a real fight in the general election. His approval numbers are relatively weak, and he’s dragging the GOP one way while Texas’ demographics run the other. As Draper points out, Texas has recently become of the few so-called majority-minority — that is, majority non-white — states in the country.

On top of all that, on Friday the Democrats landed their ideal challenger. In Houston Mayor Bill White, who confirmed that he will enter the race, Democrats have easily their strongest gubernatorial candidate since Ann Richards. Hutchison might be the voice of relative sanity in the Republican Party, but it’s hard not to wonder what a Perry-White contest would be like.

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

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