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Incumbent Texas Gov. Perry Rides High in GOP Primary

March 3, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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In Texas, Gov. Rick Perry edged out Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison to win the state's three-way Republican gubernatorial primary on Tuesday. Gwen Ifill talks to a political expert from the University of Texas at Austin about the general election ahead.
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GWEN IFILL: Next: rumblings of a different sort, this time in Texas, which held its primaries yesterday.

The Republican governor of Texas, Rick Perry, rode a wave of anti-Washington sentiment to an easy reelection primary win last night.

SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON, R-Texas: Well, let me give you my card.

GWEN IFILL: Perry bested four-term U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, who announced she would quit the Senate to challenge Perry, by 21 points.

GOV. RICK PERRY, R-Texas: Texas voters said no. They said no to Washington bureaucrats making decisions that state leaders and citizens should be making for themselves.

GOV. RICK PERRY: They said no to legislation that will kill jobs and drive people out of our economy. They said no to a culture of reckless spending and policies that endanger our children’s future.

GWEN IFILL: Perry courted support from conservative Tea Party activists.

WOMAN: Governor Perry.

GWEN IFILL: And he aggressively went after Hutchison, linking her to Washington’s most unpopular actions, including bank rescues.

GOV. RICK PERRY: And you told the people of the state of Texas that you were not going to vote for bailout. In September of ’07, I believe it was, you stood in front of Texans and said, “I’m not going to vote for the bailout.”

And then you went to Washington, D.C., and you voted for it. And then you came back, and you said, oh, you know — some months later, you said, “That was probably a bad vote.”

SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON: I will tell you this, Governor Perry, you are the one that is disingenuous on this issue, because you wrote a letter to Congress saying: “Pass this bill. We need to shore up the financial markets.”

And the Governors Association supported it. It took a lot of leadership to do something that would be right for our country. And, Governor, you asked for it, too. You were for it, before you were against it.

GWEN IFILL: But Hutchison’s campaign never gained traction, despite repeated attempts to burnish her conservative credentials.

On the Democratic side, former Houston Mayor Bill White won 76 percent of the vote over six other candidates. He quickly turned his general election focus to Perry and to the Republicans voters who didn’t support him.

BILL WHITE, D, Texas gubernatorial candidate: To those who challenged Rick Perry in the other primary, let me talk to them: We admire your courage. You have taken on a professional politician. He knows all the tricks in the trade.

BILL WHITE: No, he does. He — he’s really experienced at the reelection business. That’s his specialty. He’s fueled by a torrent of money from the lobbyists and special interests in Austin. And he knows how to manipulate emotions in order to win reelection.

GWEN IFILL: If White does beat Perry in November, he would be the first Democrat to win statewide office in Texas since 1994.

And we’re joined by James Henson, director of the Texas Political Project for the University of Texas at Austin.

Thank you for joining us.

So, Professor, tell me how Rick Perry seemed to win by such a large margin.

JAMES HENSON, Texas Politics Project director, University of Texas at Austin: Well, he did a few things absolutely correctly.

He had — from the very beginning, he targeted Republican primary voters and spoke directly to them. He then defined Texas very clearly in distinction to the rest of the country, at a time when, economically, Texas was, objectively, not suffering nearly so bad as the rest of the country.

Then, finally, he bound all those things together, and — and hung the negatives around Senator Hutchison’s neck. That is, he defined her as “Kay Bailout,” as you heard, as a Washington insider. And, at the end of the day, he framed her in a way that she never successfully escaped.

GWEN IFILL: We’re supposed to be in the middle, we’re told, of an anti-incumbency wave right now around the country. What was different for Rick Perry? He certainly is an incumbent.

JAMES HENSON: Well, he did a great job, I think, of appealing to people’s sense of Texas identity, and, honestly, I think, turned Texas into the outsider and Kay Bailey Hutchison into the insider.

And, so, in a sense, she became the incumbent, and he became the insurgent.

GWEN IFILL: There’s one thing he did I want you to explain to us. At one point, did he actually call for secession for Texas at some point?

JAMES HENSON: Well, he — he walked right up to that. He had a real talent for feeling the sense of what was going on in the Republican primary electorate last spring, and, at one of the rallies in Austin, when asked about secession, said that, you know, essentially, sometimes, maybe it’s necessary.

So, without calling for it, he sent a signal to a lot of those that were really negative about Washington that he understood that. And I think it was very interesting. Perry engaged in a number of moves through the campaign, the talk of secession, his nominal rejection of some of the stimulus money, even though Texas wound up taking most of it, his invocation of the 10th Amendment, that had his opponents, had critics kind of rolling their eyes and shaking their heads, but it was a kind of dog whistle call, I think, to Republican primary voters, in that everyone else couldn’t hear it, and Republican voters really zeroed in.

GWEN IFILL: You know, the shorthand, the popular shorthand for those Republican primary voters you’re talking about who are so disgruntled and unhappy with Washington are Tea Party voters. Was there a Tea Party sentiment that can be described as such at work in this primary?

JAMES HENSON: Well, Gwen, I think you put it exactly right. It’s a sentiment more than it was a movement.

And — and Perry tapped into that. But I think his real talent was to take the numerous kind of fractious sectors of the Republican Party in Texas and speak to all of them, and have them all get along in ways that’s really not — not that easy. So, there was this kind of populist conservative sentiment that we’re calling the Tea Party folks.

There are your traditional economic conservatives that are kind of the — the business establishment that are very well established in the Republican Party in Texas. And then there are Christian conservatives that, you know, have really dominated the machinery of the Republican Party, but that have found themselves not really perfectly overlapping with these economic populists we’re calling the Tea Partiers.

GWEN IFILL: And…

JAMES HENSON: So, what — you know, Perry’s real talent lay in binding all these people together.

GWEN IFILL: Well, and we should mention there was a third candidate in the Republican primary who was — at least presented herself as a member of the Tea Party movement, Debra Medina — Medina.

Did she have an effect on the outcome?

JAMES HENSON: Yes, Debra Medina wound up finishing in mid — in mid-double figures. I think she — I think her final count was about 18.

And I think, while she didn’t ultimately have quite the impact that it looked like she might for a couple of weeks in the middle of the campaign, she helped set the tone, and I think she — she really did bring a lot of issues that — that Perry was raising to begin with really to the fore, and — and, in an odd way, helped him out by keeping those on the agenda.

GWEN IFILL: Did Kay Bailey Hutchison in the end not see that coming?

JAMES HENSON: Well, I think there’s a lot of question. I mean, I think the political parlors and debriefing in Austin right now are filled with that question.

The Kay Bailey Hutchison campaign seemed a little bit off-note from — from day one. I think that she chose issues that were no longer very high on the issue agenda. She — her first real barrage of ads was about the transportation issue, which, while it was big a couple of years ago, is kind of a settled issue in a lot of people’s minds.

And I think, in doing that, she subtly reinforced Perry’s framing of her as not really in touch with what was going on in Texas, and more of Washington, D.C.

GWEN IFILL: Now, how does this Texas-vs.-the-world sentiment play out in a — in a fall election, where the Democratic nominee will be the mayor of Houston, Bill White?

JAMES HENSON: Well, I think what you’re going to see is — is the mayor — and you already saw it in your segment — try to turn the tables on Perry a little bit, and — and make it not so much Texas vs. the world, as — as to reassert this notion that the problem is incumbents, people that have gotten settled into government.

Now, you know, White’s got a big — a big hill to climb. On one hand, he is probably the best Democratic gubernatorial candidate for several cycles. And he’s got the Democratic faithful, in many ways, very excited, as excited as they have been in quite a while.

On the other hand, he’s going to really need, I think, a change in terrain. He starts at, depending on who you ask, probably a seven- to nine-point disadvantage, you know, just right at the outset, and he’s got to make that up somehow.

And I think, in a lot of ways, one of the things that people are waiting for is to see what happens with the Texas and the national economic trajectories between now and then.

GWEN IFILL: Do national…

JAMES HENSON: If those lines cross, White is probably helped.

GWEN IFILL: Are there lessons for national Republicans — or Democrats, for that matter — to learn from the outcome yesterday?

JAMES HENSON: Well, I think, know your constituents and know your audience.

I think, you know, to some extent, the Tea Party phenomena, while it affected the tone of the campaign, at the end of the day, they didn’t win very many offices. They have — they have caused trouble for a couple of state legislative incumbents, and they affected the tone.

But Perry really succeeded by zeroing in on his Republicans — on the Republican constituency, and making sure that that was the — that was the focus of his campaign from day one.

GWEN IFILL: Professor James Henson of the University of Texas at Austin, thanks a lot.

JAMES HENSON: You’re welcome.