One year ago, Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, a popular figure deep in the heart of Texas, made it clear that she intended to return home to the Lone Star State and wrest the governor's chair away from its current occupant, fellow Republican Rick Perry. They would meet in the GOP gubernatorial primary, and all the initial polls reported that Hutchison, buoyed by high name ID and lots of money, would win with ease.
Well, the GOP primary returns came in last night...and Hutchison got stomped. In fact, she lost by 21 percentage points. The reason? Perry successfully tagged her as a career Washingtonian, and, given the current anti-Washington climate, that's akin to wearing a Kick Me sign on your derriere.
Texas grassroots conservatives are arguably more anti-Washington than voters elsewhere; nevertheless, the Texas GOP gubernatorial contest potentially gives us an early read on the populist mood of the '10 electorate. Here's the most relevent statistic: last night, nearly 70 percent of the Republican primary voters rejected the well-heeled candidate from Washington.
Gov. Perry won 51.1 percent of the vote; Hutchison, 30.3 percent; grassroots activist Debra Medina, a favorite of the tea-party crowd, won 18.6 percent. One might wonder how Perry managed to cast himself as the insurgent outsider in this contest - given the fact that he has been governor ever since George W. Bush left the job for a higher calling - but the answer is simple. As early as last spring, Perry latched on to the burgeoning tea-party fervor and essentially suggested on the stump that anybody who worked in Washington (i.e., Hutchison) was by definition a willing cog in the socialist leviathan.
Hutchison, he said, was "a creature of the Washington culture," a "Washington-establishment type," somebody who had spent "17 years as a United States senator in Washington, D.C.," somebody who had voted for "wild spending and skyrocketing debt," somebody who deserved to be tagged as "Kay Bailout" for her '08 vote in favor of bailing out Wall Street. Tactically speaking, that's smart politics: Perry defined Hutchison early, before she was able to define herself.
And Perry quickly defined himself as a dukes-up fighter against federal overreach ("Texans are fed up with what's coming out of Washington"), even suggesting at a tea-party rally that Texans might even feel the need to secede from the union ("We've got a great union. There's absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb its nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that").
Of course, most of Perry's rhetorical populism was a crock. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 141 years ago that Texas has no right to secede even if it wanted to, and, more importantly, Perry's attacks on Washington are nicely contradicted by the fact that he typically spends $30,000 a month on Washington lobbyists whose mission is to bring federal largesse back to Texas. Indeed, one libertarian think tank concluded several years ago that "Perry and the Texas state government are aggressive scavengers of federal dollars."
And Perry has accepted economic stimulus money from the socialist leviathan - a fact that Hutchison repeatedly pointed out, to no avail. She couldn't shake the Washington tag, and she made matters worse for herself by reneging on a promise. Early on last year, she announced her intention to resign her Senate seat in order to devote all her energies to the gubernatorial primary, but she never did it - thus making it easier for Perry to paint her as a Washington culture careerist.
Yes, Texas in many respects may be an atypical state, and this particular primary electorate had a decidely rightward tilt. But it's hard not to see Hutchison's ignominous defeat as a harbinger of the anti-establishment sentiment that may well imperil incumbents of both parties in November. By the time these races are over, Washington will be a dirty word in every state, town, district, and hamlet...with the exception of Mount Vernon.
Good news for Republicans: Late last night, Senator Jim Bunning finally released his choke hold on America's jobless and allowed the Senate to restore unemployment benefits to those left high and dry. With Bunning out of the way, his colleagues (including many Republicans embarrassed by his parliamentary brinksmanship) repaired the damage and voted 78-19 for a bill that will also restore Medicare payments to doctors, and provide paychecks to the thousands of highway workers who, thanks to Bunning, had to be furloughed the other day.
Bunning's beef was that the jobless benefits would add to the deficit because they weren't paid for - forgetting, of course, that he'd previously voted for two rounds of Bush tax cuts that weren't paid for; a military authorization bill that wasn't paid for; and a massive Medicare prescription drug plan that wasn't paid for. But, most importantly, Bunning had badly messed with the GOP's meta-message. The goal all along has been to blame the Democrats for governing gridlock - yet here was a Republican colleague making himself the face of gridlock and the foe of the working stiff. (As Republican Senator Susan Collins said yesterday, "He's hurting the American people.") Now that he has backed down, there won't be any more cartoons like this.
Good news for Democrats: Congressman Charlie Rangel, that font of entitlement and corruption (as detailed here yesterday), announced today that he'll give up the chairman's gavel of the House Ways and Means Committee, at least until his serial ethics breaches are sorted out. His statement: "In order to avoid my colleagues having to defend me during their elections, I have this morning sent a letter to Speaker Pelosi asking her to grant me a leave of absence until such time as the Ethics Committee completes its work."
This way, he gets his fellow Democrats off the hook (although it remains to be seen whether they'll all return the campaign monies that Rangel has given them); more importantly, by falling on his own sword, he gets Speaker Pelosi off the hook.
Still, Republican strategist Ken Spain said today: "This embarrassing episode is a self-inflicted wound that could have easily been averted had the speaker taken the obvious step to remove a scandal-plagued individual as chairman of the powerful tax-writing committee." Spain is right.