In Texas, ‘tea party’ candidate may shake up governor’s race

Debra Medina isn’t calling for Texas to secede from the union. She thinks the state should simply ignore federal laws that Texans can’t abide.

“You get [the Environmental Protection Agency] off the backs of Texas agriculture, energy and manufacturing, we won’t have an economic crisis,” the gubernatorial hopeful says.

She doesn’t advocate bloodshed, though Medina believes it may be inevitable “if we don’t stand up and start to defend this free, great nation and get it back to . . . constitutional principles.”

Texas primary: An article in Tuesday’s Section A about the Texas gubernatorial primary said the election is March 3. The primary is March 2. —

At another time, in another place, Medina might be a mere curiosity, peddling unconventional ideas -- replacing property taxes with a bigger sales tax, encouraging every citizen to be armed -- from the political fringe. But as early voting starts Tuesday in the March 3 primary, Medina has emerged as a key factor in a Republican race once seen as a battle between two titans, Gov. Rick Perry and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.

Although sparsely funded, Medina, a small-business owner and “tea party” activist, could draw enough support to force an April runoff. (Former Houston Mayor Bill White is the likely Democratic nominee.)

Until a recent stumble -- during a radio interview, Medina wouldn’t rule out the notion that the government was behind the Sept. 11 attacks -- she was well positioned to slip past Hutchison in the first round of balloting.

Very little, it seems, is far-fetched in this angry election season.

The grudge match between Perry and Hutchison has built for years, ever since the governor supposedly reneged on a private pledge to step down after 2010 to clear the way for Hutchison. Perry says he made no such promise.

Still, the candidates’ mutual contempt is obvious. Between them, Perry and Hutchison are expected to spend about $50 million scratching and clawing, and more if there is a runoff. (Medina has raised less than $700,000, using her credit card for such expenses as air travel.)

Perry, the longest-serving governor in Texas history, relentlessly assails Hutchison as “a Washington-establishment type who has voted for bailouts, wild spending and skyrocketing debt.” Hutchison, a three-term senator, portrays Perry as lazy and corrupt, saying he has rewarded his political cronies but done little else. “It’s time we had a governor whose record is as good as the rhetoric,” she says in one TV spot.

On most issues, they are closer than either lets on. Both take a tough stance on illegal immigration. (Each accuses the other of being all talk.) Both promise to keep taxes low and foster a business-friendly climate. Perry has backed off an unpopular toll road plan. Hutchison said she would make sure the plan is really, truly dead.

Perry, 59, is the better campaigner -- he is an avid gripper and grinner, where Hutchison is prim and aloof -- and she has suffered by dividing her time between Washington and Texas. Although Hutchison, 66, has spoken of stepping down to campaign full time, her failure to set a date has contributed to a less-than-decisive image. (Her convoluted stance on abortion hasn’t helped. Hutchison said at one point that she opposed a reversal of Roe vs. Wade because overturning the decision legalizing abortion could lead to more abortions.)

As often happens in three-way contests, Medina has been the beneficiary of all the mud-heaving.

“It seems the longer people are in office, whether it’s Washington or Austin, the more out of touch they get,” said Mannon Mints, 65, a retired state law officer, who came to see Medina last week at the Victoria Country Club. “They need to go up there and spend a few years and then come home.”

Medina’s breakthrough came in January, after two strong debate performances. “She was the one who came across, to judge from polls and reaction afterward, as more forthright, better prepared, quite calm and confident,” said University of Texas analyst Bruce Buchanan.

However, success has brought greater scrutiny, and Medina, 47, has not always handled it well. Last week, on Glenn Beck’s radio show, she was asked whether she thought the federal government was involved in the Sept. 11 attacks. “Some very good questions have been raised in that regard,” she said, declining to take a position. (Medina also questions whether President Obama is an American citizen.)

She quickly issued a follow-up statement disavowing any Sept. 11 conspiracy, but Perry and Hutchison pounced. An “insult” to Americans who lost their lives, Perry said. An “affront” to America’s soldiers, Hutchison said.

Still, Medina has already achieved far more than might have been expected. Failing a successful run for governor, she may be a strong candidate to replace her congressman, Republican Ron Paul, whenever he steps down. Paul, who built a strong anti-establishment following in his quixotic 2008 presidential run, is a Medina supporter.