Texas Republican Smackdown

Gov. Rick Perry is under fire over a suspicious execution—and his secessionist talk this spring. Can his more moderate GOP rival take him down? The national GOP is watching.

AP Photo; Getty Images

A battle for the soul of the Republican Party is under way in Texas and the results could help shape how the GOP positions itself for the 2010 midterm elections and beyond.

Rick Perry has served longer than any Texas governor in the state’s history, as he seeks his third term. But he faces a major primary challenge in next year’s balloting from GOP Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a longtime politician who, while solidly conservative, has a more moderate reputation than the incumbent. Perry is perhaps best known nationally for floating the idea this year that Texas should consider seceding from the Union, but despite his radical rhetoric he also faces a challenge from a far-right Ron Paul acolyte named Debra Medina for not taking on the federal government even harder. With questions swirling about Perry’s handling of a death-penalty case in which the condemned may have been innocent, the governor faces the toughest re-election battle of his career (recent polls show he's in a dead heat with Hutchison). The race also gives Texans the opportunity to send a signal to the national GOP about the potential direction of the party and whether they like their candidates to be very conservative, extremely conservative, or borderline militia-movement conservative.

“I don’t think it’s extreme to say it’s a fight for the hearts and minds of the Republican Party,” says Bob Stein of Rice University.

“I think if this primary goes to full finish, you're beginning to see the makeup of what a national fight would be like between, say, a [Governor Tim Pawlenty] in Minnesota and Sarah Palin, if she continues her run for 2012,” a political-science professor at Rice University, Bob Stein, told The Daily Beast. “I don't think it's extreme to say it's a fight for the hearts and minds of the Republican Party.”

Perry, who took office in 2000 when George W. Bush ascended to the White House, won’t be easy to topple. An exodus of moderates and independents has made the Republican Party more conservative nationally—a trend that is magnified in the Lone Star State. Hutchison supports Roe v. Wade, a heretical position for the Christian right, although she has consistently voted to heavily restrict abortion rights. But Texas has open primaries, meaning that Hutchison's personal appeal outside the party could bring in votes from independents and Democrats who normally don't participate in GOP contests to put her over the edge.

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The latest polling from Rasmussen, conducted in September, shows Hutchison narrowly leading Perry 40 percent to 38 percent. Previous polls by the same outfit showed her as far back as 10 percentage points. It also showed both politicians to be enormously popular among prospective GOP primary voters: 72 percent viewed Perry favorably and 71 percent said the same for Hutchison.

“The big question—and this is impossible to know the answer to this far in advance of a heated primary campaign—is who is going to show up and vote,” pollster Scott Rasmussen told The Daily Beast. ”If the turnout is much larger and moves beyond the Republican base, it's better for Hutchison. If it's smaller, more of a base vote, it's better for Perry.”

Perry has been doing his best to tack to the right in recent months in preparation for the primary, gambling that the dedicated conservatives who usually show up in these elections will put him over the top. He's clashed with the base before, most notably over his decision to require Texas schoolgirls to receive HPV vaccines, a move social conservatives warned would promote promiscuity. This year, he's trying to win the base back—most prominently by associating himself with the extreme anti-government Tea Party movement that has been protesting Obama's policies. It was at one Tea Party event that Perry floated the secession notion—a move he suggested as a means of protesting federal policies. “We've got a great union. There's absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that,” Perry told the audience, who reportedly were chanting “Secede!”

Hutchison argues that Perry's move to the right is scaring off moderate Republicans and independents who might otherwise back the party—a move she says could have national consequences.

"If Texas goes Democrat, we will never elect a Republican president again—not ever," she warned in one recent speech. "We cannot do it."

But it’s not clear that Hutchison has come up the kind of silver-bullet issue that would make voters send the popular long-serving governor into retirement.

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“She didn't really lay out a specific program of why to get rid of the incumbent and polls show she needs to do that because those who will vote in the primary seem to view [both candidates] favorably,” Richard Murray, director of the University of Houston Center for Public Policy, told The Daily Beast.

A burgeoning scandal over executed prisoner Cameron Todd Willingham may provide her with some new ammunition, however. Willingham was convicted of killing his children by setting a fire in their home and was put to death in 2004 under Perry's watch, but never confessed to the crimes. Experts have suggested that the evidence used to convict him may been shoddy. This month, Perry removed three members of a commission that was investigating the case, leading to accusations that he was mounting a coverup. According to the Austin American-Statesman, Perry's office said the members' terms had expired and that their successors will also look at the Willingham case. But one of the removed members is now saying that he felt pressured all along by the governor not to rock the boat in the execution inquiry. And Perry's office has been refusing to make available documents on how it reacted to last-minute attempts by an attorney to convince the governor to stop the execution based on arson experts' reports.

Hutchison, who also supports the death penalty, has seized on the issue to accuse Perry of trying to silence whistleblowers. “I think it’s another case where the governor is trying to maintain a loyalty to him but not to the responsibility that the person who’s on the commission has taken to the people of Texas and our justice system,” she told the Houston Chronicle this week.

One other wild card that could affect the race is the presence of a third candidate, Debra Medina, a Tea Party activist who's gone even farther than Perry in her states' rights rhetoric. She has a fan in Ron Paul, whose army of supporters are renowned for their fundraising abilities. Her presence could alter a close race either by taking votes from one of the candidates—likely the more conservative Perry—or by keeping both of the major candidates' vote totals low enough to trigger a runoff.

Benjamin Sarlin is a reporter for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.