Tea Party Effect Hard to Detect in Primary Results

January 16, 2009: A coalition of Tea Party groups rally against Democrats and U.S. President Barack Obama Saturday afternoon at the Texas Capitol.
January 16, 2009: A coalition of Tea Party groups rally against Democrats and U.S. President Barack Obama Saturday afternoon at the Texas Capitol.

Candidates favored by the Tea Party movement did not fare well on primary night, but they had an effect — sometimes hard to decipher — on several races.

The most prominent of the Tea-favored candidates was Republican gubernatorial hopeful Debra Medina. Considering she was polling in the single digits just three months ago, she put up strong numbers — but not strong enough to get her out of last place in the three-way race.

“The question is, will Medina have a surge in the polls? Will she be able to pass Kay Bailey Hutchison for a runoff?” said Phillip Dennis, who sits on the steering committee of the Dallas Tea Party, on Tuesday morning, before the results were known. “Certainly, a lot of her supporters in the Tea Party movement are very vocal and very motivated — and they will vote. The question is, will the traditional voters for Perry and Hutchison turn out in the numbers that they need.”

As it turns out, there will be no runoff in the GOP primary at all. Incumbent Gov. Rick Perry won outright.

The number of Republican incumbents facing primary challenges encouraged Dennis. He said, “They might not get thrown out of office this time around, but we’re going to rattle some cages and let the incumbents know that there are more people watching you more closely now than in the past.” Specifically, Dennis cited the five primary challengers to the long-serving U.S. Rep. Ralph Hall, R-Rockwall. Hall sailed through the six-way race without so much as a runoff.

In fact, Republican incumbents had a strong night across the board, with a few notable exceptions. One that might encourage the Tea Party crowd is Longview Republican state Rep. Tommy Merritt's loss to David Simpson, a Tea Party draftee. Merritt didn't offer a simple explanation for the loss but pointed to his opponent's supporters as a clue: "I've never seen these people before. They're not the Chamber people. They're not the normal contributors to the community.

"The Tea Party people were just out for a scalp on a stick," Merritt said.

In HD-83, Tea Party favorite Charles Perry made it into a runoff and will continue to fight against state Rep. Delwin Jones, R-Lubbock. But state Rep. Chuck Hopson, R-Jacksonville, defeated challenger Michael Banks by a wide margin — and just a few months ago, Hopson was a Democrat. In HD-66, where establishment candidate Mabrie Jackson won the majority of the vote and will face Van Taylor in the runoff, Wayne Richard's grassroots, Tea-fueled campaign failed to get him into the runoff.

But don’t count the Tea Party out too fast, says Dennis' fellow steering committee member, Katrina Pierson. “Look at voter turnout, not necessarily results,” Pierson says. “Our goal really was to have more of a turnout than we had in previous elections. I know a lot of people want to track Medina to see how effective the Tea Party was, but that’s not a good way to do it. There are two things: voter turnout and first-time primary voters.”

Pierson believes the movement is “too diverse” to track its footprints through a single candidate. In Perry’s acceptance speech, he name-checked the "Tea Party patriots" and an issue among the dearest to Tea Partiers’ hearts: the use of the 10th Amendment as a protective shield in the face of possible federal mandates.

Greg Holloway, a director of the Austin Tea Party Patriots, agrees that turnout was the main mission and says it would be an error to “assume that the Tea Party movement is entirely an anti-incumbent movement.” He says, "The real goal for us was to get more people to vote in the primary. Tea Partiers across Texas made a very informed choice, and it just so happens a lot of the very good candidates were incumbents."

Indeed, turnout in the Republican primary shot through the roof. In 2006, total turnout was 655,919. Last night, the total was more than 1.4 million.

Asked if credit goes to the Tea Party for such jump, Dennis said, “Absolutely.”

“We focused a lot of voter turnout, not necessarily campaigning,” Pierson says. “We’ve only been active on the ground for six to eight months. To do what we’ve done in that amount time is phenomenal, especially when you look at the turnout and the first-time primary voters.”

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