Spoiler Alert: Medina Switch Could Upend Electoral Math

Debra Medina hosts a monthly potluck with Tea Party activists at her home in Wharton on Sept. 6, 2013.
Debra Medina hosts a monthly potluck with Tea Party activists at her home in Wharton on Sept. 6, 2013.

Why would anyone want Debra Medina to run for governor as an independent?

The civics class answer: to slip her past the Republican and Democratic primaries and into a general election where she might become a welcome alternative to the major parties’ candidates.

The politics-is-full-of-tricksters answer: to siphon votes away from one of the major candidates to the benefit of the other.

Medina, a Republican who lost the 2010 primary in the governor’s race and who is raising money for a state comptroller bid, said she has received millions of dollars in pledges on the condition that she instead run for governor as an independent.

She won’t say who offered the money. She is telling supporters that “my focus at this time” is running for comptroller.

“I’m doing everything I can to assemble the resources necessary for a viable, credible campaign for comptroller,” she told The Texas Tribune. “If it comes to November and the money still hasn’t come in, I’ll have to pull my team in and say, ‘Okay, are these other offers real, and if they are, is this the path I should move down?’ ”

That could mess things up for the Republican in the governor’s race, whether that turns out to be Attorney General Greg Abbott, the fundraising front-runner, or Tom Pauken, the former state party chairman.

Medina collected 18.6 percent of the vote in that 2010 primary, which Gov. Rick Perry won without a runoff. Kay Bailey Hutchison, then a U.S. senator, got 30.3 percent of the votes. The point there is that at least some Republican voters have shown a willingness to listen to Medina. In fact, she is counting on those supporters now as she tries to attract donors for her 2014 efforts.

It looks like she’ll have to watch the motivations of those donors.

One way to win an election is to change the electorate. That’s not as nefarious as it might sound — banging on doors and getting likely supporters to the polls is a way of doing so. That’s changing the electorate.

Another way is to split the votes among more than two candidates. In primaries, that often forces runoffs. In general elections, third-party candidates can sometimes grab enough votes to change the outcome.

George H.W. Bush beat Bill Clinton in Texas in the 1992 presidential election by less than 3 and a half percentage points. Ross Perot, meanwhile, got 22 percent.

For a quick-and-dirty look at Perot’s effect on that race, look at the next statewide matchup on that year’s ballot — a contest for railroad commissioner between Barry Williamson, a Republican, who got 53.7 percent of the vote, and Lena Guerrero, the Democratic incumbent, who got 39.3 percent. Clinton ran about two percentage points behind Guerrero. But Bush ran about 13 percentage points behind Williamson.

Perot’s independent campaign bled votes away from the Republicans, at least in Texas. Nationally, he was troublesome for Bush (and the answer — “43 percent” — to the trivia question about whether Clinton became president with a popular majority), but he didn’t cost him the election, according to exit polls at the time. In many states, he siphoned more votes from Clinton than Bush.

He did home in on the problem of the day, however, with his lectures and his charts about federal spending and debt. Both he and Clinton hammered Bush, the incumbent, on the economy. And Perot installed some of the fiscal infrastructure that now forms the foundation under the Tea Party. The Perot campaign’s “United We Stand” T-shirts were a common sight at early Tea Party events in Texas in 2009 and 2010.

Medina, a longtime supporter of Ron Paul, a former congressman, would have fit right in at any of those rallies, and she ran against Perry and Hutchison in 2010 as a populist railing against the establishment darlings.

Maybe her mystery pledges like her politics and want her in charge; or they hope she will divert support from a Republican and improve Wendy Davis’ chances; or they really want Medina out of the way in the comptroller’s race. Whichever.

She could be the most interesting independent in Texas since Ross Perot.

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