Debra Medina doesn’t have a problem with being left out of the Republican gubernatorial primary debates — that is, if her polling expectations are completely off.
“If I’m not polling at 6-8 percent by mid-late January, then I’m not going to win the primary,” she says, laying out what she believes are reasonable criteria for inclusion in televised debates that her opponents —Gov. Rick Perry and U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison — have already signed onto.
As of late December, it looks like it might be close.
A University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll from early November put Medina at 7 percent, and a Rasmussen poll released shortly thereafter had her at 4 percent.
“A lot of people want me at the debates because they think I change the dynamic,” says Medina. How that change will manifest itself remains an open question — analyst forecasts range from negligible to potential spoiler at best. Medina maintains that it will all end with her in the Governor’s Mansion.
“I don’t think she can win,” says Houston-based Republican consultant Allen Blakemore. “I haven’t talked to anybody who thinks she can win. So, what’s she doing?”
The Hutchison campaign has been actively advocating for Medina to be included in the debates — potentially a sign that they believe what she’s doing is pulling votes from Perry. The Perry camp says their approach is entirely hands-off — and they deny Medina’s accusation that they have been trying to prevent the sponsors from letting her participate.
The case for Medina being a drain on Perry, who has made a strong play to the far right, is clear.
Believers don’t come much truer than Medina, a Ron Paul devotee and proud carrier of the Tea Party banner. She’ll attack Perry from his right side in ways Hutchison can’t or won’t. Case in point: Perry’s response to the recent shooting at Fort Hood. The governor dedicated funds for veterans’ psychological counseling, a move Medina scoffs at, saying, “If he cared about the safety of Texans, he would say, ‘Buy a gun, learn to use it, and carry it with you.’”
There’s a simple logic to this line of thought. “She ends up hurting the guy that she is probably closest to politically,” says Chris Bell, the 2006 Democratic gubernatorial candidate, who knows a thing or two about the effect that Medina-like candidates can have. He adds, “It’s an incredibly self-serving exercise at the end of the day.”
In 2006, unusually high profile independent candidates Kinky Friedman and Carole Strayhorn took a combined total of 30 percent of the vote, and Perry was able to defeat Bell with just 39 percent (general elections, unlike primaries, aren’t forced into run-offs if the winner has less than a majority of the vote). Medina is after that dissatisfied third of Texas voters, but they aren’t in play in her current race.
“This is a Republican primary, not a general election,” says Blakemore. “This is not an instance where people go out and vote for the Libertarian or the Green Party or something like that because they are saying, ‘A plague on both your houses.’”
Medina, who has already filed with the Republican Party of Texas, could still (though the window on this opportunity is quickly closing) drop out and run as an independent in November. “I was pressed pretty hard by the people that asked me to run to run as an independent,” she says.
A recent Rasmussen poll, in which participants were asked to assume that the Tea Party movement had organized as a political party, showed that in a generic three-way ballot test, a Tea Party candidate would, nationally, beat a Republican with a score of 23 to 18 percent.
Sounds promising at first, but the generic Democrat beat both with 36 percent. Also, Rasmussen found that among Republican voters, the Republican would edge out the Tea Party candidate 39 to 33.
“She could probably do a similar type of damage that Strayhorn and Friedman did to my candidacy,” says Bell. “She’d end up hurting Perry. We keep seeing this scenario play itself out over and over on a national or statewide level.” Think Ross Perot, Ralph Nader, or, more recently, New Jersey’s Chris Daggett.
That’s one problem with third party candidates. “They don’t win,” says Medina. Even Rasmussen concluded that it is “unlikely that a true third-party option would perform as well as the polling data indicates.” Also, they are not Republicans.
“Do we tear down the form and build a new one, or do we say the form’s pretty good and we just need to follow it?” she asks. “I’m one of those ‘the form’s pretty good we need to get back to it’ kind of people.”
“I believe in the principles of the Republican Party,” says Medina. Her objective in seeking the governorship is to restore the GOP's traditional principles of limited government, not to spoil the election in the Democrats’ favor.
If, in running, Medina is drawing support from would-be voters for the current Republican governor — given that both the UT/Tribune and the Rasmussen polls showed a double-digit lead for Perry —that’s only bad news for Hutchison.
The flipside of the conventional wisdom is more bad news for Texas’ senior senator. “Her mission is clearly an anti-Perry mission,” Blakemore says of Medina. “On that point, she would be taking votes away from Hutchison.”
The significance of Medina’s campaign as a primary campaign appears to be dependent on Hutchison stepping up her campaign and drawing closer to Perry in the polls. According to GOP pollster Marc DelSignore, if that happens, Medina could yet have an effect.
“These are numbers that exceed the typical also-ran kind of candidate,” he says. “In a close race, she only needs a few points to force a run-off.”
As Blakemore sees it, that may be the biggest punch she can hope to pack. “I don’t know what else she could do,” he says.
Forcing a run-off between two candidates Medina “knew immediately [she] didn’t like” is not exactly a win for her movement.
With her activist Tea Party background, Medina could energize and attract non-traditional voters to the primary, which may very well be the key to upping her vote — but still isn't a likely path to victory. DelSignore, cribbing from James Carville, says, “Show me a campaign relying on non-traditional voters, and I’ll show you a losing campaign.”
Who fares better in a Medina-induced run-off depends on which candidate she’s siphoning votes from. “The Medina factor in that situation remains to be seen,” DelSignore says, “But she’s polling well-beyond just a footnote candidate.”
Forget footnotes, Medina sees a way to rewrite the book. “It’s going to be one of those times in history where everybody goes, ‘Wow,’” she said.
There’s only one unanswered question as far as she’s concerned: “Whether or not we can get that name ID up.”
“Our early polling says that, when people know I’m in the hunt, I get about 50 percent,” Medina says. Of the UT/Tribune poll, she says, “I bet if it had polled name ID, I would have gotten 14 percent. If I can get that name ID up to 80 and draw 40, then we’ve got a ball game, I think. If I can even get it up to 60, then we’ve got a whole new ball game.”
Medina, whose long-shot campaign has coordinators in seven regions around the state, will soon begin airing television ads raising the issue of her possible exclusion from the debates. It’s a move that she hopes will boost that name ID, even though she can only afford to run the ads on cable — primarily Fox News.
If the effort fails, she says, “We won’t have anybody championing these issues that are traditionally Republican.”
“I had better work hard, hadn’t I?” says Medina. “And I am. I’m working really hard.”