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The Middle-Finger Vote

It's embodied in the Tea Party movement, in this week's runoff election results from Lubbock and Plano, in last month's primaries, in Gov. Rick Perry's embrace of states' rights and the 10th Amendment, even in Barack Obama's campaign against the status quo in 2008. Voters are furious, and politicians are listening.

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It's embodied in the Tea Party movement, in this week's runoff election results from Lubbock and Plano, in last month's primaries, in Gov. Rick Perry's embrace of states' rights and the 10th Amendment, even in Barack Obama's campaign against the status quo in 2008. Voters are furious, and politicians are doing their best to get in line, to accommodate the movement, or to get out of the way.

"Without the help of the Tea Party in my primary, I don't think I would have got out without a runoff," Perry said in a conference call set up to reach out to those voters this week.

On that call, the governor told the Tea Partiers that their work paid off in the runoffs held the day before. "The principles of the Tea Party came through loud and clear in those victories in the last 24 hours," he said.

Perry — who's been in government since 1984 and in his current post since 2000 — has nonetheless managed to position himself with the anti-government protesters, railing against Washington and big government, touting liberty, freedom and states' rights. Some think the trend will reinvigorate the GOP.

"The Tea Party group and that movement is pulling the Republicans back to the right and back to where they should have been all along," says Wayne Hamilton, a political consultant and former executive director of the Republican Party of Texas. "I actually think they've done the Republican Party a favor."

It's a fast bandwagon. A group of GOP legislators led by state Sen. Dan Patrick of Houston started the Independent Conservative Republicans of Texas this week, appropriating language and ideas from the restive electorate. Attorney General Greg Abbott, among others, has a logo featuring elements of the Gadsden flag, the one with a rattlesnake on a yellow field with the slogan "Don't Tread on Me." Several Texas pols, including Abbott, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams, Patrick and state Rep. Linda Harper-Brown of Irving, are throwing in with former New York Gov. George Pataki in an organization called (named for Paul Revere), collecting signatures on petitions to "repeal and replace Obamacare." It's issue-based, and it appeals to voters who aren't happy with the status quo.

"The Tea Party is just people who are upset," Hamilton says, arguing that there's no single issue that describes the group so much as the feeling that government is too big and too intrusive — a feeling that finds fertile soil in Texas. "Your issue may be different, but at the core, it's freedom and liberty."

Delwin Jones — who's been in the Legislature since 1989 and served in the House for four terms in the 1960s and 1970s — fell victim to voters' mood swing. The 86-year-old state representative drew two challengers, including Charles Perry, a local CPA who co-founded Lubbock's Tea Party. Perry made the runoff and swamped Jones in a primary season that clearly caught public attention in that five-county district.

Were they fired up? In that HD-83 race in Lubbock, 17,501 people voted in the runoff. Compare it to what happened in the adjacent race in HD-84, where no incumbent ran: 7,901 people voted. Or consider the HD-66 race in Plano, also without an incumbent, which attracted 8,475 voters. Williamson County's hotly contested GOP runoff in HD-52 drew a mere 5,052 voters. Voters might well have decided they'd seen enough of Jones, but he wasn't involved in a scandal and hadn't been the subject of any nasty news. Voters were just worked up, and he was the target. More voted in that March primary — 25,353 — than in any other House race in the state. And only four House primaries drew more voters than the runoff in Lubbock attracted.

Jordan Berry, who ran Charles Perry's campaign, attributes their success to a ground game. They just knocked on more doors. "We knew we would be out-gunned. We knew we wouldn't have the establishment support," he ways. "Without a ground game, we wouldn't have won."

To his eyes, Jones had no coherent message and didn't talk about what he had done for Lubbock. "He actually had some good stuff to talk about, and they didn't go out and talk about it," Berry says. "That blew my mind."

Instead, they attacked the challenger — a dumb move, as it turned out. "They tried to paint Charles Perry as a Tea Party nut sitting in a trailer house in a tin hat," Berry says. That conflicted with the reputation Perry was already establishing — that of a small businessman, a CPA involved in church and community — and didn't work.

What really turned it, though, was that Perry's team identified a new set of voters and got them to the polls: fed-up conservatives. They compiled lists of people new to the area who had conservative voting patterns elsewhere, he says, and they knocked on thousands of doors with a volunteer labor force of 75 to 100 people. The runoff went a little easier, since the primary election was big — and told them who was following the race. What fueled that, however, was a pool of vexed voters. "It's a sleeping giant," Berry says. He describes it as a group of citizens watching an overreaching federal government, now finally upset enough to act. "Obama took advantage of it, too," Berry says. "It pre-dates him."

Rick Perry, at the time speaking on behalf of presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani, scratched at Republican disaffection with Washington all the way back in 2007, telling an Iowa gathering that his candidate would mean a change in Washington. "Rudy's a real fiscal conservative. ... He's a supply-side, Reagan Republican. George Bush is not — and he never was."

Take the Perry-Bush elbowing out of that, and you've got the gist of the voter anger that's expressed, by some, as the Tea Party movement.

"I think they're just tired of politics as usual," says Charles Perry, the Lubbock winner. Voters don't want to mess with politicians but currently feel they must, he says: "You want to elect them, turn your back on them and hope they'd vote the way you wanted. And they're not doing that." The sparks began in Washington, he says, but the Legislature catches blame because of steady increases in property taxes and other taxes and fees from Austin. "If we can balance the budget [next year] without any increases in taxes ... that would be a successful first session," he says. "... People are struggling. I see it every day in my business."

It doesn't pay to be an incumbent, unless the incumbent has figured out how to embrace the calls for change without being held accountable for what's wrong in government. Rick Perry has managed to straddle the divide. Kay Bailey Hutchison, pegged as a creature of Washington, D.C., didn't, and got routed in the primary for governor. Delwin Jones did all of the things he's done to win tough elections before, but in a year where insurgency reigns, endorsements from other officeholders, like state Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, don't seem to help. Mabrie Jackson, a Republican House candidate who had the endorsement of state Rep. Brian McCall — who resigned and created the opening in that Plano seat — lost to Van Taylor. Taylor spent a lot of his own money — at least $840,000, according to reports filed with the Texas Ethics Commission — but also had the support of Wayne Richard, a Tea Party candidate who lost in the first round. He easily won the race against a candidate anointed by much of the local GOP establishment.

"The energy of the Tea Party movement and the outpouring of conservative angst ... what it has done is help bring Republican officeholders and candidates back to tried-and-true issues," says Eric Bearse, a former speechwriter for the governor who's now a campaign consultant. Perry's now talking up a balanced budget to the U.S. Constitution, an issue that also found traction in local Republican House races around the state.

That's not far afield for him, and some Republicans are right at home with people who might be said to vote with their middle fingers. Others will come along, Bearse says. "Those that are not movement conservatives might be a little nervous. ... All they have to do is address issues that are important to the movement conservatives."

Right now, economic issues like federal spending, taxes and jobs are front and center. Immigration isn't far behind. 

"They're not as crazy as they're sometimes portrayed to be," says political consultant Mark Sanders, who has worked for candidates in both parties, but usually for Republicans.

Sanders contends the anger isn't limited to Republicans — that Democrats and independents in Texas are also unhappy with the federal government, and about the pocketbook issues that currently dominate political conversation. "If they have one unifying thought, it's that they're mad at the federal government," he says. "If there ever was a year of the outsider, this is it."

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2010 elections Barack Obama Charles Perry Dan Patrick David Dewhurst Greg Abbott Griffin Perry Rick Perry Van Taylor