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A Conservative Maverick Tries to Stay in the Picture

If Debra Medina doesn't run for comptroller in 2014, it will be because of a lack of money, not will. The former gubernatorial candidate said grass-roots supporters can't contribute enough funds to wage a serious statewide bid.

Debra Medina hosts a monthly potluck with Tea Party activists at her home in Wharton on Sept. 6, 2013. Medina is exploring a run for state comptroller.

In 2009, Debra Medina launched a quixotic bid for governor of Texas, delivering one fiery speech after another to any Republican club or Tea Party group that would let her make the case for a platform focused on state sovereignty, gun rights and eliminating the property tax. For nearly a year, until her appearance in a televised debate drew national attention and energized her fund-raising, the campaign sustained itself on a shoestring budget.

Four years after emerging as a Tea Party darling, Medina is eyeing the open race to succeed Comptroller Susan Combs. But as she weighs another run, she knows that donations from grass-roots supporters can take a candidate only so far in Texas.

“I’m hesitant to go out to these meetings and say, ‘I’m running,’ because I’m not going to run underfunded,” said Medina, who predicts that grass-roots supporters could provide 30 percent of what she needs for a campaign.

“I think the other 70 percent is going to have to come from high-wealth individuals who fund campaigns in Texas. There, it’s not coming,” Medina said.

Her comments underscore the extent to which wealthy donors play an outsize role in Texas elections, where there are no limits on how much an individual can donate to a candidate for a state office. With the majority of voters spread among several large media markets, running a statewide campaign is prohibitively expensive.

“I think that Debra Medina is probably right, that it’s very difficult to run a grass-roots-funded statewide campaign for that reason,” said Andrew Wheat, research director for Austin-based Texans for Public Justice, which studies campaign financing. More than half of most statewide officials’ campaign accounts stem from contributions of $10,000 or more, he said.

To Medina, launching a campaign she knows is unwinnable would be counterproductive.

“If I run underfunded and I lose, then that’s on me,” she said. “That’s me going in ill-prepared and knowing that not only am I going to suffer in my ability to advance these ideas, the ideas are going to suffer because I’m the most visible advocate of those ideas.”

Medina’s campaign for governor came on the heels of the birth of the Tea Party movement. Though Gov. Rick Perry, who ultimately won re-election, quickly embraced many of the movement’s views of limited government, some voters believed it conflicted with his record, and they turned to Medina in the Republican primary, according to Mark Jones, chairman of political science at Rice University in Houston.

“There’s a certain level of support she has out there,” Jones said. “There are people who remember her and identify with that wing of the party.”

In July, Medina reported having $55,000 in her campaign account. Two Republicans already running for comptroller, state Sen. Glenn Hegar, of Katy, and state Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, of Kerrville, reported war chests of $1.8 million and $1 million, respectively. Former state Rep. Raul Torres, a Republican, is also a candidate and Democrat Michael Collier, a retired accountant, has said he may run for the position as well.

The comptroller serves as the state’s chief financial officer, overseeing tax collections and estimating the amount of revenue the Legislature can employ to craft its next two-year budget. Texas comptrollers have also used the position to encourage public debate on various economic issues. Medina says the office is uniquely suited to her interests in influencing the state’s approach to financing government over the long term.

“My driver is not being in elected office. My driver is changing policy,” Medina said. “Actually, driving policy where our so-called conservative leaders have told us they’re taking it.”

That mix of bluntness and ideological purity was evident to voters during Medina’s unsuccessful bid for governor. Whereas many Republican candidates have nothing but praise for Texas’ concealed carry permit system, Medina derided it as government interference. She continues to say that Texas lawmakers defy the state’s conservative image by spending liberally and instituting regulations that unnecessarily distort markets.

“I think that Debra felt like a lot of conservatives who backed Perry weren’t real conservatives,” said Luke Macias, a Republican consultant whose clients include several Texas House members with strong ties to the Tea Party movement. “I haven’t seen her build coalitions since then.”

Her campaign for governor found fast momentum following a January 2010 televised debate in which she was widely viewed as defending her views and questioning her opponents better than Perry or Kay Bailey Hutchison, then a U.S. senator. Medina quickly drew more than $400,000 in donations from thousands of new supporters. It was more than she had raised in the year prior but a far cry from the millions being spent by Perry and Hutchison at the time.

Yet Medina’s standing in the race continued rising until Feb. 11, when the conservative radio host Glenn Beck asked her whether she agreed with “truthers” who believe the government was involved in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

"I think some very good questions have been raised in that regard," Medina told him, adding that she did not have a position on the issue. Her opponents immediately vilified her, and her campaign never recovered.

Medina takes full responsibility for her flubbing of the interview. She said she never meant to suggest that she believed the government was involved in the attacks, only that people had the right to question their government.

“It was an awful day. I get pretty emotional when I think about it because so many people worked so hard,” she said, her voice cracking. “I let those people down, and that’s what’s hard for me.”

After finishing third in the primary with 19 percent of the vote, Medina launched We Texans, a nonprofit that advocates many of the same positions of her campaign, including replacing the property tax in Texas with a tax on consumption. The group’s work has helped Medina maintain a presence in the Liberty movement, a Libertarian branch of conservatism that overlaps somewhat with the Tea Party and is closely identified with Ron Paul, the former Texas congressman and two-time Republican presidential candidate whom Medina counts as a mentor and ally.

Medina said she keeps in touch with Paul and expects he would support her campaign for comptroller if she ran. Paul did not return a call seeking comment.

“He’s going to help me, and I’m going to be happy to have his support,” Medina said. “It will energize the base. It’s not necessarily going to open the checkbooks of the guys who are writing the big checks.”

No matter how much she raises, Medina is almost certain to be outspent throughout the Republican primary, Jones said.

“Absent to having a credible statewide media campaign, it’s difficult to see her beating either Hegar or Hilderbran because they’re going to get a ton of money dumped in their lap if they’re running against Debra Medina,” Jones said. “The last thing the Republican establishment wants is Debra Medina as state comptroller.”

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