The Message from Texas

It will be tempting for Democrats to point to the results of the Republican gubernatorial primary in Texas as "proof" that voters are not angry at Democrats in particular but are simply unhappy with incumbents in general.  After all, the candidate they rejected,  Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, is a conservative (the American Conservative Union ranked her among the 21 most conservative members of the Senate, with a 96 percent conservative rating in its most recent survey).  But while Democrats may try to persuade the public that the Texas primary results had nothing to do with the policies of the Obama administration and congressional Democrats, they should be careful not to fall into the trap of believing their own spin.

There are always multiple factors in any election outcome and that was true this time, too.  For one thing, Hutchison had not made a sufficient case for her fellow Republicans to toss Perry aside and left many wondering why she couldn't have just left things as they were, with Perry in the governor's mansion and Hutchison in Washington. But Perry's campaign did not rest on such arguments: even if the American Conservative Union thought Hutchison a leading conservative, and even if she had the endorsement of Dick Cheney, Perry's principal argument was that Hutchison was not conservative enough, that she was too willing to cross party lines to support the occasional Democratic initiative, that she shared in the blame for high levels of government spending and the increasingly problematic federal deficit.

Perhaps the most significant fact in the Perry-Hutchison race had nothing to do with either of them: there was also a "Tea Party" candidate, Debra Medina, who vied with Perry in the campaign to see who could most aggressively attack the policies flowing from the nation's capital.  With virtually no money and starting with virtually no name recognition, Medina won nearly one in five votes; together, she and Perry -- the two most strident voices of opposition to Democratic policies -- won 70 percent of the primary vote.

That said, and even though the Texas results seem to fit well with the Republican strategy of ardent and constant opposition to everything Democrats propose, it's still a little early for the GOP to get smug about the upcoming congressional elections.  This was a battle among Republicans, and Texas Democrats will be putting forth a strong gubernatorial candidate of their own in the popular former Houston Mayor Bill White. Suggestions that Democrats are "toast" are premature. But my guess is that with President Obama pushing hard for passage of his health care reform bill before the first of April, the Texas results will not be lost on the ever-increasing number of House and Senate Democrats who take the reading of such tea leaves seriously.