Texas Gov. Rick Perry latched onto the rising wave of anti-Washington ire and rode it to an easy Republican primary win over Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, once seen as the candidate who could block his march toward four more years in the state's highest office.
Perry emerged Tuesday from the rancorous fight with Texas' senior senator and a third candidate backed by some in the tea party movement to face a Democrat in many ways his polar opposite. Former Houston Mayor Bill White, a calm consensus-builder, easily defeated six opponents to win his party's nomination.
The Texas Secretary of State's Office said Wednesday that turnout was slightly more than 2.1 million, or 16.5 percent of registered voters — the highest of any Texas primary election in 20 years. About 41 percent of voters cast early ballots.
Shortly after Hutchison called him to concede, Perry continued his nonstop attack on the nation's capital, slamming Washington on spending, job losses and the health care debate.
"Texas voters said no to Washington bureaucrats ... and yes to leadership that controls spending, fights for individual freedoms and the United States Constitution," Perry told cheering supporters at the famous Salt Lick barbecue restaurant in Driftwood, just outside Austin. "Hardworking Texans sent a simple, compelling message to Washington: Quit spending all the money!"
With nearly all precincts reporting, Perry had 51 percent to Hutchison's 30 percent. He managed to avoid a runoff even though nearly one in five voters cast ballots for the third candidate, Debra Medina, a GOP party activist who has strong libertarian leanings and supporters in the tea party movement.
Competing with Perry for the most conservative GOP voters, Medina raised relatively little money and told talk show host Glenn Beck there were "some very good arguments" that the U.S. was involved in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Yet she still managed to win over some voters who might otherwise have sided with Perry.
The tea party movement's influence wasn't limited to the governor's race; tea party-backed candidates ousted a longtime ally of the Texas House speaker Tuesday and sent another into a runoff.
"A lot of people did not understand, including myself, the growing resentment, the growing opposition in the state toward Washington, D.C.," said longtime Republican consultant Reggie Bashur, who credited Perry with identifying the anti-Washington sentiment just as the tea party movement was taking off a year ago — and jumping aboard.
Perry spoke to tea party activists on April 15, 2009 — federal income tax filing day — and in response to a question by The Associated Press even flirted with the idea of Texas seceding from the Union as he criticized the federal government.
"I think the governor and his team recognized and became a leader in the anti-Washington movement," Bashur said.
White, in his measured and deliberate style, saluted the two Republicans who challenged Perry for the GOP nomination, saying Tuesday night in Houston that he admires their courage for taking on a "career politician" who knows every "trick in the book."
White easily dispatched with hair care magnate Farouk Shami and five others to win the Democratic nomination with 76 percent of the vote with nearly all precincts reporting. A lawyer and businessman with money to spend on an expensive race, White represents the Democrats' best hope in years at winning the governorship.
Democrats haven't won a statewide office since 1994, when George W. Bush was elected governor and the Republicans started their Texas takeover.
White predicted Perry will try to take credit for good things going on in Texas, including the creation of new jobs, but won't accept responsibility for a record 1 million jobless or the high dropout rate.
"I think we're catching up to Mr. Perry," White said.
Already the state's longest-serving governor, Perry hammered Hutchison for her ties to the nation's capital as he pressed hard for a third, full four-year term. He criticized her votes in favor of bailing out troubled financial institutions when Bush was president; Perry's spokesman called her "Kay Bailout."
Hutchison said she tried to remind voters that she always fought for Texas values in Congress, but admitted during an interview last week that Perry succeeded in sticking her with a Washington label.
"We have fought valiantly for our principles, but we did not win," Hutchison said in Dallas on Tuesday night. "I will work with Gov. Perry and our fellow Republicans to keep Texas strong in the future."
Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, said Perry's campaign "honed in on where the Republican election was and defined Hutchison in a way that she couldn't escape."
Also on the ballot Tuesday were some tight Republican races for the influential State Board of Education, which adopts curriculum standards that wield significant influence over the content of textbooks nationwide. Former board chairman Don McLeroy lost to challenger Thomas Ratliff.
McLeroy's loss weakens the powerful conservative Christian bloc of the 15-member board, which has unusual clout because textbook publishers have few clients bigger than Texas. But social conservatives held on to at least one other seat and sent another race to an April runoff.