The Texas moderate Republican massacre

A combination of bank bailouts, healthcare reform and Barack Obama himself has dragged the Grand Old Party further to the right – as events in the Lone Star State demonstrate

When the measured patrician took on the dust-scuffing conservative in Texas this week, the result was not even close. And while all politics is said to be local – especially when the prize is the Republican nomination to be governor of the Lone Star State – you can be sure that on this occasion the whole country is paying attention.

You knew how things had turned out in Tuesday's primary elections in Texas when the incumbent Governor, Rick Perry, took the bunting-adorned stage at the Salt Lick Barbeque house in Driftwood, just outside Austin, barely an hour after the polls closed. The rugged High Chaparral smile was more dangerous than ever; the ostrich-skin boots fairly glinted. His primary opponent, Kay Bailey Hutchison, esteemed member of the US Senate, had been dispatched as comprehensively as a calf in a lasso.

This is not what many expected a year ago when Ms Hutchison, the first woman ever sent to the Senate by Texas, announced her intention to challenge the often noisy Perry to capture the keys to the Governor's mansion. She had many advantages: oodles of money, consistently high approval ratings in her home state and a strong reputation as an inclusive, moderate Republican. Moreover, all the grandees of the party were behind her.

Perry looked vulnerable. Many in the party, battered in the 2008 elections, considered him too polarising for the party's good. And there was the staleness thing. Perry, who assumed the governorship in December 2000 when George W Bush resigned to become US president, is already the longest-serving governor in Texas history.

So what happened in the interim to persuade Republican voters this week not just to pick Perry – who in the campaign went so far as to suggest Texas might like to secede from the Union – over Hutchison, but to do so by so whopping a margin? Governor Perry pocketed 52 per cent, avoiding a run-off, against 31 per cent for Hutchison.

Obama happened. The bank bailouts happened. The Democrat health care reform bid happened. The Tea Party rebellion happened. The unemployment rate happened. Put all these things together and what you get is a mood in America – and for certain in Texas – that is uncommonly sour. In other words, Washington happened, and Perry managed to attach Washington to Hutchison like a rock to a drowning swan. She was nominally attractive and elegant but no amount of paddling and flapping could save her in the end.

"I think the message is pretty clear: conservatism has never been stronger than it is today, and we are taking our country back," Mr Perry told his ecstatic supporters in the Salt Lick, where brisket cuts sizzle on open grills and the in-house bottled sauce in the gift store has more kick than a mule. "From Driftwood, Texas, to Washington, DC, we are sending you a message tonight: Stop messin' with Texas!" Is Washington listening? You betcha (as that other conservative bright star, Sarah Palin, would say).

What happened in Texas this Tuesday served only to amplify alarm bells that have been sounding for months not just in the party of Obama, who can barely have imagined so swift a slide from favour since his triumph of 2008, but in the leather-armchair headquarters of the Republicans too. With the mid-term elections of this November fast approaching, a new conservative fervour in the land threatens not just Democrats but moderate Republicans too.

The Perry playbook was both straightforward and surprising. His campaign decided early on to save millions by eschewing the normal garden signs, literature sent out by post and recorded canvassing by telephone. Instead, he focused only on social networking sites, grassroots organising and, as ever, TV advertising.

Then he set about painting himself as the outsider in the race and her as the consummate insider and creature of far-away Washington. That this worked is pretty surprising given how long he has been serving in his post already – one of Hutchison's loudest complaints is of cronyism in the state capital with Perry giving plum jobs to his friends – and also the fact there was nothing phony about his opponent's Texas pedigree. Not only does she spend more time back in the state than in Washington, but her great, great grand-daddy was among the 54 men who signed the Texas Declaration of Independence (from Mexico) back in 1836. Thus, she is Texas royalty.

But she is Republican royalty, too, and that worked against her. Karl Rove was among her supporters and so was the first president Bush, Dick Cheney and the former Secretary of State, James Baker. But conservative Republicans and some independents are about as angry with the Republican establishment and the Bush clan as they are with the Democrats. Perry himself gave voice to this on the trail, pointing to the last president Bush's failures as a fiscal conservative. He nudged his supporters to the conclusion that it was George W Bush that set the country on the road of federal profligacy that Mr Obama has continued to tread with even greater gusto. One of the most potent lines he had against Hutchison: she supported the first bank bailout pushed through by Bush. Hence the name he gave her in the campaign, "Kay Bailout". (Hers for him – "Slick Rick" – never really stuck.)

"I think he sensed at that early date that there was a very strong feeling that Washington was going too far in taxation and regulation," Republican consultant Reggie Bashur told Time magazine. "A lot of people did not understand, including myself, the growing resentment, the growing opposition in the state toward Washington. I think the governor and his team recognised and became a leader in the anti-Washington movement. And movement I think is the appropriate word. It was in its infancy then." The anti-Washington revolt has given birth to the so-called Tea Party. Its sudden surfacing on the American political landscape came close to hurting Perry, because a third, even-more-conservative candidate, Debra Medina, fought the Tuesday primary with the explicit backing of Tea Party activists. She came in a respectable third even after triggering a brief furore by giving public credence to the notion that the US Government may have been behind the 9/11 terror attacks on New York and Washington in 2001.

Even with Medina in the mix, Perry clearly managed to harness some of the Tea Party momentum. It was while attending one of its first gatherings in Texas in April of last year that the notion of Texas departing the rest of the country came up. It was a preposterous suggestion and he avoided returning to the topic, but it precisely chimed with anti-Washington anger.

All through the campaign, Perry worked to shine his conservative credentials, for example giving his blessing to a new line of Texas car plates bearing an anti-abortion slogan and lambasting Obama at every turn as being "hell-bent on taking America toward a socialist country". Importantly, he twice turned down federal stimulus money from Washington.

"She was just overtaken by a wave of anti-Washington sentiment that all members of Congress are being swept up in," a Hutchison spokesman said yesterday. "Her record is conservative. It was unfortunate that there was that national anti-Washington sentiment that overtook the race and took the focus off Texas issues."

Some heard echoes of the upending of conventional wisdom in Massachusetts, when Republican Scott Brown snatched the Senate seat that had been Ted Kennedy's. More important, maybe, is what Perry's victory says of some important midterm races looming this year. Moderate Republican figures vulnerable to conservative assault include Governor Charlie Crist of Florida and Senator John McCain in Arizona. Democrat giants threatened by the anti- Washington wave, meanwhile, include Senator Barbara Boxer of California.

Winning the primary does not mean Perry will necessarily get another term. Texas Democrats voted on Tuesday too and overwhelmingly gave their nomination to Bill White, a highly popular former mayor of Houston. He is Spanish-speaking – a huge plus in a state where Hispanics are on course to outnumber whites within 10 years – a Harvard graduate of and wealthy. White mentions nowhere in his biography on his official web site that he is a Democrat. In this atmosphere, that is surely smart.

The race for Texas governor has taken centre stage and, with the primaries over, is set now to become one of the closest-watched contests of the season. White and Perry could barely be more different from one another. But who would bet their horse and saddle on a Democrat winning in 2010, however clever and alluring they might be? No one washing down the hot sauce at the Salt Lick Tuesday night, that's for certain.

Heroes of the right: Fighters and firebrands

*Sarah Palin is the obvious poster girl of the Republican right. She received $100,000 (£66,000) for her speech to the Tea Party conference last month, and has drawn huge crowds on her nationwide book tour since stepping down as governor of Alaska.

* Since the Republicans became an opposition movement when President Bush left office, Fox News presenter Glenn Beck has been the most audible channel of the right's fury in the mainstream media. The firebrand host has galvanised opposition to Mr Obama's stimulus package.

* Scott Brown's victory over Martha Coakley in the Massachusetts race to succeed Teddy Kennedy in the Senate was the Tea Party's first scalp – and an important one. His victory over the Democrat wrecked the White House's healthcare plans.

* In New York, though, right-winger Doug Hoffman wrecked a moderate Republican's chances of getting elected in a congressional race. Dede Scozzafava pulled out and backed her former rival, Democrat Bill Owens, who beat Mr Hoffman on election day.

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