With three weeks left to go in the Texas Republican primary, libertarian-leaning outsider Debra Medina has gained surprising ground in the polls and is building popular support as an alternative to the too-familiar faces of Governor Rick Perry and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison in the race for governor. The latest poll from usually reliable Public Policy Polling surprised even Medina's supporters when it showed that she has risen from single digits to 24%, only five points behind moderate challenger Hutchison, though still far back from incumbent Perry's 39%.
Much of the credit for this sudden increase in popularity has to be attributed to the two Republican debates in which Medina's honest and straightforward answers seemed much more appealing than the posturing and platitudes of the other two candidates. With her background as a close ally of paleoconservative Republican Congressman Ron Paul and head of the Texas Campaign for Liberty, Medina has an even stronger appeal to conservatives and actually polled a point ahead of Hutchison among conservatives likely to vote in the Republican primary.
Medina has come on very strong in the last few weeks and seems to have building momentum. Only a week ago Rasmussen had her at 16% and a few weeks before that most polls had her under 10%. A recent online fundraiser brought in almost $50,000 in only eight hours. Even the mainstream media is taking notice both in Texas and nationwide.
One result of this was that Medina was invited to be on the Glenn Beck radio show this morning for an appearance which turned out to be more like an ambush than an interview. Beck surprised her by asking if she is a 9/11 "truther" suggesting that she subscribes to conspiracy theories about the 9/11 attacks. Medina was clearly not prepared for the question, despite the fact that she should have expected it based on Ron Paul's frequent association with the conspiracy fringe. She should have come out with a clear and unequivocal "no", but she was flustered and said "I think some very good questions have been raised in that regard. There are some very good arguments, and I think the American people have not seen all of the evidence there. So I have not taken a position on that."
Not a strong response and certainly not one which will endear her to mainstream Republican voters. After the interview Beck commented favorably about Governor Perry in comparison and suggested that the answer would send Medina's popularity back to four percent. Some Texas pundits are speculating that Beck has a prior relationship with Perry and that the entire interview was engineered by the Perry campaign to embarrass Medina and stop her surge. Medina issued a clear and unequivocal statement that she was not in any way a "truther" on her website, but that may be closing the barn door after the horses have escaped.
If this small stumble doesn't slow her down and Medina can continue to build support, perhaps by using some of her recently acquired campaign funds to challenge Perry and Hutchison in their massive TV and radio advertising campaigns. She also has a very enthusiastic core following similar to the hardcore Ron Paul partisans from 2008. She's also pulling the majority of the Tea Party voters in the state and they will play a big role. If turnout is low, her strongest partisans will show up in force with a devotion which voters for the other candidates don't have. That kind of edge can make a huge difference.
All she needs is a few more points and she could become the beneficiary of Texas' run-off system. If she beats Hutchison and Perry stays under 50% – as seems inevitable – she will end up in a run-off election with Perry. Polling suggests that she is drawing votes mostly from Perry and also that many of the Hutchison votes are anti-Perry votes. It's possible that if she could make it to a run-off she would gain enough Hutchinson votes to beat Perry. It would take winning over about 70% of Hutchison's support, but it's possible and it would certainly be one of the great upsets in Texas political history.
For those not familiar with Texas politics, the Republican gubernatorial primary has extra significance, because despite their earnest efforts, the chances of either of the Democrat challengers (Bill White and Farouk Shalmi) coming within waving distance of any Republican nominee in the general election is slim to none. It's still looking like Rick Perry's race to lose, but he's held the office longer than any governor in the history of the state and people are tired of him. Medina is a fresh face and a real alternative, qualities which Hutchison can't match.