When primary voters go to the polls today in Texas, it could serve as an early gauge of anti-Washington, D.C., sentiment in the 2010 elections and the potency of the "tea party" movement.
The loose confederation of anti-government and anti-tax activists is aiming to wield greater influence in the fall elections, and it also hopes to influence lower-profile primary challenges against sitting Members.
In Texas today, 14 of 32 incumbents in the delegation face primary challenges, including 11 of 20 Republicans.
Though none of the 14 is expected to lose or even be forced into a runoff next month, Texas does have a more libertarian and anti-establishment streak than most states. A large protest vote against incumbents could be a harbinger of bigger anti-incumbent sentiment in the fall elections.
Voter antipathy toward Congress helps explain why Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) has struggled in her campaign to unseat Gov. Rick Perry (R), who has successfully painted the Senator as a political insider and creature of the nation's capital. The tea party ties of a third gubernatorial candidate, little-known GOP activist Debra Medina, have helped her wage an unexpectedly credible campaign against Perry and Hutchison.
The large number of primary challenges "suggests that the anti-incumbent sentiment at least has galvanized folks to participate. Obviously there's some broad-based dissatisfaction," said Harvey Kronberg, the publisher of the Quorum Report, a Texas political newsletter. "And since the districts are so rock-solidly Democratic or Republican, if there's going to be a challenge, it has to be from that party."
Phillip Dennis, a member of the Dallas Tea Party steering committee, said his organization didn't endorse candidates in GOP primaries but would love to "send home a big-spending Republican or two" in today's election.
Though that's unlikely to happen, Dennis said that "at least, we will have gotten their attention that from now on the tea party movement will be scrutinizing them and holding their feet to the fire more than in the past."
Dennis credits the movement with helping boost the number of ballots cast during the state's early voting period.
Jonathan Neerman, the chairman of the Dallas County Republican Party, said the above-average early turnout actually augurs well for GOP incumbents who face primary challenges.
"My hunch is there are a lot of independents who are voting Republican, and a lot of Republicans who sat out primaries in the past few cycles who are coming back," he said. "So for those incumbents who have higher name ID, then that's going to help them."
Texas political analysts say that the tea party movement is stronger in the northern part of the state, in particular the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area. Tea party-affiliated challengers in House races could get a boost from Medina's stronger-than-expected showing in that region.
One of the most noteworthy primaries on the ballot is in the northeastern 4th district, where Rep. Ralph Hall (R) faces a challenge from five opponents — the most serious of whom is Steve Clark, a technology and telecommunications executive who is a self-described tea party Republican.
Clark is running on a platform of term limits and is spending freely from his own pockets as he seeks to unseat Hall, who is the most senior Member of the Texas delegation and, at age 86, the House's oldest Member.
In an obvious nod to the tea party's presence, another of Hall's primary challengers will appear on the ballot as "Jerry Ray (Tea) Hall."
Several other primary challengers to Texas Republican incumbents are making an issue of their votes to shore up the nation's ailing financial industry. Businessman Mike Brasovan, one of two primary challengers to Rep. Kay Granger, has criticized the incumbent for voting for the financial industry bailout. Granger has said she was following the recommendation of economists who said the markets were about to collapse.
Brasovan raised about $86,000 through Feb. 10, including $20,000 in personal funds. He put in an additional $10,000 of personal money on Feb. 22.
Unlike Clark and Brasovan, though, most of the primary challengers are running their campaigns on shoestring budgets. They're utilizing online communications, including Facebook and Twitter, rather than big-budget media campaigns.
"There's certainly no TV advertising, and there's very little direct mail that I know of, in the Congressional races," Kronberg said.
Democratic officials will be watching today's returns in Texas' Dallas-area 32nd district, where National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions faces an intraparty challenge from David Smith, a financial analyst who has also criticized Sessions' backing of the financial industry bailout. Smith hasn't raised much money, though, and Sessions should prevail easily.
Republican strategists don't see these primary challenges as a sign of intraparty strife. They view tea party activists as allies who have helped Republicans promote party unity and who should be absorbed into the party as they plot to win back control of one or both chambers of Congress.
"The tea party's greatest influence in Texas has been to hold our incumbent Republicans to the platform and energize the conservative base," said Eric Opiela, a former executive director of the Texas Republican Party.
Neerman said the large early vote turnout in the Texas primary "is a referendum on what the Democrats are doing in Washington."
The only Democratic primary of note is in Texas' 18th district, where Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee is opposed by Houston City Councilman Jarvis Johnson and lawyer Sean Roberts. Jackson Lee is favored to win.