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Texas Primaries Could Be First ‘Tea Party’ Test

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.

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