I arrived at the Austin Club Monday to meet three high profile Tea Party candidates for state House, all of whom emerged from their GOP primaries victorious. The setting was odd enough: The club sits in on old opera house, and I associate its clientele with the carefully coiffed and well-dressed sort of lobbyist who can flex big muscle at the Capitol, a few doors away. It’s not exactly the place you’d expect for a Tea Party, but hey, I thought, the chandeliers are nice.
It’s strange enough to meet grassroots candidates in a center of establishment politics. But much more surprising was the receiving line waiting to welcome the “every-man” candidates to their new political home: Everyone from the governor and the Speaker of the House to the head of the state Republican party came to meet these Tea Party-ers. It was a reception that many a long-time incumbent couldn’t dream of getting—and these three hadn’t even taken office yet.
When I stumbled into one room, Rick Perry stood beaming as he clamped the newly nominated Charles Perry (no relation) on the back and shot the wind with the lobbyists and staffers in the room. In the small room lit with chandeliers, he demanded that I photograph him with the new candidate; he had me take pictures with and without flash, and even fiddled with the camera to ensure the settings were optimal. Before the governor arrived, Charles Perry had offered the new state Republican Party Chair Cathie Adams his services stumping around the state, and then self-deprecatingly muttered something about his lack of political skill. Adams, who established her conservative bonafides as head of the Texas chapter of Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, shook her head. “You have a lot of credibility,” she told him.
The GOP brass seems eager to make the Tea Party welcome—and tie the knots now between the party and the candidates. If the new movement continues to gain strength and turn out voters, it will become increasingly important to keep those new activists within the establishment’s reach. Trailing in funds throughout much of the race, Charles Perry did pull an impressive victory in Lubbock against long-time incumbent Delwin Jones, and with no general election opponent, he was relaxed as lobbyists and consultants chatted with him about the current state of affairs.
His two compatriots, who held their fundraisers in rooms next door and upstairs, also saw a steady stream of visitors. Nominee David Simpson had a similar story to Perry: after getting drafted to run by local Tea Party groups, he came almost out of nowhere to beat another longtime incumbent and Longview fixture in Tommy Merritt. He also can relax without a Democrat to challenge him in the general. John Frullo, the third musketeer, is Rep. Carl Isett’s chosen successor and the only one of the three with a general election opponent, though few predict serious competition.
Simpson, who I had met when I covered his race in Longview, seemed just as shy as he had on the campaign trail. A devout Christian with seven children and a timber business, he spent his campaign going door-to-door and sitting in coffee shops looking for those who might want to discuss his love for the Constitution. He assured me he would always vote his mind and not just go along with the his party. He had already talked to other representatives, he said, about his “desire for freedom.” (It’s a term he uses a lot.)
It seems clear, however, that those in the party hope his desires will correspond with their platform—and that these new nominees will help deliver a wider Tea Party vote. “These are not upset races,” the governor had proclaimed to those of us milling around Charles Perry’s room. “They might have been [in the past]. None of these elections surprise me at all.”
The party seems to be embracing the new results—no tears were shed for the old incumbents. Those at the event expressed no qualms with Tea Party message, for all its negative press and the minority voters it may likely alienate. The candidates who campaigned on messages of cleaning up and cutting government waste must now come to terms with the establishment they’re going to have to join, at least to some extent.
Tom Pauken, who did much to build the Texas social conservative movement in the ’90s as GOP chair, made a beeline to congratulate Perry. He’s also hoping the Tea Party folks spell change for the state’s Republican Party even if the primaries didn’t yield more Tea Party candidates. “It’s a bit unfocused, it’s a bit chaotic,” he told Charles Perry and myself, “but it’s the most powerful populist [movement] in my lifetime.”
But then populism can look a little different under the light of chandeliers.