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Tea Party changes tone, but not outcome of Texas primary

By Kristi Keck, CNN
U.S. House lawmakers in Texas sailed through the state primary.
U.S. House lawmakers in Texas sailed through the state primary.
  • Congressional incumbents all win in Texas GOP primary
  • Tea Party activists "affected the tenor" but not a lot of outcomes, Henson says
  • Phillip Dennis of Dallas Tea Party says goal is not to endorse candidates
  • Henson says Tea Party lacks the organization to be institutionalized political presence

(CNN) -- If this week's primary election in Texas is any indicator, incumbent Republicans can breathe a little easier.

Despite a handful of Tea Party challengers, all 11 of the incumbent House Republicans facing challengers came out on top.

In the lead-up to the election, James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, said he heard legislators asking each other, "You got a Tea Party challenger? I do."

Jerry Ray Hall, who challenged Rep. Ralph Hall, the oldest member of the House, actually added "Tea" to his name to emphasize his support for the ideas of the Tea Party.

But as an organized movement, Henson said, "there was a lot more flash than bang."

"The candidates complicated things at the lower level of the tickets, but they didn't quite overwhelm the better-established dynamics in a lot of these districts," he said.

The most high-profile Tea Party activist in the fray was Debra Medina, who ran in the Republican gubernatorial primary. Medina came in third with about 19 percent of the vote, behind incumbent Gov. Rick Perry and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.

What is the Tea Party?

Medina, a relative unknown, surged in the polls after an impressive debate performance in January but lost momentum only weeks later when, in a radio interview with conservative talk show host Glenn Beck, she waffled when asked whether she thought the U.S. government played a role in the 9/11 attacks.

Although candidates associating themselves with the Tea Party didn't make waves in the primary, Henson said the movement did have a tangible effect.

"[Tea Party activists] really affected the tenor of the campaign, but it doesn't seem to me that they materially affected a lot of outcomes," Henson said.

Perry, taking a page from the Tea Party movement, capitalized on voter frustration and overspending in Washington and pinned Hutchison as a creature of the Washington culture. Hutchison entered the race a formidable opponent, but by the time the primary arrived, she had fallen behind.

On the local level, there were some victories for the Tea Party, but Henson noted, "the people who were displaced by the Tea Party candidates proved to be the exception rather than the rule."

State Rep. Tommy Merritt lost to activist David Simpson. Merritt has represented District 7 since 1997. Longtime State Rep. Delwin Jones was unable to get enough votes to lock in his bid and will face Tea Party activist Charles Perry in a runoff next month.

Phillip Dennis, founder of the Dallas Tea Party, said that despite the results, he didn't consider the election a loss for the movement.

"We think it was a tremendous success and we take a lot of credit for that," Dennis said, pointing to the high voter turnout.

Turnout this year was at about 16.6 percent of registered voters, according to the Texas Secretary of State's office. With 1.4 million Republicans voting, it set a new record for the Republican gubernatorial primary.

Dennis said there's a misconception that the Tea Party is out to endorse candidates -- something the Dallas Tea Party can't legally do because it is a nonprofit organization.

Instead, Dennis said the group's goal is to educate and mobilize voters.

"We feel that we can hold politicians' feet to the fire with this organization and we do," Dennis said. The Tea Party movement, he said, "has awakened the tax paying, middle-class, sleeping conservative giant."

Henson said there's still a lot of gray area around what's going on with the Tea Party and that, as a sustained political organization, "it doesn't seem to be gelling."

"It appears that there is not the kind of organizational infrastructure to sustain this as an institutionalized political presence," he said.

When trying to determine the impact the movement might have in upcoming elections, Stu Rothenberg, editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report, said it's difficult to gauge.

"One of the problems in evaluating the Tea Party movement as a movement is that people use the term differently to mean different things," he said.

Within the Tea Party, there are separate factions with separate goals. Some activists want the various parties to coalesce into a single organization, while others want to keep it a grass-roots movement with no leader.

The activists also don't have much of a track record for racking up victories at the polls. In Illinois, Patrick Hughes, associated with the Tea Party, garnered less than 20 percent of the vote in the Senate GOP primary. Rep. Mark Kirk, a moderate Republican, easily won.

But Tea Party aside, this year's midterm elections are shaping up to be competitive. Rothenberg said that 74 House races are currently considered competitive, higher than in previous years.

"[Democrats] control seats that under normal circumstances they wouldn't, so there are all these Democratic opportunities that Republicans can recruit on," he said.

"When you look over the past half-dozen elections, we're getting more candidates, and really it's mostly coming from the Republican side of the aisle. There are just a lot of districts that they can compete in."

CNN's Peter Hamby contributed to this report.