AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Debra Medina turned mainstream Republican heads four years ago, when her underfunded, grassroots gubernatorial campaign captured nearly one of every five votes cast in a star-studded GOP primary.
Today, the gun-toting nurse and businesswoman who mixes tea party fervor with Libertarian economic ideals is again in the thick of a primary dogfight. This time it's for comptroller, and she has a credible chance to win.
"I think that many of the pundits expect that it's not going to hold. It's holding," Medina, the only legitimate female candidate on the statewide Republican primary slate, told The Associated Press in an interview. "I expect the momentum to continue to build as the grassroots understands how close they are to being able to put a grassroots candidate in statewide office."
Tea party darling Ted Cruz already proved the electoral might of the Texas grassroots when he upset establishment Republican choice Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in the 2012 U.S. senatorial primary. But Cruz got more than $7 million from outside conservative groups, much of it from the Washington-based Club for Growth, to counter the $20 million Dewhurst poured into his own campaign.
Medina has spent a paltry $157,000 on her campaign to be the state's chief financial officer. Her two chief Republicans rivals, state Sen. Glenn Hegar of Katy and state Rep. Harvey Hilderbran of Kerrville, have together spent about $4.8 million — more than 30 times as much.
"Ted Cruz showed it with millions of dollars," Medina said of harnessing the power of conservative activism. "Debra Medina still has never raised $1 million. It's hard to comprehend how it can be done without money."
Bill Miller, an Austin Republican consultant and lobbyist, says Medina calling herself Cruz without the fat bankroll is a stretch. But he added that conservative voters remain intrigued by the encore to Medina's 2010 gubernatorial run.
"She's got a name and she's got a following," Miller said. "Both of those other two guys are running statewide for the first time and she's showing the power of having done it before."
Medina devoted her 2010 campaign for governor to calling for eliminating Texas' property tax while refusing to rule out seceding from the union.
She garnered about 19 percent of the vote against Gov. Rick Perry and then senior U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, and might have done better if she hadn't questioned whether the U.S. government was involved in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks during an interview with conservative radio show host Glenn Beck. She later backed away from the comment.
Medina, long known for packing a pistol in her car, grew up on a South Texas ranch and founded a medical billing company in Wharton. In the years since the governor's race, she founded We Texans, a conservative nonprofit, and tax reform remains her pet issue.
"Texas has 63 state taxes. That is inconsistent with the mantra that we are a low-tax, low-regulated state," said Medina, who frequently reminds voters that Texas trails only New York in having the nation's second-highest local debt burden per capita.
Medina said that as comptroller, she will restructure the funding mechanisms municipalities use and help to slow borrowing: "I am talking about the on-the-ground reality rather than just the noble, lofty rhetoric."
The race features no incumbent because Comptroller Susan Combs isn't seeking re-election. One of the post's key duties is telling the Legislature every two years how much money the state has to spend. Combs drastically underestimated how much there would be in state coffers in 2011, and critics claimed she did so in an abundance of fiscally conservative caution.
"You've seen some of the data being released and tilted for political purposes," Medina said "rather than being provided in an objective fashion."
If no candidate wins 50 percent of the vote in Tuesday's primary, the top-two finishers will advance to a May 27 runoff. Miller predicted Medina would make the runoff and could even do so in first place, but that her minuscule campaign war chest would make it difficult to ultimately win.
"Not raising money is not a bragging right," he said.
Medina acknowledged she has no hope of closing the spending gap with her two opponents.
"I tell folks, if we win this election it's going to be because of your hard work. We're not going to buy this election," Medina said. "We wouldn't if we could, but we can't."