Less than two hours after Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison conceded defeat to Gov. Rick Perry in the Republican primary for governor last night, there were two major political questions emerging in the Lone Star State.
First, would Perry — now the longest-serving governor in Texas history after nine years in Austin—be able to secure re-election this fall against the most formidable Democratic candidate in two decades?
Second, when — and if — would 17-year Sen. Hutchison make good on her repeated promise to resign her seat this year?
How these two questions are eventually answered could have a major impact on both the Republican Party and national politics in general.
As Hutchinson mounted the podium to concede hard-fought primary battle, Perry was leading her by a handsome margin of 53% to 30%, with the remaining 17% going to first-time candidate and Tea Party favorite Deborah Medina. Her defeat came 32 years after husband and former State GOP Chairman Ray Hutchinson was himself defeated resoundingly for the gubernatorial nomination by oilman Bill Clements, who went on in to be elected the first Republican governor of Texas since Reconstruction.
In many ways, Hutchinson vs. Perry in 2010 was a remake of Hutchinson vs. Clements in 1978. Just as Ray Hutchison was widely distrusted by the conservative wing of the GOP for his reputation as an “establishment” Republican, wife Kay was also distrusted by conservatives who saw her as the epitome of a “moderate” or “establishment” Republican. (Aside from her pro-abortion stand and support from former President George H.W. Bush, the senator known at home as “KBH” has compiled a conservative voting record on most issues).
Playing on this distrust of Hutchison on the right, Perry wooed some of the anti-Washington Tea Party support from Medina, blasted stimulus and TARP packages voted on in Congress, and took up the cause of the Tenth Amendment in charging that the federal government “has become oppressive in its size, its intrusion into the lives of our citizens, and its interference with the affairs of our state.”
He made national news by flirting with secession from the union, telling a reporter in April “if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that.”
So now that he’s won a spirited primary with ease, is Rick Perry a cinch for re-election this fall? Hardly. Four years ago, against an under-funded Democrat and two independent candidates, Perry managed re-election with a mediocre 39% of the vote. This year, he withstood strong attacks from Hutchison over his record on public education (rising dropout rate, stagnant test scores) that is sure to be recycled in the fall by Democrat Bill White.
White is the strongest Democrat nominee for governor since his party last won the governorship in 1990. A widely popular former mayor of Houston, multi-millionaire White has a wide circle of friends and supporters throughout the Texas business community as well as personal wealth he can deploy on a campaign. White is expected to campaign as a reformer in the mold of Hutchinson and try to woo centrist Republicans and independents.
Another issue that could work in White’s favor is term limits — or lack thereof. After several strong hints that this term would be his last, Perry surprised even supporters by announcing he would run again for the office he first achieved in 2001, when George W. Bush resigned the governorship to become President and then-Lieutenant Governor Perry moved up. As to whether Texans want the same governor for thirteen years and whether the will elect a Democratic governor in what is shaping up as a Republican year will make the race for the statehouse a heated contest worth watching.
Will She, Won’t She, and When?
As she geared up last year to run for governor in 2010, Sen. Hutchinson said she would resign her Senate seat before ’09 was up and campaign full time. She reversed that promise, citing the need for her to be in Washington for the health care debate and vote. Then the senator spoke of resigning once she won the primary for governor.
That didn’t happen. Now talk is rampant that Hutchinson (who has already said she will leave the Senate when her term expires in 2012) will still resign in weeks or even days and set the stage for a special election.
“Who knows?” I’m tempted to say with a shrug. We’ve been hearing versions of this swan song for a year now.
In the event Hutchinson does resign, Gov. Perry will appoint a fellow Republican to her seat and a special election will be held either early or (if the cash-strapped state decides to save the money a “snap” election would cost) on the same day as the regular November election. As it was when Hutchinson won a special election herself in 1993, all candidates regardless of party would compete on the same ballot and, if no one won a majority, the top two vote-getters would meet in a subsequent run-off.
Six Republicans are either seriously exploring or gearing up for a Senate race: Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, former Secretary of State Roger Williams, State Railroad Commissioners Elizabeth Ames Jones and Michael Williams; State Sen. Florence Jones of Plano, and former State Party Chairman Tom Pauken, who now chairs the state Workforce Commission.
All are considered conservative to varying degrees. Pauken is an activist with Goldwater and Reagan credentials and a following among state supporters of Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) and Mike Huckabee. Williams, the lone African-American in the race, has close ties to former President George W. Bush and told me he wants to go to Washington to “stand up to [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid.”
“This is a race that, for selfish reasons, I don’t want to happen,” Texas Sen. John Cornyn, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told me during a Christian Science Monitor press breakfast last year when discussing what would happen when and if Hutchison resigns. Cornyn freely admitted that in a special election, with a likely low turnout and crowded Republican field, “a Democrat could well win.” This was a bit startling to me, since Texas has not elected a Demcratic senator since the late Lloyd Bentsen won re-election as he was losing the vice presidency back in 1988.
At the time, Cornyn feared that Houston’s wealthy former Mayor Bill White would carry the Democratic Senate standard. Now White is running for governor. The betting in Austin now is that the Democratic candidate in a special Senate race will be John Sharp, a former state comptroller who very nearly unseated then-Lieutenant Gov. Rick Perry in 1998. (Had six-tenths of a percent of the vote switched that year, Sharp would have moved up to the governorship when George W. Bush became president).
Sharp is a centrist and considered a strong campaigner. His political viability would no doubt be enhanced by being the lone Democrat on a ballot likely to include five Republicans.
But, of course, any prognostication of a special Senate race must start with Kay Bailey Hutchison resigning her office. And that, as we know by now, may happen any day.
Or it may not happen at all.