- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 13, 2011

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison said Thursday she won’t seek re-election to a fourth full term next year, marking the first retirement of the 2012 election cycle and leaving an open seat Democrats say they’ll force Republicans to defend.

The decision by Mrs. Hutchison, who when she retires will be the second-longest-serving Republican female senator in history, was not unexpected. But it is the first hiccup for Republicans in a Senate map that otherwise looks promising for them, with Democrats having to defend far more seats.

“I am announcing today that I will not be a candidate for re-election in 2012. That should give the people of Texas ample time to consider who my successor will be,” Mrs. Hutchison said in an open letter to Texans, in which she still promised to serve out the rest of her term.

Mrs. Hutchison came to the Senate in a special election in 1993, and won re-election to full terms in 1994, 2000 and 2006. Her retirement is the first major news of the 2012 election cycle, where control of the Senate will be well within the GOP’s grasp, given Democrats’ tenuous 53-47 margin and the states up for grabs.

In the Texas contest, Republicans hold the advantage, with the GOP having won every major statewide election in Texas over the last decade. That gives them strong momentum and a deep bench of potential candidates, including Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who announced Thursday he will explore a run.

Democrats, though, vowed to make Republicans work to keep the seat.

“The 2010 cycle was full of surprises, and it turns out 2012 will have some twists and turns as well: The first Senate retirement is a Republican,” said Eric Schmidt, communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “We look forward to running a competitive race in Texas as the Lone Star State is now one of several Democratic pickup opportunities next November.”

But Republicans are confident of their ability to defend open seats, and point to 2010, when they held seats of retiring lawmakers in Florida, Kentucky, Missouri, New Hampshire and Ohio.

Senate Democrats didn’t win a single one of them,” said Brian Walsh, communications director at the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “So the idea that they could win in Texas is wishful thinking to say the least. But I look forward to seeing how much national Democrats spend there as they defend 23 seats this cycle.”

Mrs. Hutchison’s retirement was first reported by the Dallas Morning News. She has been seen as the most conservative female senator in the last Congress, though she was likely to draw a tea party-backed primary opponent if she had run again.

“She’s been OK. She’s kind of thought of like the Olympia Snowe of the South,” said Torin Archbold, a tea party activist in Austin, Texas, referring to Maine’s senior senator, a moderate Republican whom her party leaders nonetheless usually count on when they seek her vote.

Mr. Archbold said Mrs. Hutchison’s successor will be more conservative all around, arguing “the climate has changed” in Texas Republican politics.

Mr. Dewhurst, who just won his third term as lieutenant governor in November, would be formidable, and sounded Thursday like he was leaning toward making the leap into the race.

“While my focus remains on the challenges we face here at the state level and making this upcoming session successful, I fully intend to explore running for the United States Senate, and should I run, I will run with the intention of winning and continuing to serve the people of Texas just as I have done throughout my career,” he said in a statement that blamed Washington for making things in Texas “more difficult.”

Several members of Congress and members of the powerful elected Railroad Commission of Texas could also consider runs for the seat.

On the Democratic side, the bench is shallow, and names were all considered very preliminary.

Pressure will be on the GOP to hold the seat both because the chairman of the NRSC is Mrs. Hutchison’s seat mate, Sen. John Cornyn, and because Texas is seen as symbolic Republican territory.

With Democrats defending more seats in general, and particularly more seats held by vulnerable freshmen, the national party’s resources could be stretched too thin to make much of an effort in Texas.

In his initial rankings, Larry J. Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, rates five Democratic seats and one Democratic-leaning independent as tossups, while just one Republican seat, held currently by Sen. John Ensign of Nevada, is rated a tossup.

The Democrats deemed most vulnerable are Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Jon Tester of Montana, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Jim Webb of Virginia, while Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent who was the Democrats’ 2000 vice-presidential nominee, is also deemed in trouble.

Mr. Brown, Mrs. McCaskill, Mr. Tester and Mr. Webb were all elected to their first terms in 2006, aided in part by a strong backlash against then-President George W. Bush.

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