Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison has long had her political sights set on being governor, only to be told it was not her time. She’s not waiting any longer. The four-term lawmaker is gearing up to challenge fellow Republican and arch-rival Gov. Rick Perry, who is seeking an unprecedented third full term next year.
The March primary contest between the state’s two most powerful leaders is shaping up to be an epic showdown as big, brawling and feisty as the state of Texas itself. It will likely be nasty to boot, an intra-party clash that will gobble up tens of millions of dollars in campaign money in a critical midterm election year when the Republican Party will be struggling to make a political comeback nationally.
“She’s raised a lot of money and is popular in Texas, but a lot of people here would prefer they not run against each other. But at the moment, they seem committed to making the race,” said veteran Republican campaign strategist Tom Pauken, who chairs the Texas Workforce Commission.
“The governor’s been here a long time and they’ve been enemies for a long time. Some of her supporters are his former supporters, and she has a lot of support from the Bush Republicans in Texas. But he draws support from a lot of the conservative base and from social conservatives, too.” Mr. Pauken said.
Mrs. Hutchison, 66, the first woman ever elected to the Senate from Texas, won’t be up for re-election until 2012. She said in a brief pre-announcement last week that she is running because “I love Texas and I know we can do better.”
Singling out “key challenges” for the state, including property taxes, education, private property rights, utility and insurance rates and health care, she said, “We need results, not politics.” She intends to make a formal announcement of her candidacy in August.
Party strategists say her profile as a moderate-to-conservative Republican could hurt her in a primary dominated by the party’s conservative base, particularly her vote for last year’s $700 billion bank bailout bill that angered Texas conservatives and that Mr. Perry vigorously opposed. “That’s why they call her Kay Bailout,” an aide to the governor said.
Mr. Perry, 59, has carved out a reputation as a fiscal conservative who has balanced the state’s budget, built up a large rainy-day fund to carry the state through the recession, and has been successful in bringing thousands of jobs to Texas. The state’s 7.5 percent unemployment rate is well below the 9.5 percent national average.
Both candidates remain popular among voters, with approval ratings above 70 percent. Veteran strategists in both camps say they expect a down-to-the-wire race.
“This is going to be a very close primary race. It’s going to be tough and bruising. It’s going to be unlike anything that anyone has seen before in Texas,” said a senior Republican Party official who has close ties to the Texas political establishment.
Mrs. Hutchison, who was running ahead or at times nearly even with Mr. Perry in polls earlier this year, has seen her stock fall while the governor has moved ahead in recent surveys. A Rasmussen poll of likely Republican primary voters last week gave him a 10-point lead, 46 percent to 36 percent, with 14 percent undecided.
But party strategists on both sides discounted the numbers, saying that there is no more than five or six percentage points separating the two candidates, with Mr. Perry holding a narrow edge.
The question that national party officials and strategists in Texas posed last week was what will be the galvanizing message of Mrs. Hutchison’s campaign.
“I’m not quite sure what the narrative is for her candidacy. What’s the compelling case that she would be a better governor than Perry?” asked one of these strategists, who did not wish to be identified because of his position in the Republican national party campaign apparatus.
These strategists, as well as Mr. Perry’s own advisers, say her biggest weakness in the race is her identification with Washington which the governor has made the target of his re-election campaign. The governor, who has made a point of attending a number of “tea party” taxpayer protest rallies this year, has been striking a much more populist message lately, one targeted to the party’s bedrock conservative base.
“I’m fighting for the very Constitution that our Founding Fathers crafted to limit the reach of the federal government in our lives,” Mr. Perry said in a campaign fundraising letter sent out across the state last month.
“This campaign is not about personalities but principles. It is about two models of governing - the Washington model that talks the talk about limited government while delivering record earmarks and increasing bureaucratic control, and the Texas model of balanced budgets and fiscal restraint,” the governor wrote.
In response, Mrs. Hutchison, who has a 91 percent lifetime voting rating from the American Conservative Union and voted against President Obama’s nearly $800 billion economic stimulus bill, accuses Mr. Perry of failed leadership.
“After nearly a decade in office, our governor is not offering a clear vision of how we can solve the issues facing a changing state. And there is a real sense that our leadership in Austin is getting distracted and consumed attempting to clean up the mismanagement problems caused at the governor’s agencies. Picking a fight with Washington is not a long-term strategy to move Texas forward,” she said in her own fundraising letter on May 29.
Mrs. Hutchison, long known as a micromanager who follows her own instincts “and does not take advice well,” says a party adviser, has assembled a large high-powered team of campaign strategists, including former White House political director Karl Rove.
Her political path to this point in her career has been a remarkably easy one, say observers. She won a special election to fill the remaining term of the late Democratic Sen. Lloyd Bentsen who resigned to become treasury secretary, won a full term in her own right in 1994, followed by easy re-elections in 2000 and 2006. “Kay hasn’t had a tough race since 1993,” said one close observer.
Friends say “she has always wanted to be governor,” and she seriously considered challenging Mr. Perry in 2002 and again in 2006. After more than three terms in the Senate, she has decided that Mr. Perry, the longest-serving governor in Texas history, is vulnerable to what some state party strategists call “voter fatigue.”
But Mr. Perry’s advisers say she has picked the wrong time to run because anyone who is closely identified with Washington isn’t very popular back home right now.
“Texas has a very conservative primary. The governor has been very vocal about what’s going on in Washington, the bailouts, the record deficit spending, and Senator Hutchison has been in Washington for 16 years,” said Perry spokesman Mark Miner.
“Texas is better off than almost any other state in the country, with lower unemployment and a $6.6 billion rainy-day fund. In January, [Mr. Perry] gave 40,000 businesses a tax cut. How many governors are cutting taxes?” Mr. Miner said.
The governor can point to businesses he has brought into the state, including Caterpillar, a Fortune 500 company that moved its engine facility from Illinois to Texas, creating 1,400 jobs.
Both campaigns will be flush with cash for the battle to come. Mrs. Hutchison has $12.5 million in cash on hand. The governor, who started fundraising late because of the state prohibition on raising cash when the legislature is in session, has $9.35 million in the bank.
“I think he has shored up his support over the last year and her support has slipped a bit, but there are still a lot of undecideds. These are two strong candidates,” Mr. Pauken said.