If Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison has any regrets about her failed bid to be Texas' next governor, she's not showing it. Or, at least, she won't discuss it, preferring instead to talk about her new role in Republican leadership.
Hutchison's office declined Roll Call's request for an extended interview to discuss her future in the wake of her March 2 defeat by incumbent Rick Perry in the Texas Republican gubernatorial primary. And in a brief impromptu interview Thursday, the Senator flatly declined to comment on her gubernatorial race or whether she will seek re-election in 2012, when her Senate term expires.
But Hutchison was willing to talk about her legislative and political agenda now that she is refocused on her job as Texas' senior Senator, and she was similarly predisposed to discuss her move back into leadership as an appointed adviser to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — a new slot created specifically for her.
"I have hit the ground running and am really working hard to do all the things that really, I need to do and can do. So, I'm just focused on that," Hutchison said.
Of her new role in GOP leadership, Hutchison added: "That has been great. I think our job is so important, and having a voice at the table, being able to be a part of a great team I think, has been wonderful. And, Mitch has been great. All of my colleagues have been so wonderful welcoming me back. I've been gratified by that."
McConnell is clearly pleased to have Hutchison's counsel again. A senior elected Member of leadership until 2008, when she stepped down from that position to focus on her gubernatorial run, Hutchison decided to serve out the remainder of her Senate term and forgo previous plans to resign after personal appeals from McConnell and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas).
McConnell said he hopes Hutchison seeks a fifth term in 2012.
"Once the governor's race was over in Texas, I wanted to have her back at the table," McConnell said. "She's been a leader in the Senate for some time, and I thought it would be value-added to the team to have her back at the table."
According to David Beckwith, a longtime member of Hutchison's circle of advisers, the Senator's reluctance to discuss her political future is practical and borne of recent experience. From the time Hutchison announced for governor until she finally decided to serve out her current term, she went back and forth, in public, over whether she would resign and when.
"During the campaign, she made a number of statements about her intentions to resign, which she believed at the time," Beckwith said. "She intended to win the primary. The day after the election, she re-evaluated the situation. I'm sure she wants the next decision to be the final one."
Beckwith speculated that Hutchison would likely make up her mind about 2012 in about a year. He said the Senator might be eyeing the possibility that the Republicans could retake the majority in 2012, if not 2010, which would elevate her to Commerce chairwoman. Beckwith said Hutchison likely would focus her energy on Commerce Committee work and doing her best to protect NASA from budget cuts.
When Hutchison announced her intention to run for governor a few years ago, she was the most popular statewide elected official in Texas. It was assumed that Perry — at the time not well thought of — would decline to seek a third term and that Hutchison would run unopposed in the primary and easily win the governor's mansion this November.
But Perry's relationship with Texas voters began to improve at least in part based on his handling of Hurricane Ike, which swept through the southeast region of the Lone Star State with a vengeance in late summer of 2008. A few weeks later, Hutchison voted for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, which came back to haunt her by the time the gubernatorial race swung into high gear in 2009.
Perry played his hand perfectly, casting himself as the outsider who would protect Texans from an overreaching federal government. This message was well-received in conservative-leaning Texas.
Meanwhile, Hutchison picked up the derogatory tag "Kay Bailout," based on her TARP vote. Her record of using the levers of Washington to deliver for Texas actually became a handicap in the competitive, three-person race for the Republican nomination. Hutchison ended up losing handily, failing even to force a runoff.
"The anti-Washington mood among primary voters was the single most deciding factor in Perry being renominated," said one Republican political strategist with Texas ties. "The Kay Bailout' tag stuck to her like glue, and Perry successfully pointed out the numerous spending increase votes KBH had and defined her as part of the problem. Hanging Washington around her neck was her undoing."
However, individuals in Washington and Texas who follow Hutchison say she doesn't appear to be dwelling on her defeat. One K Street operative described her as "reinvigorated."
She is in the process of restaffing her Senate office, and she has turned her focus to NASA and the Continental Airlines-United Airlines merger that could have a significant effect on Houston, where Continental is based. She has also been active on Commerce, where she serves as ranking member.
Hutchison's decision to remain in the Senate at least through 2012 was heartening to Cornyn, who is saved from the task of having to monitor the special Senate election that would have been held to fill out the remainder of her current term. A Republican would likely have won the seat, but it is one less contest for Cornyn to worry about. Cornyn said he has not yet talked to Hutchison about 2012.
"I've been very much impressed by her getting back to work here, and it didn't seem like she missed a beat. She continues to be very engaged and, I think, very productive," Cornyn said.