Hutchison Plays Hamlet on ’06 Bid

Posted November 17, 2004 at 5:38pm

Will she or won’t she?

Political strategists, both in Texas and Washington, D.C., have spent innumerable hours over the past two years puzzling over the political future of Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas).

On the one hand, Hutchison’s Senate seat — which is up in 2006 — is virtually unassailable as she winds down her second full term.

On the other hand, a primary challenge to Gov. Rick Perry (R) would present a potential clash of the titans in the Lone Star State. Further complicating matters, state Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn (R) is also eyeing the governor’s race.

Hutchison, who consistently polls as the most popular politician in the state, has remained decidedly coy about her future ambitions.

A gubernatorial bid “is alive,” said one friend of the Senator who requested anonymity. “She has got some great choices.”

Among Democrats, a number of former Members are considering the contest including Rep. Chris Bell, who challenged the ethics of the powerful Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

Ousted from office after just one term due in part to a redistricting plan hatched by DeLay, Bell said many friends and constituents are encouraging him to look at the governor’s seat.

Bell said he will return to Houston as a private law partner in January, while deciding whether to run for the statewide seat.

“I find that out of adversity often comes opportunity,” Bell said. “I don’t know what the next step will be, but a lot of people have encouraged me to look at the governor’s race. I’m flattered by that.”

Outgoing Rep. Jim Turner (D), who chose to retire after the DeLay-led plan gave him no obvious seat to run in, is also mentioned for governor, as is former Rep. Ken Bentsen (D).

For now, however, most of the attention is on the Republican side and will stay there until Hutchison chooses a race.

A source close to the Senator said that she is not likely to make a decision before next summer. That’s when the state legislative session is expected to conclude — a coincidence to the Hutchison camp, and quite intentional to Perry backers.

Most neutral observers believe that Hutchison is postponing her decision to see how Perry fares politically during the legislative session. The debate next year is expected to include such controversial issues as elementary- and secondary-school financing and the potential need to raise property taxes to help bring down a nearly $10 million deficit.

“If Perry succeeds in cutting taxes without a lot of blood on the floor, there is no reason for Kay to run,” said a Texas Republican with ties to the governor. “He would have to have a terrible session for her to have the rationale to run.”

Hutchison allies insist that the timing of her decision has nothing to do with Perry. Rather, a friend close to the Senator said that the summer is the “proper time to be thinking about it.”

The source added that, regardless of Perry’s performance in the upcoming session, he still carries baggage into his re-election bid, including his vote to cut funds from the Children’s Health Insurance Program and his support for road tolls to help offset budgetary shortfalls.

Hutchison has repeatedly criticized Perry on those two issues, and observers expect that both would become central planks if she decided to challenge him in the primary.

A recent Texas Poll conducted by the Scripps Research Center appeared to back up the Hutchison source’s claims.

In it, 46 percent of those questioned said that Perry was doing an “excellent” or “good” job, compared to 49 percent who said he was doing a “fair” or “poor” job.

By contrast, 62 percent approved of the job Hutchison is doing.

If Hutchison launches a gubernatorial bid, Perry is expected to use Hutchison’s pro-abortion-rights stance to paint her as a moderate — a stance that could be a liability in a Republican primary.

For now, though, Perry seems to be content to ignore talk of a primary and instead stockpile his war chest, which a source close to the governor predicted would stand at $7.5 million at the end of this year.

In his 2002 re-election bid, Perry raised and spent $28 million — a total dwarfed by the $67 million his wealthy Democratic opponent, Tony Sanchez, disbursed. Perry won that race convincingly, 58 percent to 40 percent.

While Hutchison had $6.6 million in her Senate account at the end of September, she would not be allowed to transfer any of that money directly to a gubernatorial committee.

As a result, “she would be at a serious financial disadvantage,” said a Perry ally.

Not so, argue Hutchison’s supporters, pointing out that she has long been one of the best fundraisers in the state.

“She is convinced that if she decided to do it, she will be able to raise adequate funds to get her message out,” said a Hutchison source, adding that “$7.5 million is one good fundraiser for her.”

Since she won the seat in a 1993 special election, Hutchison has spent $6.1 million and $3.5 million, respectively, on her 1994 and 2000 re-elections.

A potentially complicating factor for Hutchison is Strayhorn’s interest in the race.

Strayhorn has been Perry’s leading critic over the past two years and has made no secret of her interest in challenging the governor in a primary.

So far, Strayhorn’s withering attacks on Perry have helped Hutchison by keeping the governor on the defensive without requiring the Senator to get her hands dirty, friends of the Senator acknowledge.

But if Strayhorn decides to run in a primary with Hutchison and the governor, she could split the anti-Perry vote and unwittingly make it easier for Perry to survive.

Given the increasing Republican domination in the Lone Star State, Democrats’ best chance to win the governor’s office is to have a divisive primary that leaves either Perry or Hutchison badly battered.

“Everyone knows that at some point the pendulum is going to swing,” said Bell. “Many Democrats in Texas are crying out for someone who they believe will stand up and fight.”