Hutchison Plans Set Off Scrum

Posted November 17, 2008 at 5:55pm

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s (R) expected departure from the Senate to run for Texas governor in 2010 — though not guaranteed — is likely to touch off a period of intense campaigning as Lone Star State Republicans jockey to replace her.

Even if Hutchison defies conventional wisdom and chooses to remain in the Senate while running for governor, the campaign to replace the Senator if she succeeds Gov. Rick Perry (R) should accelerate in short order. Whom Perry appoints to serve out the remainder of Hutchison’s Senate term, which runs through 2012, could depend on whether he chooses to seek a third term as governor and run against Hutchison in the GOP primary.

Among the Republicans most commonly mentioned either as potential appointees or Senate candidates are Texas Railroad Commission Chairman Michael Williams; Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who is known to covet a seat in the Senate; and former Rep. Henry Bonilla, who is close to Perry. Florence Shapiro, a state Senator from Dallas, has already opened an exploratory committee.

“It is likely that [Hutchison] will resign and come back to run for governor,” said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “That will unleash a musical chairs in Texas politics.”

If Hutchison chooses to remain in the Senate and is elected governor in 2010, she — as the new governor — would name her Senate successor. That individual would then have the option of running for a full term in 2012.

Given that Democrats have narrowed the Republican majority in the state Legislature over the past few years — not to mention the success the party has had nationally — any vacancy created by Hutchison is sure to attract the interest of Democrats. However, Texas remains solidly Republican in statewide contests.

That leaves most of the power to determine Hutchison’s successor in the hands of the GOP and subject to internal Lone Star State Republican politics. In the event that Hutchison resigns, Texas law calls for Perry to appoint a successor and call a special election for no later than 36 days before the next regularly scheduled statewide contest.

As the incoming chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Sen. John Cornyn (Texas) might be in a position to influence the process.

Some Republican insiders say Hutchison’s resignation from the Senate to run for governor is not a done deal. But figuring the Senator looks ahead to a potentially competitive March 2010 GOP primary and does exit Capitol Hill to concentrate on that race, she might not do so until the middle of next year.

Texas law prohibits individuals who hold a state government elected office from raising money during the January to May legislative session. Hutchison might have a better idea of her competition in the gubernatorial race come June, allowing her then to more accurately gauge whether resigning her Senate seat is in her strategic interest.

Hutchison had more than $8.6 million in her federal campaign account as of Sept. 30 — and just about all of it can be used on a gubernatorial race.

“She may not resign, she might hold her seat while she campaigns,” one GOP source said.

Potential Hutchison successors fall into two categories: possible Perry appointees and Republicans who might seek to run on their own.

Some Republicans with Texas ties, convinced that Perry will in fact seek a third term, argue that the governor will replace Hutchison with an individual who benefits his political aspirations for another four years. Others believe Perry is threatening another run only to maintain his relevance during his final two years in office and won’t actually pull the trigger. They note that the governor’s preference would be to appoint a racial minority to the Senate.

Among the Texas Republicans who are close to Perry and possibly in line to receive the appointment are Williams, who is black; Bonilla; Dewhurst; U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Tony Garza; state Attorney General Greg Abbott; and state Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson.

“Perry is going to appoint someone that he thinks is helpful to him in his primary against Hutchison,” according to one Republican operative who believes the governor is definitely running for an unprecedented third term.

Speculation is that Garza would be high on Perry’s list, although his interest is an unknown. Williams is a favorite among the grass-roots GOP in Texas, and Abbott is a force with social conservatives — but neither would necessarily have the upper hand in getting Perry’s nod, although each would probably make it onto his short list.

Among the Texas Republicans who are thought to be interested in running regardless of whether they are appointed are Dewhurst, Abbott and Reps. Joe Barton and Kay Granger. Rep. Ted Poe, who is well-liked in heavily populated Harris County — in the Houston area — may also be interested and could be a wild card.

Former Secretary of State Roger Williams, now a formidable insider within the Texas GOP, might also make it onto the governor’s short list, if not run for Senate on his own. In Texas, the secretary of state is an appointed position. Elizabeth Ames Jones (R), a state railroad commissioner from San Antonio, and Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R) also are thought to have Senate aspirations.

For the Democrats, the challenge is recruiting a candidate who is the right fit for conservative-leaning Texas and who can also raise the money sufficient to compete in a large state that has 20 media markets that have at least one television station and one newspaper.

Typically, the money pours in for statewide Democratic candidates if they are able to seed their race with personal wealth. It takes about $15 million to run a strong Senate race in Texas.

Democrats who might be interested in running for Hutchison’s seat include Houston Mayor Bill White; former Texas Railroad Commissioner John Sharp, the last Democrat to win a statewide race; former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, who lost to Cornyn in 2002; Rep. Chet Edwards, who holds the solidly conservative 17th district; Rep. Lloyd Doggett; and former Rep. Jim Turner.

Doggett and Turner both have well-stocked campaign accounts. White, very popular in one of the state’s top media markets, is likely to be recruited by national Democrats. White might actually be more interested in running for governor in 2010, according to Democratic insiders.

“Democrats are making a comeback in the state. They added seats in the statehouse this year, and without [President George W.] Bush at the top of the ticket, the Republican Party has lost its greatest star” said one Democratic strategist familiar with Texas. “At some point, those factors are all going to hit the tipping point, and it could very well come in a special Senate election.”