What do these folks have in common?
Kay Bailey Hutchison
Answer: All of them saw their political careers destroyed by Rick Perry.
(No, I haven’t forgotten Kinky. He wasn’t a serious politician.)
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Hutchison’s announcement today that she would serve out her term but would not seek reelection in 2012 was pretty much a foregone conclusion after she didn’t attempt to raise money following her poor showing in the Republican primary last March. She will be remembered as a senator who brought considerable economic benefit to Texas, not the least of which were the repeal of the Wright Amendment at Love Field and a hefty income tax deduction for sales taxes paid by Texas residents.
For most of the nineteen years after her victory in a 1993 special election, in which she defeated former Democratic congressman and railroad commissioner Bob Krueger, Hutchison was the most popular elected official in Texas. But the office she really wanted was governor. She contemplated running against Perry three times–in 2002, in 2006, and, of course, in 2010. Her best chance was 06, but she backed away, no doubt thinking that Perry would not run again and she would be the favorite in 2010. As we know, Perry did run, alas, and the timing turned out to be perfect for him. The election of Obama, the rise of the Tea Party, and the Bush bailout of the financial and automobile industries pushed the entire Republican party to the right, especially in Texas. Hutchison (and Cornyn) voted for the bailout, and the Perry campaign promptly labeled her “Kay Bailout.” The Perry machine turned Hutchison’s greatest strength–her ability to get federal money for Texas–into a weakness by labeling federal largesse (accurately) as “earmarks.” Hutchison did the right thing by voting for the bailout at a moment when the world financial system was in peril, but the voters hated it. She never found a message that resonated with voters. Perry’s camp defined the race as one between Washington values (hers) and Texas values (his), and it stuck.
In many ways, Hutchison’s approach to her job harkened back to the seventies, when most members of Texas’s congressional delegation were conservative Democrats and getting for their home state some of the money Texas sent to Washington was their highest priority. She helped fund countless projects in countless communities all over Texas and was especially supportive of state colleges and universities. Her work to secure Texans a deduction for sales taxes yielded a bigger tax cut for Texans than anything Rick Perry ever did. One of her most important achievements was making sure that the Johnson Space Center in Houston was adequately funded. When President Obama signed the bill, Hutchison announced that the future of the JSC was assured. This was a huge economic benefit for Houston and for Texas.
She didn’t get the credit she deserved. Times had changed. Federal spending was seen by voters as an indication of what was wrong with the country. The political climate had turned against the kind of public official Hutchison represented. Pointing fingers and casting blame became the norm, not working deals to get goodies for one’s state.
In choosing to leave the Senate after nineteen years, Hutchison gives up the opportunity to chair one of the Senate’s most influential committees, Interstate Commerce. She would be first in line to become chairman if the GOP takes back control of the Senate in 2012, as it is well positioned to do, but that opportunity has passed.
Now the spotlight turns on her possible successors. The frontrunner is David Dewhurst, the light guv, who can finance his own race. The current crop of candidates, who include Roger Williams, Michael Williams, and Elizabeth Ames Jones, is not a very impressive group. (Williams is probably out of the race, since he is seeking to become the single commissioner of the revamped Railroad Commission, if the legislation calling for a single commissioner is passed.) Several members of the state’s Republican congressional delegation could be interested, but it is a big jump from a district election to a statewide election. The member best positioned to make the jump is Ron Paul, who might have the itch to join his son, Rand, in the Senate. The elder Paul would be formidable, as he would have the backing of the Tea Party crowd. If Paul stays in the House to bedevil the Federal Reserve, Debra Medina might get the Tea Party mantle. Lamar Smith, of San Antonio, is going to be chairman of the Judiciary committee, so he will probably stay put. Time has passed Joe Barton by. Pete Sessions, of Dallas, is another possibility. So is Jeb Hensarling. The Morning News has chronicled Dallas mayor Tom Leppert’s interest in running for the Senate.
Hutchison’s announcement could have a profound impact not only on Texas politics but also on the current budget crisis. The logjam that has blocked all Republican ambitions except Perry’s since 2002 has broken. Dewhurst has his sights set on the Senate, Combs is seriously looking at lieutenant governor, Staples has the same idea, and Abbott sees the governor’s office opening up for him in 2014. Dan Patrick certainly has ambitions, but he can’t run for the U.S. Senate in 2012 without giving up his seat in the Texas Senate.
The immediate impact of Hutchison’s announcement is that it could change the political dynamics of the session, especially the budget fight. Dewhurst has never been viewed as a hard-right conservative, but if he is running for the Senate, he is going to have to move to the right. A consequence of such a move could be that the Dew would oppose using the Rainy Day Fund, as does Rick Perry. This leaves Steve Ogden, whom Dewhurst implored to come back and oversee the Senate’s response to the budget crisis, up the proverbial creek without a paddle.