Governor Hutchison? And other questions about Texas politics in the new millennium.

February 2000By Comments

Some say that the millennium arrived in 2000; others say that the correct date is 2001. In Texas politics, though, the old order will prevail for yet another year, until the election of 2002. As George W. Bush closes in on the Republican presidential nomination, everything is on hold — partisanship, ambition, control of both houses of the Legislature. But huge changes lie ahead, both in the personalities involved and in the balance of power.

U.S. senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, facing only token Democratic opposition in the November election, already has her eye on ’02. During a January campaign swing, she confirmed what had been widely rumored for months: She is interested in running for governor of Texas. “If it’s a free run, an open seat, I will look at it,” she said between stops in response to a reporter’s question. Her answer was a bit of a slap in the face of Lieutenant Governor Rick Perry, who earlier had come out to the University of Texas Student Union to stand next to Hutchison as a show of support for her reelection bid. Perry, of course, has his own designs on the state’s top office, which he will inherit if Bush wins the White House and presumably will seek if Bush fails in his presidential quest and serves the rest of his term.

Whether Hutchison would challenge an incumbent Governor Perry is the foremost question of the soon-to-be post-Bush era in Texas politics. Bush has dominated the political scene like no governor in a century, and Hutchison is the only other politician in sight who can approach his popularity. But while Bush (thanks to his name and his defeat of Ann Richards) became an instant national figure as soon as he was elected, Hutchison has yet to achieve national prominence. After a quarter century in which Texas produced a vice president and president (George Bush), a powerhouse senator and vice-presidential nominee (Lloyd Bentsen), a Speaker (Jim Wright), a national icon (Barbara Jordan), and two celebrity governors (Richards and the potential next president of the United States), we’re fresh out of stars.

Why would Hutchison want to give up a safe Senate seat to become governor? Ironically, if you are ambitious and harbor thoughts of national influence, the Senate can be a frustrating place. For all but a few, it is a wait-your-turn venue — and Hutchison has a long time to wait. Fourteenth in seniority among the fifteen Republicans on the Appropriations Committee and sixth among the eleven Republicans on the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, she has no prospects of a committee chairmanship anytime soon. She has been a solid senator, particularly in going to bat for Texas interests in Washington, but not a major player in the big national issues. The onetime UT cheerleader is 56, and if she is ever going to take the national stage, the governorship is probably her only hope — even if it does require a head-to-head battle with former A&M yell leader Perry.

The prospect of a primary face-off in 2002 between their two biggest drawing cards dismays many Republican insiders, who fear that the battle would leave the survivor vulnerable to a Democratic opponent in November. Perhaps a President Bush would intervene to talk Hutchison out of making the race, as President Lyndon Johnson intervened in 1964 to prevent a challenge to incumbent senator Ralph Yarborough. But if Hutchison does run and win, there would be no shortage of Republicans clamoring for the gubernatorial appointment to fill her seat. Below Perry in the GOP food chain are a trio of lesser statewide officeholders whose ambitions far exceed their experience, record, or name identification: Attorney General John Cornyn, state comptroller Carole Rylander, and land commissioner David Dewhurst. Aside from the maneuvering for the Governor’s Mansion, here are the other questions that will determine the future of Texas politics:

Will Bush’s strategy of attracting minorities to the state Republican party pay off? He believes that the GOP must attract ethnic minority voters if it is to remain the state’s majority party. To this end, he has appointed Michael Williams, who is black, to a vacant seat on the Railroad Commission, and Hispanics Tony Garza and Al Gonzales as secretary of state and state Supreme Court justice, respectively. Garza won election to the Railroad Commission with Bush’s strong backing in 1998, and now Williams and Gonzales face reelection battles against primary opponents who are white: Andy Draughn against Williams and Rod Gorman against Gonzales. Both challengers are political unknowns; so are Williams and Gonzales, for that matter, but they are assured of Republican establishment backing and financial support. A loss in the primaries by either incumbent would be a major setback to Bush’s big-tent strategy and, to the extent that it could be attributed to racial prejudice, would embarrass the GOP. But victories by Williams and Gonzales would further erode the base of the Democratic party.

Can George W. Bush’s coattails wipe out the Democrats this year? In statewide races the Democrats have regressed to where the Republicans were 25 years ago — without a farm team of officeholders, hard-pressed to find good candidates, and unable to match the majority party in fundraising. Their assets have been reduced to seventeen of the state’s thirty congressional seats and a narrow 78-72 margin in the state House of Representatives. In a normal year the Democrats would be well situated to hold on to what they have and even pick up a seat in the state Senate, giving them a 16-15 majority. The Republican congressional leadership has made such a mess of things that even Bush has criticized their policies. But with the governor looming as the probable Republican nominee for president, this does not rate to be a normal year in Texas. Republicans are challenging seven incumbent Democratic congressmen in swing districts; in the state House thirteen swing seats currently held by D’s are being contested by R’s. If Bush’s name at the top of the ticket sparks a surge in GOP turnout and straight-ticket voting, the Democrats could lose what little they have left.

If Perry moves up to governor, who will take his place as presiding officer over the state Senate? His successor will be chosen by the senators from the senators (see “Let There Be Lite,” October 1999), and the voting will be based not upon party lines but upon personal relationships and the opportunity for individual advantage. Perry might get involved as well. The intrigue is already akin to a medieval College of Cardinals choosing a pope. The apparent leaders of the moment (though no one knows for sure) are David Sibley of Waco for the R’s and Ken Armbrister of Victoria for the D’s. Both, however, have enemies, and whether either of them can make it across the finish line is problematic. Whoever wins will likely be opposed by Rylander and/or Dewhurst for lieutenant governor in the 2002 election.

Will Phil Gramm seek a fourth term in 2002? Despite scoffs from the Gramm camp, word continues to leak out that he is contemplating retirement. He has reached his limit of political influence: He passed his landmark banking bill, but he will never be on a national ticket. If Gramm does step down, look for GOP congressman Henry Bonilla of San Antonio to seek the seat. Greg Abbott, a politically savvy Republican Supreme Court justice, wants to run for something; maybe this is it.

What are the trends for 2002? The two most important components of politics are money and votes, and in Texas both favor the Republicans. The problem for Democratic candidates is that their major source of contributions is plaintiffs lawyers, who bear the twin taints of lavishing campaign largesse on Supreme Court judges in the eighties and of being the target of tort reform in the nineties. Democrats can’t win without the plaintiffs lawyers’ money, but if they take it, they will incur so much criticism that they may not be able to win with it. As for demographics, population growth continues to be concentrated in the suburbs, which are breeding grounds for Republicans. Hispanic population growth has not yet produced the hoped-for surge in voter turnout, especially in Houston and Dallas. Democrats need a big minority turnout to win an election, but they don’t have any high-profile minority candidates to generate the turnout.

Is Texas a safe Republican state? Not quite. Just as the Democrats were a divided party in the days when they dominated Texas, the GOP now faces its own factional battles. Thirteen Republican state House incumbents, a very high number, face primary challenges this spring, including heavyweights Kim Brimer of Arlington and Brian McCall of Plano. Rural and urban Republicans disagree over such issues as vouchers (rurals like public schools; urbans don’t) and guns (soccer moms by and large don’t like them; rurals love them). Many old-line Republicans are not comfortable with opening the door to large numbers of Hispanics. Bush’s popularity obscures these fault lines within the party, but the potential for fracturing is there.

Can the Democrats mount a comeback in 2002? Not in the Legislature: Redistricting in the 2001 legislative session should assure substantial Republican majorities in the House and Senate, regardless of who controls the Legislature next year. (If the governor — Bush or Perry — deems the plan insufficiently favorable to Republicans, he can veto the legislation, and under the state constitution, the plan would be written by an overwhelmingly Republican board of state officials.) Facing ouster as Speaker, Democrat Pete Laney would probably retire, and many of his lieutenants, who occupy swing seats, would leave with him, giving the GOP more opportunities for gains. The statewide offices, though, are another story. Democrats John Sharp and Paul Hobby, who both made respectable losing efforts against Perry and Rylander, respectively, in the Republican landslide year of 1998, have the fundraising ability to run again in 2002. Other Democratic possibilities are Houston congressman Ken Bentsen, sure to be a GOP redistricting target, and Austin mayor Kirk Watson. (Rumors of Henry Cisneros’ return continue to circulate.) The Republicans could be weakened by bruising primaries: Hutchison and Perry for governor and Rylander against Dewhurst for lieutenant governor. But the best news about politics in 2002 for the Democrats is that for the first time in six years, George W. Bush’s name will not be on the ballot.

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