The Thrilla in Vanilla

Straitlaced Rick Perry and demure Kay Bailey Hutchison going toe-to-toe in a Republican primary doesn’t exactly get the blood pumping. Ali-Frazier it ain’t. But it’s the heavyweight title bout every political junkie has been waiting for.

At 3:01 p.m. on Friday, December 19, 2008, exactly eight years and one minute after taking the oath of office as governor, succeeding George W. Bush, Rick Perry became the longest-serving chief executive in the state’s history. With two years left in his current term and his announced intention to run for reelection in 2010, Perry could end up serving for fourteen years, a figure few governors of any state have surpassed.

Standing between Perry and history is the state’s most popular political figure: U.S. senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. First elected to the Senate in a 1993 special election to serve the remainder of Lloyd Bentsen’s unexpired term, she has won reelection three times, always getting more than 60 percent of the vote. But the office she has always coveted is governor. Twice before—in 2002 and 2006—Hutchison has talked openly of challenging Perry. On each occasion, she demurred. She has thus placed on her own shoulders a heavy burden of proving to major donors and party activists that she’s really in the race for keeps. Her December 4 announcement that she had launched an exploratory committee and transferred $1 million from her Senate war chest into a campaign bank account—she has since put around $8 million into that account—underscored the apparent seriousness of her intentions. But skeptics duly noted that the news release included the statement “I am not yet a candidate . . . ”

Unless one of them blinks, Perry and Hutchison are on a collision course to meet in the 2010 Republican primary, with the GOP nomination awaiting the winner. For the next thirteen months, the impending confrontation will be the hottest political story going. A clash of major officeholders belonging to the same party is rare in politics; the natural instinct of most politicians is to look for the safest route to advancement. For Perry and Hutchison, there is no safe route. They must settle their differences between the ropes.

This promises to be the biggest ballot box brawl since George W. Bush wrested the governorship from Ann Richards, in 1994. It’s the heavyweight fight that everyone around the Capitol and the state has been waiting for: the “Thrilla in Manila” of Texas politics. The Marquis of Queensbury rules do not apply. Ten rounds for the title, and the loser is carried out of the ring.

ROUND 1: THE RACE FOR THE BASE

The 2010 race for governor will take place entirely within a Republican primary election. The prominent Democrats who might have entered the race, Houston mayor Bill White and former state comptroller John Sharp, have chosen to run for Hutchison’s Senate seat if she resigns prior to 2012, the end of her term. The Democratic party lacks the fund-raising base to underwrite a $30 million race for governor, so unless a self-funding candidate emerges (and the last one to try, Tony Sanchez, in 2002, got clobbered), the Democrats are likely to field token opposition and continue their strategy of focusing on less-expensive down-ballot races. No leading Democratic figure has indicated any interest in running for governor.

Who votes in a Republican primary? Texas does not require registration by party, so anyone can vote in either party’s primary. In practice, however, primary voters tend to be the party faithful—the ideologues and the activists who seldom miss an election. From the fifties through the seventies, when the Democratic party dominated Texas and the Republican party was small and ineffective, Republicans frequently voted in the Democratic primary rather than their own to ensure that the state’s leaders would be conservative. In a Perry-Hutchison primary, without a serious Democratic race for governor, both Perry and Hutchison would likely reach out to Democrats to cross party lines: rural conservatives for Perry and urban and suburban moderates for Hutchison.

The preeminence of their own primary must be startling for longtime Republicans to contemplate. For two decades—ten gubernatorial elections—after Democrats held the first statewide primary election, in 1906, the GOP did not bother to hold a primary. When they finally had one in 1926, they could have rented a phone booth for the occasion. Only 15,289 voters showed up statewide to nominate as their gubernatorial candidate one H. H. Haines, who managed 11.9 percent of the vote against Democrat Dan Moody. Four years later the Republicans tried again. This time the turnout was only 9,777. Another unimpressive showing in 1934 must have been quite discouraging, for the GOP did not attempt to hold a primary election for 28 years.

By 1962 the Goldwater insurgency was gaining momentum, and Republicans decided to reactivate their primary. Turnout topped 100,000 for the first time, and Jack Cox, the party’s nominee for governor, ran a respectable race against Democrat John Connally. Thereafter, Republicans have held primaries in every gubernatorial election year, some more successful than others. In 1966 an obscure candidate named T. E. Kennerly ran unopposed, drawing only 49,568 votes. Eight years later, just 69,101 turned out to nominate Jim Granberry. It would be the last time the total vote failed to break through the 100,000 ceiling.

The first meaningful GOP primary took place in 1978. Bill Clements, the crusty founder of an offshore oil well service company, won the party’s nomination that year and went on to become the first Republican governor since Reconstruction. The man he defeated was state party chairman Ray Hutchison, who married Kay Bailey shortly before Election Day. The turnout of 158,403 set a record—but the Democratic primary drew more than 1.8 million voters. By the late eighties, heavily contested GOP primaries with turnouts in excess of half a million votes were the norm. In 1986 Clements, who had lost his bid for reelection in 1982 to Democrat Mark White, launched a successful comeback by defeating two high-profile Republicans who had served in Congress, Kent Hance and Tom Loeffler, and went on to defeat White in their rematch. The 1990 primary shaped up as a four-way battle involving Hance, Secretary of State Jack Rains, attorney Tom Luce, and oilman

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