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 Clayton Williams, but Williams’s clever TV spot, vowing to teach drug offenders “the joy of busting rocks,” propelled him to an early lead he never surrendered. Williams went on to lose the general election to Ann Richards after a series of gaffes.
Today a typical Republican primary turnout is around 600,000 voters—roughly the population of El Paso. This is still minuscule compared with the more than 8 million Texans who voted in the 2008 general election. In the 2006 primary, Hutchison, running unopposed, garnered 627,163 votes. Perry and three unknown opponents collected a total of 655,919 votes. With Democrats’ not having won a statewide office since 1994, the small slice of the electorate that votes in the Republican primary has had a monopoly on determining who governs a state with a population of 23 million.
Perry’s campaign regards the primary as its home turf—and as foreign soil for Hutchison. He is ideologically in tune with the hard-core conservative electorate; the governor spends a lot of his political capital on shoring up his right flank. His endorsement of “Choose Life” license plates is one example; another is a recent edict by the Department of Public Safety, which is overseen by Perry appointees, requiring non—U.S. citizens to prove that they are in this country legally before they can receive a Texas driver’s license or identification card. It is no coincidence that abortion and illegal immigration are two of the issues that are most important to primary voters. Hutchison last ran in a hotly contested Republican primary in 1982, in a race for a Dallas congressional seat; she led going into the runoff but lost when pro-life forces attacked her savagely.
The last primary race for governor whose impact can still be seen today was the 1978 Democratic battle between incumbent Dolph Briscoe and Attorney General John Hill. That race settled the future of the Democratic party, although the significance was not immediately evident. Hill beat Briscoe, who had served six years in office and was seeking another four. A Uvalde banker and rancher—in fact, the state’s largest individual landowner, to this day—Briscoe was rural to the core. Hill was a plaintiff’s lawyer from Houston. His issues were those of the modern Democratic party; he was the first attorney general to establish offices for consumer protection and environmental protection. Briscoe’s main action during his tenure was to oppose a revision of the Texas Constitution, effectively killing it. Hill’s victory in the primary started the evolution of the Democratic party from a rural party to an urban one. He lost the general election when rural Democrats supported his GOP opponent, Bill Clements. The election result was clear. Conservatives had no future in the Democratic party, and the Republican party had become a force to be reckoned with.
The Briscoe-Hill race has eerie similarities to the Perry-Hutchison race. The incumbent may be the last rural governor of Texas for quite a while, and a victory by the challenger could trigger an evolution of the Republican party.
TALE OF THE TAPE
The essential fact of life about Texas politics is this: If 600,000 to 650,000 Republicans turn out to vote in the primary, then half of these voters plus 1 determine the political destiny of 23 million Texans. Until the Democratic party can compete for statewide offices in the general election, nothing will change. If the Republican turnout continues to hover around 600,000, Perry has the edge, because the primary will be dominated by the conservative base. Hutchison’s popularity can be the equalizer in this race. There are more November Republicans than there are March Republicans; the more excitement that is generated by a Perry-Hutchison primary, the higher the turnout and the better Hutchison’s chances of winning the primary.
ROUND 2: THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
The stakes are high not only for Perry and Hutchison. The race occurs at a time when the Republican brand has lost its cachet. Texas R’s have no immunity from national trends; indeed, one of the reasons they’ve been losing ground in urban and suburban Texas is because of the unpopularity of a president who is a Texas Republican. Is the party too conservative or not conservative enough? The Perry-Hutchison smackdown brings this question to the forefront; it is a proxy fight for the future of the GOP.
Two members of the same party could hardly have more divergent views. Perry began his political career as a Democratic state legislator and became a Republican in 1989 to run for agriculture commissioner. He is the kind of convert who, as the saying goes, is more Catholic than the pope. His support for a bill that would authorize “Choose Life” license plates will help him amass political capital during the current legislative session. Hutchison supports a woman’s right to choose in select circumstances, but she doesn’t call herself pro-choice.
Their views of the role of government are different as well. Perry believes that government’s top priority should be to promote the creation of wealth. What Texas needs most, he argues, is the infrastructure necessary for the state to be business-friendly in a way that stimulates economic growth: reliable water supplies, increased electricity-generating capacity, better roads. He is an ardent disciple of antitax activist Grover Norquist’s dogma of shrinking the size and scope of government.
Hutchison takes a more traditional approach to public policy, one that recalls late lieutenant governor Bob Bullock’s: State leaders, she insists, should identify and prioritize the state’s needs and improve services accordingly. She sees such spending not as the road to ruin but as an investment in the future. As governor, she would favor increased funding for public schools, more flagship universities to stop the “brain drain,” and improvements in public health. From 2005 through 2007, Texas had 1.4 million children who had no health insurance, by far the most of any state. In the fall of 2007, Hutchison voted for the Democratic plan, which provided more coverage under the State Children’s Health Insurance Program than the Republican version(John Cornyn, Texas’s other senator, voted against it). Perry, by contrast, approved deep cuts in the CHIP program during the budget-crunch year of 2003 and has not made restoring them a priority.
TALE OF THE TAPE
In Perry’s brief legislative career, he was a budget cutter, one of the “Pit Bulls” on the House Appropriations Committee during the 1987 session who demanded more accountability from state agency heads. Hutchison’s career in the Senate has taken her in the other direction. As a Perry supporter told me, with obvious disdain, “She is an appropriator.” Hutchison is a member of the Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and she has built her career on getting things done for Texas. When Phil Gramm was Texas’ senior senator, he had little interest in delivering federal largesse and dumped the burden on Hutchison. Early in her Senate career, in 1995, she told me, “Other states have two senators. Texas has one senator and one congressman, and I’m the congressman.” As with other issues, Perry is more of an ideologue when it comes to spending, and Hutchison is more of a pragmatist. This distinction will work in his favor in the primary, but the tarnished GOP brand helps her. Republicans who want change aren’t going to look for it from a governor who will have been in office for more than nine years on primary day.
ROUND 3: POLL POSITION
In mid-December, one week after Hutchison affirmed her interest in the race, her campaign put out a poll conducted by Voter Consumer Research, of the Woodlands. The telephone interviews included separate samples of 601 general election voters and 466 Republican primary voters.
Her numbers were off the charts. Among general election voters, 67 percent had a favorable impression of her (and more than half of those described themselves as “strongly favorable”). Perry’s numbers have been climbing lately, but he still lagged considerably behind Hutchison, with 51 percent favorable. Among Republican primary voters, Hutchison’s favorability increased to 73 percent.
In a head-to-head matchup, Hutchison defeats Perry handily. In response to the question “If the primary were held today, who would you vote for,” the results were Hutchison, 55 percent; Perry, 31; don’t know, 12; neither/other, 2. Twenty-four points is a huge lead, far outside the margin of error of 4.6 percent. The other comparisons favored Hutchison as well. “Twice as many Republican primary voters rate Kay Bailey Hutchison ‘strongly favorable’ than rate Rick Perry ‘strongly favorable,’ ” the summary of the poll’s findings said. “In addition, about a third more are unfavorable toward Perry.”
I called Perry’s camp to get a reaction to the poll numbers. Their response was that they were impossible to evaluate without knowing the exact wording of the questions and the order in which they were asked. (The Perry campaign never releases the findings of its internal polling.)
TALE OF THE TAPE
The poll leaves Perry little choice but to resort to a negative campaign. He can’t let Hutchison’s personality dominate the primary (as one of his allies put it to me, “She can’t [be allowed to] hug her way to 1010 Colorado”—the address of the Governor’s Mansion). Her personality acts as an invisible wall that shields her from the kind of tough scrutiny that other politicians, including Perry, get. When I used the metaphor of the wall in a conversation with Perry’s strategists, one replied, “It’s paper-thin. She has never had a negative attack against her.” Perhaps. Regardless, going negative against a woman is risky business.
ROUND 4: THE LUCK FACTOR
Perry has led a charmed political life. Just when his prospects have seemed darkest, circumstances have always turned in his favor—never more so than in 1989, when he hit a political dead end. A third-term House member, he had been unfailingly loyal to Speaker Gib Lewis, and he hoped to be rewarded with a major committee chairmanship. It didn’t really matter which one, just something to indicate that he was appreciated. When Lewis didn’t come through, Perry was devastated. He thought about becoming a lobbyist, but then another option materialized. U.S. senator Phil Gramm and his fellow Republicans were encouraging conservative Democrats (Gramm had been one) to switch parties, and Perry decided to take the plunge. He didn’t see any future in running for the House again, but the GOP was looking for someone to take on agriculture commissioner Jim Hightower, a Democrat who was a heavy favorite to win reelection in 1990. Perry was game. Soon he was a client of Karl Rove’s, as was Hutchison, who was running for the office of state treasurer, which is now defunct.
Perry had to survive a runoff even to win the Republican nomination. In those reliably Democratic years, it was hard for down-ballot Republican candidates to raise money for statewide races. In the general election, Perry was able to scrape together enough money for only two weeks of TV advertising in major markets, but that was all he needed: It turned out that, as his media consultant, David Weeks, once told me, “The camera loves him.” Perry’s spots attacked Hightower for endorsing Jesse Jackson during his presidential campaign and for an FBI investigation of his office. Too late, Hightower realized that he was in trouble. Perry defeated him by one percent of the vote. Hutchison won her race too, and the Republican party staked its claim to two offices it had never won before. If not for Hightower’s overconfidence, Perry’s political career would have ended before it began.
Perry served two terms as agriculture commissioner without attracting much attention. During this time, George W. Bush became governor, and Texas became a Republican state. As the 1998 election approached, Perry announced his candidacy for lieutenant governor, an office then held by Bob Bullock, who was in declining health and had declared his intention to retire. The Democratic candidate was state comptroller John Sharp, a friend of Perry’s during their student days at Texas A&M. Bush was running for reelection, and, unofficially, for president as well, so the winner of the lieutenant governor’s race had a good chance to move up unimpeded.
Once again Perry found himself fighting for his political life. Sharp was killing him with an ad that alleged Perry had voted for a bill increasing “good time” credit for prisoners at a time when a released felon had raped and killed a little girl. Sharp put out another ad with a Texas Ranger accusing Perry of “doing violence to the truth.” The Perry camp has always acknowledged that he was in deep trouble at that point. Then, unaccountably, Sharp pulled the ad and closed with a different message. Fortune blessed Perry again; he came back to win by less than two percentage points. Of course, the greatest stroke of luck came when Bush won a disputed presidential election on the strength of a Supreme Court decision, and Perry became governor in 2000 without having to run for the office.
He breezed through two reelections, in 2002 and 2006. Democratic nominee Tony Sanchez burned more than $60 million in his ineffectual ’02 race against Perry. Four years later, Perry’s approval rating was lingering around 40 percent, and he drew three opponents who generously split the anti-Perry vote and made it virtually impossible for him to lose, even though he limped home with 39 percent of the vote.
Now he may be getting another break—from a Democrat, of all people. Al Franken has won the hotly contested recount in the Minnesota Senate race. If his victory survives a court challenge, the Democrats will need just one more seat to reach sixty votes in the Senate, the magic number necessary to break a Republican filibuster. What does this have to do with the Texas governor’s race? The answer is that Hutchison has talked about resigning her seat so that she’ll have more time to campaign. If she does, a special election will be held to fill her seat. Democrats John Sharp and Bill White have taken formal steps toward seeking the seat in case a vacancy occurs, and a number of Republicans have likewise made their intentions known; still more on both sides could enter the race. If there is a special election, it’s a sure bet that the Obama White House will flood Texas with Democratic operatives and oceans of cash. Hutchison may have to stay in the Senate and hamstring her gubernatorial bid rather than let the D’s become filibuster-proof.
TALE OF THE TAPE
This poses a real dilemma for Hutchison. While Perry is free to travel around the state, she already faces the prospect of being nailed to Washington three to four days a week when the Senate is in session and having to cram her campaigning into whirlwind three-day weekends. Now that Franken has won, she’ll be under constant pressure from her Republican colleagues to remain in the Senate. And not just her colleagues: the Republican National Committee, the think tanks, the grassroots activists. If she does resign, Perry will use it against her. He’ll say that she betrayed her party, that she put herself first. Even if she doesn’t, she’ll be forced to spend more time in Washington than she had planned.
ROUND 5: THE PLUCK FACTOR
Hutchison has battled her way through several rough patches in her life, as have many ambitious women of her generation. She couldn’t find a job after she graduated from the University of Texas School of Law and eventually went to work as a reporter for a Houston TV station. In 1971 she became press secretary to RNC co-chair Anne Armstrong, who hailed from a well-known South Texas ranching clan, and forged ties that opened doors for her in the political world. In 1972 she decided to run for office. She won a Houston legislative seat that year and became the first Republican woman to serve in the Texas House. After two legislative terms and a brief stint as vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, she settled in Dallas, married Ray Hutchison, and entered the private sector. It seemed that her political career was behind her, but in 1982 a North Dallas congressional seat opened up, and she entered the race. She led on primary election day but lost the runoff; one factor in her defeat was a mailer by pro-life forces that crossed all boundaries of propriety. Facing the media, she broke down and cried.
But she never stopped looking for an opportunity to get back in the game, and when Democratic state treasurer Ann Richards ran for governor in 1990, Hutchison won the GOP nomination for Richards’s old job. Her Democratic opponent was unknown outside Houston, and suddenly Hutchison was a statewide official for the state’s ascendant political party. She hadn’t completed her second year in office when longtime U.S. senator Lloyd Bentsen resigned his seat to become Secretary of the Treasury in the Clinton administration. Richards had her choice of several strong Democrats to succeed him but settled on ex-congressman Bob Krueger, then a member of the Railroad Commission. Krueger faced a special election to serve the remainder of Bentsen’s term. Twenty-four candidates entered the race, including a couple well-known Republican congressmen, but Hutchison led Krueger by a handful of votes in the first round and demolished him in the runoff.
At this moment of triumph, however, Hutchison found her career at real risk. Travis County district attorney Ronnie Earle, acting on a tip, raided her office, obtained computer records, and indicted her for purging political material that she had allegedly kept on state computers and for using treasury employees for political purposes. Damaging gossip leaked out about her treatment of employees, including that she had hit former governor John Connally’s daughter. Hutchison insisted that the felony charges were politically motivated and hired famed criminal defense lawyer Dick DeGuerin; Earle folded his hand when he could not get a favorable ruling on the admissibility of his evidence.
Whatever scars this episode may have inflicted on Hutchison, it did no damage to her professionally. She has never had a serious opponent in three reelection tries, topping 60 percent of the vote on each occasion.
TALE OF THE TAPE
Hutchison’s career has been defined not only by the races she ran but also by the races she didn’t run—twice Perry was able to maneuver her out of challenging him. What makes the 2010 race different is that he too has been the subject of speculation that he might not run again. Those who peddle this idea say that Perry is making a good show of running for reelection so that legislators won’t regard him as a lame duck and lock his legislative program in a closet in the Capitol basement. Perry certainly did not sound like a lame duck to me when I interviewed him before Christmas; he was revved up and on top of his game. But he knows that if he gets booted out of office in his own primary, his longevity record won’t be very meaningful.
ROUND 6: THE BUCKS FACTOR
Hutchison has one advantage over Perry that he can do nothing about. As a state official, he is prohibited from engaging in fund-raising from thirty days before a legislative session to the day of final adjournment. The blackout period started on December 13 and runs until June 1. Hutchison, a federal official, is under no such constraint. She can continue to raise money while his hands remain tied.
And she is seizing the opportunity. John Nau, of Houston, one of the state’s premier Republican fund-raisers, has switched his allegiance from Perry to Hutchison to serve as her state finance chairman. The Hutchison campaign has been able to woo several big donors away from Perry, names that mean little to the average primary voter but send loud signals to insiders, including retired beer distributor Robert Brown, of El Paso; retired oilman Louis Beecherl, of Dallas; and banker Ned Holmes, of Houston. (Perry appointed Brown to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission in 2003 and Holmes to the Texas Transportation Commission in 2007.) A frequently repeated anecdote is that when Hutchison was considering running in 2006, Perry told donors he wanted one more term and then planned to retire, but he changed his mind last year and sought their support—and a number of them said they were backing her.
The Hutchison campaign sent out a fund-raising letter in early January. Different versions were sent to different parts of the state and were signed by people from the targeted region. Among the signatories to a West Texas version, for example, were actor Chuck Norris and longtime George W. Bush friend Joe O’Neill, of Midland. The letter is not just an appeal for money—it’s a catalog of attacks on Perry. (If you are in need of a job in these difficult days, the Perry-Hutchison race is boom times for the opposition research industry.) The case that Hutchison makes is that ten years is already too long for anyone to be governor (and he’s trying for fourteen!) and that his leadership is lacking. She accuses him of a “quest to cover our state with massive Toll Roads” and the “mismanagement of state government,” resulting in long-standing problems at the Texas Youth Commission, a U.S. Department of Justice investigation of mistreatment of the mentally retarded and physically handicapped at state institutions, and the smuggling of cell phones onto death row.
Why did she go on the attack? She’s running against an entrenched incumbent. She has to give potential contributors a reason to support her. More to the point, she has to overcome any doubts they may have about whether she’s going to run. The attacks signal that she’s serious.
TALE OF THE TAPE
With the recent transfer of $8 million into her campaign account, Hutchison is on her way to the $15 million she needs for the primary. Perry ended the last semiannual fund-raising period for which a report is available (January 1, 2008, to June 30, 2008) with nearly $3 million in cash on hand. During the period, Perry raised nearly $2 million and spent a bit more than $1.5 million. He has never had trouble raising money as governor, but these numbers do not appear to be very robust. Perry can’t accept money during the above-mentioned blackout period, but he can get commitments that can be honored afterward—and he’d better. By the time the blackout expires, on June 1, primary day will be just nine months away, and both campaigns will be in high gear.
ROUND 7: DOWN BY THE OLD MAINSTREAM
Social issues look to be the biggest battleground of the campaign. The two candidates have real differences here. She straddles the middle on abortion; he doesn’t. She favors embryonic stem cell research; he doesn’t. When Perry’s advisers talk about making the race about ideology, these and other social issues are the linchpins of their strategy.
In a race between a governor and a legislator, a governor has a natural advantage. A governor picks out a few issues to promote. That’s all he has to defend. A senator casts hundreds of votes “that put you in the crosshairs,” as a Perry strategist told me. “That’s why so few have made it to the White House.” The strategist cited an obscure resolution Hutchison supported in 2003 that expressed the “sense of the Senate” that the Roe v. Wade decision should not be overturned. I looked it up. The resolution, an amendment to a bill banning partial-birth abortions, had no substantive effect. Hutchison was one of nine Republican senators to vote yes, that Roe should not be overturned.
In 2004 Hutchison was in the crosshairs again. An organization called Texas Alliance for Life admonished her for supporting embryonic stem cell research in Texas. “You point to California as the model of state-funded embryonic stem cell research and suggest that Texas follow its lead,” the organization’s executive director wrote to Hutchison. “California does not represent mainstream America; nor does it represent Texas values.”
Hutchison’s pro-choice stance became the subject of a 2005 lament by the Republican National Coalition for Life about the unreliability of voting records. Drawing on a newspaper report, the coalition said, “Hutchison’s allies note that of 37 ‘key votes’ listed by the National Right to Life Committee, the senator voted against the group’s recommendations only once since 1997” (this was on the resolution opposing the overturning of Roe; otherwise, she supported restrictions on abortion, such as parental consent, and restrictions on taxpayer financing). “Senator Hutchison is not pro-life, but if you rely solely on her voting record . . . you would never know that.” The attack on Hutchison ended with a warning that she was said to be exploring a race for governor in 2006: “Anyone who considers himself pro-life [and] who supports Kay Bailey Hutchison or any other pro-abortion candidate for public office betrays the cause for which we have fought for so long and so hard.”
TALE OF THE TAPE
This is the round that Perry has to win if he is to be reelected. His strategists say that Hutchison “is not well positioned here in Texas due to her voting record.” Their plan is to tell the voters that they don’t really know her, that she is not the conservative that they think she is or that she says she is. They say polling indicates that when her positions on issues like abortion become known, GOP primary voters will turn against her. Another vote that could come back to haunt Hutchison, Perry’s strategists say, concerned a gay rights issue. Jesse Helms, a Republican senator from North Carolina, added an amendment to an education funding bill which would have allowed federal funds to be withheld from public schools that bar the Boy Scouts of America, a group that discriminates against gays, from using school facilities. Hutchison voted for an amendment by California Democrat Barbara Boxer that counteracted the Helms amendment. Social issues have little impact on the serious problems facing the country, but they arouse voters—and especially Republican primary voters—to a degree that the great policy questions of the day do not.
ROUND 8: IT’S THE ECONOMY, YOU-KNOW-WHO
The December 25 issue of the alternative newspaper LA Weekly features a story headlined “Schwarzenegger’s Lost Year.” At issue is the governor’s struggle to rescue the state’s faltering economy and reduce its budget shortfall, which by some estimates will exceed $40 billion. What does this have to do with the Texas governor’s race? Take a look at this excerpt:
Embarrassingly, Texas, the state most comparable to California in size, in its badly tanking economy and culturally challenging demographics, has zero deficit. Californians might resent comparison to the Lone Star State. Gov. Rick Perry is a Republican who did not let his budget reel out of control by spending riches from the housing boom, while Arnold acted as if it would last forever, approving budgets that increased overall government spending by 40 percent—in just four years. Perry and a handful of governors resisted temptation, squirreled away fat reserves—did, in fact, exactly what Schwarzenegger promised to do.
Texas has been getting many such kudos in recent months for its economic health relative to that of the rest of the country. The Financial Times recently ranked states according to four economic indicators—employment growth, state product growth rate, personal income growth rate, and home foreclosure rate—and found that Texas had the best state economy in the country in the context of the national economic crisis. Perry also likes to point out the state’s role in generating new jobs; almost half of the nation’s new jobs from April 2007 to April 2008 were created here.
Can Perry justifiably claim credit for all this? Or did it happen because Texas has a history of being business-friendly in its tax structure and regulatory climate that long predates this governor? And let’s not forget oil and gas prices, which were a bonanza for the state treasury for many months. Here’s what Perry told me in an interview: “I think Texas is a better place because I served for the last eight years. In the last five years in particular, I have tried to look into the future and anticipate the needs of a state that is growing by a thousand people a day. We need to create wealth in this state. Wealth makes it possible to address our infrastructure needs—roads and bridges, reservoirs, schools. It’s not a chicken-and-egg thing. You have to have wealth.”
Touting the recent announcement that Caterpillar was relocating its manufacturing operations to the San Antonio bedroom community of Seguin, his excitement was palpable. “Fourteen hundred jobs! A $170 million plant! Twenty-five hundred more jobs for suppliers. How many governors would like to have made that announcement?” He leaned forward and tapped me on the arm. “All of ’em.”
Hutchison has done her share to help the state’s economy. Over the opposition of senior tax policymakers in both parties, she pushed for a measure to allow residents of states that have sales taxes but not income taxes—that’s us—to deduct their sales tax expenditures. This keeps almost a billion dollars annually from flowing to Washington. She won a repeal of the Wright Amendment, which restricted flights out of Love Field to adjacent states or within Texas. The repeal helped not only Love Field but also DFW Airport by limiting the possible loss of traffic to Love. In 2007, as a ranking member on an appropriations committee, she observed that overseas bases lacked sufficient land for training exercises and pressed Pentagon officials to make better utilization of Fort Bliss and Fort Hood. Fort Bliss is anticipating a buildup of 14,000 troops, plus dependents, that will bring considerable growth to El Paso. And during her time in the Senate, she has worked to raise Texas’ share of reimbursement for federal gasoline taxes on every dollar collected, from 76 cents to 93 cents.
In addition to the foregoing, Hutchison, like all members of Congress, seeks funding for her home state in all sorts of areas; in her case, this includes everything from Hurricane Ike relief to dredging the Houston Ship Channel. In a GOP primary, however, her ability to deliver federal money could be a weakness rather than a strength: Republicans are generally hostile to government spending.
TALE OF THE TAPE
Sometimes things happen in politics because somebody makes them happen, and sometimes things just happen. It is particularly hard to apportion credit for something as complex as the economy. What is clear is that (1) Perry made economic growth the centerpiece of his governorship and (2) Texas is, relatively speaking, better off than any other big state. Under these circumstances, he will be able to run on his record. Hutchison may well respond that one of the crucial elements of future economic growth is the education of the workforce, and it is being neglected. I mentioned to Perry that many school districts are facing the prospect of insolvency in the next decade under the school finance system that the current state leadership put in place, and his response was “School finance never leaves the radar screen.” Of all the economic issues that are likely to play a role in the election, the most important may be the $700 billion bailout of the financial system. In September, just days after the rescue of insurance giant AIG, Hutchison criticized bailouts in the Amarillo Globe-News: “It is better to let free market economics pick winners and losers, not the federal government,” she wrote. “Corporate bailouts set a dangerous precedent and stand to impact market dynamics over the long-term.” Ten days later, however, she voted for the bailout. Perry promptly came out against it.
ROUND 9: HIS WEIGH-IN
In boxing, fighters hit the scales a few days before the actual fight, and it’s often an occasion for trash-talking. My interview notes are full of this. Here is what the Perry camp has to say: “She wants a coronation, not an election . . . She’s already started to waffle . . . We’re going to make this a race between a Washington Republican and a Texas Republican . . . He is a budget cutter. She’s a spender.”
All this is for show. What matters are each combatant’s strengths and weaknesses. Perry has been a consequential governor. For better or for worse, he has transformed the role of the office. State government is organized so that most state agencies are overseen by a board or commission composed of (hopefully) outstanding, civic-minded Texans who are involved in politics and are interested in the activities of the agency they oversee. Governors traditionally have little to do with the day-to-day functioning of the executive department. Perry takes a different approach. His appointees frequently come from his inner circle—staffers and longtime loyalists. He is able to direct the policies of these agencies, sometimes through executive orders. In fact, though not in name, he operates as a chief executive in a cabinet form of government. This represents a total departure from the views of the framers of the Texas Constitution, who came out of Reconstruction convinced that executive power should be fragmented.
In his eight years of office, Perry has made 4,932 appointments to state boards and commissions; presumably, those people remain loyal to him. This allows Perry to involve himself in the everyday function of government to a degree other Texas governors never dreamed of—for example, the selection of the president of Texas A&M or the hiring of a key staffer at the Teacher Retirement System. The knock on Perry used to be that he was more interested in campaigning than in governing. Not anymore. When I asked him about establishing a de facto cabinet form of government, he said, “If you really want your government to be effective, efficient, and consequential, I think you need that.”
Perry’s greatest strengths as a politician are those of every champion fighter: experience and discipline. During his years in office, hardly a week has gone by when he has not been the object of derision—from the media, from the public, from the bloggers, even from his fellow pols. “Governor Good Hair.” “Governor 39 Percent.” Kinky Friedman’s slogan, “How hard can it be?” If it bothers him, he has never let the outside world see it.
He has two big weaknesses. First, he can’t, or won’t, govern beyond his own ideology (the sole exception occurred when the Texas Supreme Court ordered the state to reduce reliance on the use of the property tax to finance the public schools and Perry supported a revision of the business tax). In the battle over toll roads, he could have solved the funding problem by raising the gas tax and issuing bonds; instead, he chose to pursue enormous cash payments from foreign corporations, instantly arousing suspicions that he would use the money to help friends and allies. He has shown little interest in improving the public schools except through conservative programs such as merit pay and vouchers.
His second weakness is extreme partisanship, as reflected by his call for mid-census congressional redistricting in 2003 and his propensity to bestow favors on his supporters. The most notable example of the latter was his approval of a bill that required disputes between dissatisfied homeowners and builders to be settled by a newly created, builder-friendly state agency rather than in court. Neither of these weaknesses is likely to prove fatal in a Republican primary.
TALE OF THE TAPE
What could hurt him is something he can do nothing about: He is asking Texans to give him four more years at a time when change is in the air. His 39 percent showing in the ’06 race was a sign that Perry fatigue might be afflicting GOP voters.
ROUND 10: HER WEIGH-IN
The Hutchison camp has already done its share of trash-talking: “Look back at 2006. He got 39 percent of the vote. They were not leaning forward at the finish line. If you want to lead, you use an election to grab people’s imagination. They played for just barely getting by.” The line I remember best, though, was from Hutchison herself, back in 2002, the first time she looked hard at running for the state’s top job. When I asked her why she would give up her Senate seat, she said, with a twinkle in her eye, “Because Texas needs a grown-up for governor.”
Hutchison’s strength is her personality. Put her in a room and she’s a crowd magnet, able to communicate in a way that wins people over—including skeptical journalists. In the fall of 2007, after reading an article about a bus tour during which she told Peggy Fikac, of the San Antonio Express-News, that she might not run for governor after all, I wrote that I doubted her seriousness about making the race. The next time I saw her, she pantomimed putting her left hand on an imaginary Bible and her right hand pointing upward and said, “When I am doing this, I want to see you on the front row.”
Another potential strength is that the Hutchison camp appears to be reassembling the Bush organization. The rumor, which her strategists deny but everyone else believes, including Perry’s strategists, is that Karl Rove is advising her. There never was any love lost between the Bush and Perry camps, and Rove brings with him the ability to resurrect the Bush fund-raising apparatus. Even as Bush was dividing Washington, his friends back home were lamenting how Perry’s partisanship was destroying the unity Bush had built in Austin.
Her vulnerability is that she seems unwilling or unable to engage Perry. She is still sparring rather than fighting; her advisers say that she doesn’t want her candidacy to be an issue in the legislative session, as if she can prevent it. When I interviewed her, we talked mostly about her Senate career. She enjoyed telling old war stories about the passage of her homemaker IRA bill: “I remember when I was a single, working woman, and then I got married, and I couldn’t put aside more than $250 a year.” She went out of her way to praise Barbara Mikulski, her Democratic colleague from Maryland, for allowing her to be the author of the bill, although the normal practice is for a senator in the majority party to author it. Not for the first time, I wondered why Hutchison would leave the Senate.
TALE OF THE TAPE
The answer is she cares more about Texas issues than national issues—and governor is a better job. Just ask Rick Perry.