Governor's Race Could Shift Course For Texas GOP

It almost falls into the category of cruel and unusual punishment, since many of us are still in recovery from the last election cycle. Still, the evidence is undeniable: The race for Texas governor is already under way — a full year ahead of the March 2010 primary.

In the far right corner of the ring is the Republican incumbent, Gov. Rick Perry. Perry has been Texas governor longer than any in history, since December of 2000, when former President Bush was elected to the White House. In the other corner — also to the right, just not as far — is Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. This is a 12-round fight between political heavyweights, splitting the Texas GOP in two. The loser's career will almost assuredly be over.

Hutchison has not officially announced her campaign yet, but she has transferred $8 million from her U.S. Senate campaign accounts into her Texas governor exploratory committee accounts. She has told Texas reporters that she'll officially announce her candidacy later in the year, when her campaign is more fully staffed and her endorsements lined up like soldiers in a platoon.

Hutchison has wanted to be Texas governor since 2002, when Perry first ran for re-election. But in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, Perry appealed to her sense of patriotism, saying the country needed all GOP hands on deck, not fighting amongst themselves in Texas.

Then in 2006, Perry quietly hinted to some big contributors that all he wanted was four more years as governor. Or at least that's what some donors thought they heard.

Perry's reassurances mollified Republicans who wanted Hutchison as their candidate: She would get her turn to run for governor in 2010.

But then Perry reconsidered — or perhaps some Republicans had misunderstood his intentions. Regardless, earlier this month, Hutchison released a broadside of Republican contributors, some of them former Perry supporters.

Hutchison's Appeal

Don't cry too many tears for Perry. Both candidates are expected to be able to raise and spend north of $10 million, and a $25 million-plus primary is not unlikely.

Hutchison is one of the most popular Republican politicians in Texas history. Many Texans know her name and nod with approval. But ask them the one thing they associate with Kay Bailey Hutchison, and often they're not sure.

Still, they like her. A recent poll conducted by Public Policy Polling gave Hutchison an astonishing 25-point lead over Perry among likely Republican primary voters (those who voted in the past two GOP primaries).

That's what Perry's campaign has to change. It has already begun tarring Hutchison as a sold-out Washington politician. Kay "Bailout" Hutchison is how Perry's staff refer to the senator. The governor's campaign is already combing the state, fishing for information about whether Hutchison's husband, a well-known bond attorney, benefited somehow from her connections in Washington. Given the amount of money both campaigns have at their disposal, the so-called opposition research teams will be digging for dirt like paleontologists on methamphetamine.

Hutchison is certainly more moderate than Perry. While political change has swept across much of the nation, has that also occurred inside the Texas Republican Party? Nobody knows, but the outcome of this race will tell a lot. The governor's staff have vowed that no candidate is going to get to the right of Perry. They're betting that Texas Republicans want to hang on to the conservative vision of the party they know and love.

Perry Carries Baggage

Of course, 10 years of governing has created some political baggage for Perry.

His strong advocacy of a massive new highway corridor alienated Texans whose land would have been taken, including some important farmers and ranchers.

In 2007, Perry annoyed social conservatives when he issued an executive order mandating human papillomavirus vaccines for girls in Texas public schools. One of the governor's closest aides had gone to work for Merck, which makes the HPV vaccine Gardasil. The Republican Legislature slapped down Perry's vaccine order, saying the governor overstepped his authority.

Another cause for GOP grumbling has been the explosion of toll roads in the Republican-dominated suburban counties outside the state's major cities. None by itself is a severe political wound, but the little cuts add up.

Perhaps a bigger source of dissatisfaction is Texas' public school system. While many white urbanites vote with their feet and send their kids to private schools, white rural and suburban Texans (read mostly Republican) like their public schools.

Texas was never an educational powerhouse, but it has now dropped behind states like West Virginia and South Carolina in public school funding. Frustrated rural and suburban moms who've watched their beloved band, drama and foreign language programs disappear from school curriculums might lean toward Hutchison.

Social Conservative Factor

Nevertheless, most of the social conservative vote will likely stay loyal to Perry. Hutchison's abortion position hurts her with this group. She's reluctantly in favor of abortion rights (with many restrictions imposed).

In Texas, evangelicals are a big group, between 250,000 and 350,000 GOP primary voters. If the Perry campaign can keep the total primary vote to around 600,000 or fewer, he has a very good chance to win.

But if Hutchison's campaign pulls in larger numbers of moderate voters and pushes the total Republican primary vote toward 800,000 or 900,000, she could swamp Perry's count. That's her plan: Grow the total electorate and try to steal social conservatives who are suffering from what pollsters call "Perry fatigue."

Ironically, the ultimate outcome of this GOP title fight could depend on what the Democrats do. One of the strongest potential candidates, Houston Mayor Bill White, has indicated (not long after Hutchison began showing her hand) that he's out.

Kinky Friedman has expressed interest in running again. And CBS journalist Bob Schieffer's younger brother, Tom Schieffer, a Texas millionaire and friend of former President George W. Bush, is considering running as a Democrat.

If Democrats can field a compelling race, that could end up helping Perry by keeping Democratic voters in their own primary. But if the Democratic candidates for governor don't inspire the faithful, Democratic voters may cross over and vote in the Republican primary so they can have some voice in who becomes the next Texas governor.

If that happens, those voters, especially female voters, may be more inclined to pull the lever for Hutchison.

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