June 3, 2005, 10:05AM
Red-hot Republican primary is shaping up
By R.G. RATCLIFFE
Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau
AUSTIN - Kicking off what may turn out to be the most
contentious Republican primary season in Texas
history, two GOP candidates launched campaigns for
comptroller and agriculture commissioner Thursday.
The wild ride on the Republican side hinges on whether
U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison decides to challenge
Gov. Rick Perry or retire from office. Perry already
has announced he will seek re-election, while
Hutchison is waiting to say what she will do.
"This will be, if Kay Bailey Hutchison decides to run
for governor, the most hotly contested,
across-the-board primary we've ever had in Texas,"
said former Railroad Commissioner Kent Hance, who was
in a four-way contest for the GOP gubernatorial
nomination in 1990.
The Republicans had hard-fought primaries for governor
in 1990, railroad commissioner in 1992 and attorney
general in 1998. But even the multicandidate statewide
races for other offices rarely generated any more heat
than a contest for class president.
Next year's primary, however, holds the potential of
having substantial Republican candidates taking on
other Republicans in contested races for U.S. Senate,
governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and
And with Democrats having failed to win a single
statewide office since 1994, the winner of these
contested primaries has a strong likelihood of winning
the general election.
"People see that now, if you're going to win, you've
got to win the Republican primary," Hance said.
While the Republicans already are fielding a potential
cornucopia of candidates, the only Democrats to emerge
as possible candidates so far are Houston lawyer
Barbara Radnofsky for U.S. Senate and former U.S. Rep.
Chris Bell of Houston for governor.
The biggest question looming is what will happen in
the governor's race.
The failure of the recently concluded Legislature to
pass a property tax cut and school finance reform plan
has made Perry vulnerable to an attack from Hutchison
or state Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, another
possible GOP candidate for governor. Perry has
indicated he wants to call a special session on the
This week, Hutchison sent 15,000 supporters an e-mail
saying she will make a decision on whether to run
later this summer after "the entire legislative
process is concluded."
"Like many Texans, I am disappointed that, despite the
hard work of our legislators, major problems facing
the state failed to be addressed during the recent
legislative session," Hutchison said. "It's
particularly unfortunate that some problems will now
be left to courts to define and resolve.
Options open for Strayhorn
Many Republicans believe Hutchison will run. But if
she decides to seek re-election, rather than challenge
Perry or retiring, she mostly freezes the GOP field,
leaving only Strayhorn to challenge Perry.
Strayhorn has positioned herself to run for governor,
lieutenant governor or for re-election, depending on
movement in the rest of the statewide offices. She
declined comment Thursday.
Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs on Thursday
became the first Republican candidate other than Perry
to announce for office, saying she is running for
comptroller no matter what. But Combs said she
believes Strayhorn does not plan to seek re-election.
"I believe this will be an open primary, and I'm in
the race to stay. I'm in the race to win," Combs said.
Other potential candidates for comptroller include
Harris County Judge Robert Eckels and former Texas A&M
University regents Chairman Don Powell, who now heads
the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
A spokesman for Powell declined comment. Eckels could
not be reached for comment.
State Sen. Todd Staples, R-Palestine, quickly
announced for agriculture commissioner after Combs
declared her candidacy for comptroller. For now,
Staples is unopposed.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst already has endorsed Perry for
re-election and privately has said he will wait for
Perry to retire in four years before running for
But after a frustrating legislative session, it now is
widely believed by many lobbyists and Republican
operatives that Dewhurst will run for Senate if
Hutchison vacates the office.
With his vast wealth, Dewhurst would have a decided
advantage over U.S. Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-San Antonio.
Bonilla, who has the support of former U.S. Sen. Phil
Gramm, has said he will run for the Senate if
Hutchison moves on.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott had been
considering a possible run for Senate, but he recently
told a group of Austin lobbyists that he will either
seek re-election or run for lieutenant governor if
Dewhurst goes for Senate. Abbott could not be reached
If the attorney general's office comes open, the
mostly widely speculated candidates for it are Supreme
Court Justice Harriet O'Neill and Railroad
Commissioner Michael Williams.
Former Gov. Bill Clements recently wrote op-eds in
Texas newspapers saying a contested primary would give
Democrats room for a comeback.
Political pendulum swings
But Republican fund-raiser Jim Francis of Dallas said
anyone who believes a contested primary is bad for the
party is wrong.
"For 50 years, the (Texas) primary was being fought
between the Democrats to get the Democratic
nomination, because it was tantamount to winning the
election," Francis said.
"Over the next decade there's going to be a lot more
contested Republican primaries. That's just a
political science fact of what's going to happen."
Democratic Party Chairman Charles Soechting, however,
said the recent Legislature's performance will give
Democrats an opportunity to win statewide office again
"Texans are coming to a visceral understanding that
Republican failed leadership has less to do with their
politicians and more to do with their own party's
inability to govern," said Soechting.