Texas readies for heated contest
Texas readies for heated contest
By ALEX ISENSTADT | 7/23/09 4:29 AM EDT
Running for governor was supposed to be easy for Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison — but so far, her fledgling 2010 campaign has turned out to be anything but the near-coronation Texas insiders had expected.
Hutchison, a third-term Texas Republican who has been a fixture in her state’s politics for more than three decades, was widely regarded as the front-runner in the 2010 race for the governor’s mansion when she filed papers to form an exploratory committee last December. A moderate-to-conservative-minded pol known for her appeal across the Republican spectrum in the state, Hutchison has never seen her general election winning percentage for her Senate seat drop below 61 percent.
To many Texas political observers, it came as little surprise when a ream of polls came out earlier this year showing her well ahead of incumbent Republican Gov. Rick Perry, including a Public Policy Polling survey in February showing Hutchison with a commanding 56 percent to 31 percent lead.
But as Hutchison prepares to formally announce the launch of her campaign next month, the election landscape tells a very different story. A Rasmussen survey released last week showed Perry opening up a 46 percent to 36 percent lead over Hutchison, while a Texas Politics Project poll conducted late last month showed Perry leading Hutchison 38 percent to 26 percent. A Texas Lyceum survey conducted late last month, meanwhile, showed Perry leading 33 percent to 21 percent.
“I’m very surprised,” said Craig Murphy, a leading Republican strategist in the state. “I think everybody’s surprised. Everyone assumed that her favorability would put her way ahead to start with.”
“It’s closer than the conventional wisdom would have had it,” said Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project. “That race is much more competitive than people thought it would be.”
The problem for Hutchison is that she has largely ceded the anti-Washington mantle to Perry, who, over the past several months, has launched a coordinated effort to brand himself as an independent-minded conservative unafraid of taking on the D.C. establishment. In March, Perry turned down $555 million in federal stimulus funds intended to fill the state’s unemployment benefit coffers. Then, in April, while attending an anti-tax “tea party” in the state, Perry suggested that Texas could get so fed up with Washington tax policies that it would secede from the union.
“This race is not really about ideology. It’s about geography,” said Ted Delisi, a Republican strategist in the state who is working for Perry. “It’s a contrast between what is happening in Texas and what is happening in Washington.”
In a recent fundraising appeal to supporters, Perry took a not-so-veiled shot at Hutchison, saying his campaign was “about two models of governing: the Washington model that talks the talk about limited government while delivering record earmarks and increasing bureaucratic control, and the Texas model of balanced budgets and fiscal restraint.”
Texas political players say they expect plenty more hits from Perry in the months to come — and that he’s almost certain to make an issue of Hutchison’s vote in favor of the Wall Street bailout last year, her opposition to outlawing abortion and her past support for embryonic stem cell research.
It’s a bold strategy — and one intended to paint Hutchison into a corner as the Washington candidate at a time when polling shows Texas voters turning against Washington. The Texas Politics Project survey in July showed President Barack Obama with just a 43 percent job approval in the state, while only 20 percent of voters approve of the job Congress is doing.
“We Texans are a unique brand, in that we see ourselves as independent from Washington,” said Jonathan Neerman, chairman of the Dallas County Republican Party. “There is a rising tide of anti-Obama, anti-Democratic policies — and I think [Perry] is trying to tie into that.”
“I think it’s a particularly powerful argument at this point,” Henson said of Perry’s anti-Washington crusade, “and it’s something [Hutchison is] going to have to overcome.”
Hutchison allies, for their part, dismiss the idea that the primary contest would be anything but close and hard fought.
“No one ever expected that this would be easy,” said former Republican Rep. Henry Bonilla, a Hutchison backer. “She’s been preparing for a tough battle from the beginning.”
And Hutchison staffers contend that Perry’s rhetorical focus hits some false notes.
“Rick Perry’s self-serving political calculations are always based on political expediency and never a philosophy or vision. Kay Bailey Hutchison is proud of her record of standing up and saying no to big spending, whether voting against the out-of-control stimulus package or Obama’s trillion-dollar budget,” said Hutchison spokesman Hans Klingler.
“There will be many polls between now and March. Our goal is to win the only one that counts, ... on Election Day.”
Still, aside from boosting his once-lagging poll numbers, Perry’s spring offensive has renewed what insiders in the state say is a key question about Hutchison: whether she’s ready to take a punch.
While her contest against Perry is widely expected to be among the most expensive and hard-fought contests of the 2010 cycle, the 66-year-old Hutchison — though one of the state’s most popular politicians — has yet to engage in a no-holds-barred electoral contest. Perry, for his part, is no stranger to tough races. In 2002, he survived a vitriolic contest against Democrat Tony Sanchez, who outspent Perry in the race $67 million to $28 million. In 2006, Perry won another tough fight, that time against Democrat Chris Bell.
“Perry’s had lots of tough campaigns that he’s already been through, and she hasn’t,” said Murphy, the Texas-based GOP strategist. “No one knows how she will respond to that.”
But while Perry has taken an early lead, few doubt that the Perry-Hutchison face-off will be anything but an all-out fight between two high-profile pols — and that a close contest is almost certainly in the offing.
In a sign of just how expensive this race could turn out to be, Hutchison announced earlier this month that she had so far banked a whopping $12.5 million for the race — $3 million more than Perry.
“This could be a Hall of Fame contest,” said Mark McKinnon, a Texas-based GOP strategist and a former adviser to President George W. Bush. “I expect there will be a lot of blood on the floor before this one is over.”