Seeds of Hutchison defeat were sown years ago
Jason Embry, Commentary
Published: 11:50 p.m. Tuesday, March 2, 2010
The blame for U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison's overwhelming defeat should be spread rather evenly among her confidants, her paid staff, her former paid staff and Hutchison herself.
Her loss to Gov. Rick Perry was years in the making. It was the product of poor preparation, a failure to make hard choices and a national headwind that was out of her control.
Hutchison had been planning to enter the 2010 race ever since she opted not to challenge Perry in 2006. But a bit of complacency set in after that election, when Hutchison posted a much larger margin of victory against one major opponent than Perry posted against three.
Hutchison and her team misinterpreted those margins as a sign that she was the state's most popular Republican. But that support was a mile wide and an inch deep.
Her 2008 vote for the Troubled Asset Relief Program may have helped prevent a further economic collapse, but it cost her campaign dearly. That vote became the central focus of Perry's campaign against her, which Hutchison should have seen coming. But at the time, several key members of her team did not think that Perry, already in office for eight years, was serious about seeking a third term.
At the end of 2008, polls showed Hutchison leading a head-to-head matchup by more than 20 points. Perry saw those numbers, too, but determined that he could win.
"At the end of '08 when those polls were done, nobody really knew what the senator's record was," Perry told me during a campaign trip last week. "She had been way up there in Washington, D.C., and nobody knew what her record was."
Perry didn't have many big accomplishments in the 2009 legislative session. But he methodically shored up his areas of weakness, as the Legislature passed a small-business tax break and a constitutional amendment on property rights and Perry supported bills important to anti-abortion activists.
But none of that mattered as much as Perry's decision to engage with antigovernment activists who would scare off many politicians. He started talking about states' rights. He started going to tea party events. And, yes, he winked at those who think Texas should secede from the United States.
Hutchison and her team decided to stay out of the 2009 legislative session. After all, they were well ahead. But this allowed Perry to become the face of anti-Obama activism in Texas.
The senator, meanwhile, could not find her voice. A source close to her campaign said she had planned to run as someone who could bring Republicans and Democrats together to solve the state's challenges. But that plan assumed that she would coast to the Republican nomination. She simply could not adjust to the reality that Perry was in the race.
For years, she's been able to walk into just about any Texas town and point to the projects that she secured and jobs she protected. There were military bases and universities and overpasses that she fought for on the Appropriations Committee. But those very efforts worked against her as the idea that Hutchison spent too much ultimately trumped the explanation that she was fighting for Texas.
Hutchison had once pledged to be a "positive, happy warrior." But instead of finding surrogates to deliver her attacks, Hutchison carried out many of those attacks herself. This was not the Kay Bailey Hutchison that Texas voters had so overwhelmingly elected. And none of those attacks, whether they were about Perry's allies pressuring unloyal university regents to resign or about his flailing Trans-Texas Corridor, had the vigor or reach of Perry's anti-Obama pounding.
Hutchison and her team left a number of potent issues on the bench. They made numerous television ads about toll roads and property rights, but they didn't forcefully highlight the fact that Texas has its highest unemployment rate since the 1980s, or high insurance rates or the fact that a state commission was moving to expand the Governor's Mansion.
And they could not get past the question of resignation. Hutchison had long planned to resign her Senate seat last fall, but when the time came, her campaign staff told her that to do so would infuriate Republicans who wanted the Obama administration fought at every turn. So she stayed, but the questions about when she would resign never fully went away.
What was supposed to be a coronation turned into a nightmare as Perry did exactly what he set out to do. He defined Hutchison better than she could define herself.
We now have eight months to see if he can do the same to Bill White.