November 2, 2009
LONE STAR SHOWDOWN
An up-close look at the Hutchison–Perry gubernatorial contest
JOHN J. MILLER
Kay Bailey Hutchison probably wishes she could have a do-over. On August 17, at the Republican senator’s kick-off event for her gubernatorial candidacy in Texas, just about everything went wrong. An announcer repeatedly mispronounced the name of her hometown, La Marque (it’s “Luh Mark,” not “Luh Mark-EE”). The audience was so sparse that campaign staffers had to ask attendees to move out of the bleachers and onto the floor of a high-school gym so that photo and video images might create the illusion of a crowd. The mayor of nearby Texas City showed up but couldn’t join Hutchison on stage due to the absence of a wheelchair ramp. The program — the first in a long day of appearances for Hutchison — started almost an hour late. The event “didn’t go exactly as scripted,” deadpanned reporter T. J. Aulds in his account for the Galveston County Daily News.
Neither has Hutchison’s campaign. She once looked like a shoo-in. For years, she had quietly plotted her bid, waiting for the right moment to run. Her bank account was flush with funds. Polls suggested that she was the most popular officeholder in the state.
Then Gov. Rick Perry, who took office when George W. Bush decamped for Washington and is now the longest-serving governor in Texas history, announced his intention to seek a new four-year term. This set up a costly and bitter contest. Lots of Republicans have voted for both candidates several times. Now they’ll have to make a choice. The Hutchison–Perry showdown comes on March 2, in a statewide GOP primary.
Excitable pundits will call it a “battle for the soul of the Republican party,” which it isn’t. Between now and the first Tuesday in March, however, few elections in the United States will generate more interest and ink. It features not only the two most prominent politicians in Texas, but also plenty of colorful details. It’s a man opposing a woman, a pol who has stayed in the state against one who has made her career in Washington, and a Longhorn versus an Aggie: Hutchison is a former University of Texas cheerleader and Perry is a former Texas A&M yell leader.
So far, the race has generated plenty of boos and hisses: The candidates and their campaigns routinely attack each other in interviews and on websites. In January, when television ad rates drop, the battle will move to the airwaves. For those who enjoy politics as theater, this election holds great promise. It could all come down to a debate blunder or a last-minute accusation of failing to rewind a rented VHS tape a decade ago. A September poll of primary voters by Rasmussen showed a dead heat: Hutchison 40 percent, Perry 38 percent, and 19 percent undecided.
Whatever the result, it will come at a high price. Hutchison and Perry plan to batter each other with a combined $50 million. The race will be costly in other ways, too. In a normal political cycle, the Lone Star State exports GOP funds to other states; over the next several months, it will devour them. This money won’t be spent defending seats in the U.S. Senate, where a rash of retirements will make Republicans vulnerable despite their already having lost so many moderate districts. The lost cash also will complicate pick-up opportunities in the House. The Texas primary will wind up functioning like a parasite on the Republican body politic. Down-ticket Republicans in Texas will suffer as well. Their campaign dollars could become as scarce as the spectators at Hutchison’s kick-off rally. That giant sucking sound you hear is the noise of personal ambition, as a conservative governor squares off against a slightly less conservative senator.
The 66-year-old Hutchison has flirted with running for governor before. She came close in 2002, when Perry was pursuing reelection for the first time, but demurred. She came even closer in 2006, but didn’t jump in then, either. “I stepped back for the good of the party,” she says. “I also thought Perry would get better.” Hutchison ran once again for the Senate, breaking a promise not to serve more than two full terms. She explains her decision as good for Texas because it preserved the state’s position in the Senate’s seniority-centered pecking order.
As a senator, Hutchison has earned a mark of nearly 90 percent from the American Conservative Union. Yet she has a history of ruffling social conservatives, especially on life issues: Hutchison does not believe Roe v. Wade should be overturned, and she has favored stem-cell research that involves the destruction of human embryos. She supports plenty of restrictions on abortion — a ban on partial-birth abortion, funding prohibitions, parental-notification requirements, and so on — but she is not a fully committed pro-lifer. For some anti-abortion conservatives, that is enough. “She gets a bum rap on right-to-life issues,” says Dick Armey, the former GOP House majority leader, who supports Hutchison against Perry. “She votes the right way.” Others find her beliefs more troubling.
Hutchison insists that she’s well within the Republican mainstream. “I’m a conservative who will govern as a conservative,” she says. She ticks off her proudest accomplishments in Washington: the passage of a homemaker IRA, which primarily helps stay-at-home moms save for retirement; a bill that permits the deduction of state and local taxes from federal filings; and “bringing federal dollars to Texas” for improving the state’s universities.
After more than 16 years in the Senate — she was first elected in 1993, following Lloyd Bentsen’s appointment to the Clinton cabinet — Hutchison has given conservatives a long list of grievances. She has voted for the expansion of health-care entitlements, from Medicare prescription-drug coverage to the S-CHIP program. As a member of the Appropriations Committee, she is fully vested in the culture of earmarks and has fought efforts to restrict them. The Perry campaign has dubbed her Kay “Bailout” Hutchison, on account of her support for the financial-rescue bill last year. Conservatives with longer memories recall her role in the Tailhook investigation, whose collateral damage led to the blacklisting of naval officers who were not guilty of any misconduct.
Perry has his own vulnerabilities. The 59-year-old governor is a former Democrat who headed Al Gore’s 1988 presidential campaign in Texas and became a Republican the next year. He stumbled during his last election, in 2006: He won with only a 39 percent plurality against Democrat Chris Bell and two independent candidates. (That same year, Hutchison cruised to reelection with 62 percent of the vote.)
Despite barely crossing the finish line in 2006, Perry proceeded to alienate his base of social conservatives by signing an executive order to require that schoolgirls receive HPV vaccines, which protect against a sexually transmitted disease that can cause cervical cancer. It came out that his former chief of staff had become a lobbyist for a drug company that stood to profit handsomely from the rule. Perry had to backpedal, and the legislature blocked his directive. “We probably should have done it as an opt-in rather than an opt-out,” he says now, meaning that the initiative should have had a more voluntary flavor. “For me, though, this issue is about life. That’s one of my core values.” Hutchison calls his approach “breathtakingly arrogant.”
There were other missteps. A new tax angered many small-business owners. The Trans-Texas Corridor, a massive infrastructure project featuring toll roads, high-speed rail, and the extensive use of eminent domain, upset ranchers and other property owners; it may have cost Perry the endorsement of the Texas Farm Bureau, which came out for Hutchison on October 5 even though Perry, a former state agriculture commissioner, had received its backing in earlier races. In 2007 and 2008 — around the time Americans were said to suffer from “Bush fatigue” — Texans were arguably experiencing “Perry fatigue.” Many figured he’d retire. “His numbers were in the toilet,” says Allen Blakemore, a Republican consultant who has worked for both candidates.
Moreover, Hutchison and Perry were said to have come to an understanding: If Hutchison would not oppose Perry’s reelection bid in 2006, Perry would get out of Hutchison’s way in 2010. “About four years ago, when the senator expressed a desire to run, Perry contacted me and others and said you need to talk her out of running this time — he said that ‘next time is her time,’” says John Nau, a Houston beer distributor who has backed Perry in the past but is now Hutchison’s finance chairman. “I talked to Kay about it. She asked for my support in 2010. That was locked down.” Hutchison certainly believes there was an arrangement with Perry. “I never talked to him about it,” she says. “But others did.” For his part, the governor denies making any promises. “That’s an urban legend put forward by her camp,” he says. “There isn’t any truth to it.”
Deal or no deal, Perry announced last year that he would run again for an unprecedented third full term. If he wins and completes the term, he will have served as governor for 14 years. Since he threw his cowboy hat in the ring, just about everything has gone Perry’s way. He patched up relations with social conservatives. Phyllis Schlafly already has endorsed him. Bill Bennett is about to sign on, and so is Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council.
Perry altered that unpopular business tax. The Trans-Texas Corridor conveniently disappeared from Austin’s drawing board. When the governor talks about the need for a “Tenth Amendment movement” that liberates the states from federal interference — it’s one of his major talking points these days — he sounds like a 1994 Republican crusading against unfunded mandates. His rhetoric has helped him tap the energy of tea-party activists. In Texas, his approval rating has rebounded from its low point about a year and a half ago. It now stands at 69 percent among Republicans. During the legislative session this spring, he balanced the Texas budget at a time when other states struggled to make ends meet.
All this led to what may be Perry’s trump card: the state of the Lone Star State. “We’re weathering the recession relatively well because we tax less and spend less, and Rick Perry has a lot to do with that,” says Brooke Rollins, president of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a free-market think tank (she is also Perry’s former policy director).
Admittedly, the financial crisis has walloped every state, including Texas. The Dallas Federal Reserve has estimated that Texas will lose more than 300,000 jobs this year. Yet unemployment remains a couple of points below the national average, and the home-foreclosure rate is low. In July, National Review’s Kevin D. Williamson documented the state’s economic resilience in an article called “Going Alamo.” The Economist recently followed suit with a mostly favorable ten-page special report on Texas; a cover cartoon contrasted a grinning, muscle-bound, jet-skiing Texan with a pudgy, crab-bitten Californian who carries a cracked surfboard. This has become a new journalistic subgenre: articles about the Texas success story.
Perry is by no means the sole author of these accomplishments, but he is a big contributor — which puts Hutchison in the odd position of having to credit her opponent while minimizing the state’s achievements under his governorship. “Texas is doing well in spite of what Perry has done,” she says. She applauds the governor for his tort-reform efforts, though she also gives a nod to his predecessor: “Bush started it, Perry continued it.” The shame of the state, she says, is public education: “We have the highest dropout rate in the country. We need an educated work force. We need more tier-one universities. That will be my highest priority.” She says she would try to lift the cap on charter schools.
Hutchison also says she would revive the GOP in Texas. A party that currently occupies all of the statewide elected offices — there are 27 of them, from governor to railroad commissioner — hardly seems in need of reinvigoration. But Hutchison worries about long-term trends. “We’ve dwindled in power, influence, and numbers,” she says. “We’re starting to lose in the biggest counties.” Republicans still run the state house, but only by a two-seat margin. Further slippage would imperil the GOP’s ability to control congressional redistricting after the next census, when Texas is expected to gain three or four seats. Most important may be the state’s Hispanicization. If Republicans don’t figure out a way to win the votes of Mexican Americans, Texas will start to look like South Texas, where Democrats never have lost their grip on power. Hutchison probably needs their help; Texas holds open primaries, which means that Democrats and independents can participate.
The good news for Republicans is that either Hutchison or Perry will be a heavy favorite in November: So far, the Democrats have failed to offer a credible alternative. A few potential candidates may be waiting to see if Hutchison makes good on her pledge to resign her Senate seat, which would force a special election. “I had hoped to be gone by now,” says Hutchison. “But I’m not walking out on health-care reform.” She says she wants to fight the Obama administration’s initiatives.
The case for Perry in a nutshell is that he has been a successful conservative governor and therefore deserves a new term. For Hutchison, it’s that ten years is enough and a fresh face deserves a chance. When all is said and done, it will be hard not to think that Texas Republicans could have saved a lot of time and trouble if Hutchison and Perry had simply gotten together and flipped a quarter. Instead, they’re going to spend about 200 million of them.