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Kay in 2012?!?

She said she would limit her time in the U.S. Senate to two terms and is currently serving a third. She said she would resign her federal office to run for governor and didn't. She said she would quit after the primary and hasn't. So who's to say she won't reconsider in two years and run for a fourth term? And what of all those would-be successors?

It's like finding out the last season of your favorite TV show was a dream sequence: Kay Bailey Hutchison was never really leaving the U.S. Senate after all.

Don't act so surprised. Hutchison promised she would limit her time in office to two terms and is currently serving her third. She said she would resign the federal job to run for the state job. She decided she needed to remain in office until after the primaries, until health care and cap-and-trade energy legislation were out of the way. And now that the primary season is over and she finished more than 300,000 votes behind Gov. Rick Perry, she says she intends not to leave but to instead serve out the remaining two years of her term.

In fact, nothing she has said so far would prevent her from running for reelection to a fourth term in 2012. After all, Perry wasn't going to seek a third full term this year, was he?

Hutchison's choice saves the state the cost and trouble of a statewide special election and cheats political consultants of the windfall it would bring (two dozen people ran for Senate when Hutchison won a special election in 1993). It leaves an experienced hand in Washington, important on matters determined by seniority. It denies Texas Democrats a chance at their first Senate seat since 1993, when Lloyd Bentsen left and Hutchison replaced him. And it assures Republicans will hold on there for at least two more years.

Her gyrations inspired more than just political speculation: People changed their career trajectories and now have to piece things back together. Senate seats don't open up often, so the prospect draws a crowd. Republicans hold all of the statewide offices in Texas, and while that's great news for the GOP, it's hard on the political careers of ambitious officeholders who can't move up unless somebody quits, makes a job-ending blunder or dies. This particular exercise exposed the ambitions of a bunch of Texas politicos who are now backing out of campaign mode. How'd that work out?

Winners

David Dewhurst. Probably the Republican in the best position to succeed Hutchison. Dewhurst is the lieutenant governor and the winner of three statewide elections so far. He's got enough money to compete with anybody, and he actively looked at the Senate seat without openly declaring for it. Now he has to wait, which probably puts him on many if not most loser lists. But here's the counterintuitive upside: A special election this year might have him out of position, since he filed for re-election to his current post and is on the November ballot. Hutchison's job comes up in 2012, a year when Dewhurst could run without resigning from the job he now holds.

Rick Perry. The governor gets to appoint the person who serves between the time a senator quits and the time the replacement wins a special election, and Perry was going to have to tell all but one of his supplicants "no." That's a bad word in politics, and now he doesn't have to use it. He won his re-election primary. Everybody's still his friend. And there's this: The Senate seat remains in GOP hands.

Bill White. The former mayor of Houston was going to run for Hutchison's spot until he decided that she wasn't going to quit and, probably, that she wasn't going to be the Republican nominee for governor. Conventional wisdom is that he'd rather run against Perry. More conventional wisdom: A Democratic win in the governor's race would be an upset. Hutchison's timing lets White have it both ways: He runs for governor, and if that doesn't work out, the Senate race is in front of him instead of behind him. And he'd be better-known statewide, to boot.

Losers

John Sharp. The former legislator, railroad commissioner and comptroller was the best-positioned Democrat to succeed Hutchison, but only in a special election. A special would have given him the chance to skip the Democratic primary, where some liberals feel he's too conservative — and they haven't forgotten that he crossed party lines in 2006 to help his old college buddy, Rick Perry, pass legislation raising business taxes to offset cuts in local property taxes. And a bazillion Republicans were set to run in a special election, fracturing the GOP vote and potentially moving things too far to the right to keep independents on board.

Roger Williams, Michael Williams, Elizabeth Ames Jones, Florence Shapiro. The four Republicans — a former Texas secretary of state, two railroad commissioners and a state senator — have been actively raising money, building organizations, and exposing their flanks for more than a year in anticipation of an opening that isn't there. It's awkward, for one thing, and their desire to move on caught the interest of their own would-be replacements. This is the sort of thing challenges are built on. Shapiro has ended her run for Senate. Jones says she'll be in the running in 2012. Michael Williams met yesterday's news by saying he "will be a candidate for this seat whenever it comes up."

Greg Abbott. The state's attorney general had his sights set not on the Senate but on the job Dewhurst now holds. Abbott feinted at a Senate run, but he's a prolific fundraiser and energetic campaigner and has a daunting head start on the field for lieutenant governor on the GOP side. But Hutchison forces Dewhurst to freeze, and that forces Abbott to freeze. And that brings us to ...

Ted Cruz. The former state solicitor general under Abbott at the attorney general's office raised prodigious amounts of money in an effort to amass a big enough treasury to scare other Republicans out of the race to replace his old boss. Now he's frozen, too. He sent a note to supporters yesterday offering to return their contributions — pro rata — and promising that although 2010 is out, he'll be running for public office "very soon."

Kay Bailey Hutchison. After hearing their senior senator flip-flop over her resignation for 18 months, do voters trust her less? Do they think she's decisive? The whole episode dragged down her bid for governor, and to make that race, she resigned from her leadership positions in the U.S. Senate. None of this would matter much if she had won the race against Perry. Now she's an apparent lame duck in badly weakened political shape. The road back could start in November. If the GOP wins back the U.S. Senate in this year's general election, Hutchison would rank high enough in seniority that she could become chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. That, in turn, could become her rationale, if she needs one, for seeking another six-year term in 2012.

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