Now that the election is over, we join our regularly scheduled episode of Kaywatch already in progress.
After a run that has lasted the better part of a decade, Texans are ready, once again, to observe U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison wrestle with what to do next in her political career. It’s a favorite parlor game in political circles, egged on by Hutchison’s inscrutability. She has said just enough to support almost any argument: that she’s leaving when her current term ends in 2012, that she's staying, that she hasn’t made up her mind, that she’s changed it yet again.
Will the state’s senior senator run for re-election, dashing the hopes of young and not-so-young politicians who are waiting to pounce on the place at the top of the ballot? Or will she finally follow through on her threat to retire, unclogging the pent-up demand of lower-ranking Republicans who would like to be higher-ranking Republicans, and feeding the fever dreams of Democrats who haven’t won statewide office since 1998?
Hutchison considered a run for governor in 2006 and, finding support thin in the face of Rick Perry’s ambition for a second term — she and others had assumed it would be his last — decided against it. She had publicly promised she wouldn’t seek a third term. But after the door to the governor’s office closed that year, she did anyway, winning handily and retaining her unofficial status as the most popular politician in Texas.
After the 2008 election put Hutchison and her fellow Republicans back in the minority in the U.S. Senate, talk of a 2010 race for governor began in earnest. So did the speculation about the political succession game that would ensue if her Senate seat opened. The scenarios were endless. Would she leave office to run? Would she run as a sitting senator and resign only if she won the primary or the general election?
Hutchison told reporters she planned to quit before the end of 2009. Everybody bought it. A former Houston mayor and a former state comptroller began raising money on the Democratic side. Two railroad commissioners and a former secretary of state and a state senator all started raising money on the Republican side.
Hutchison backtracked. The former mayor, Bill White, bagged his Senate campaign and announced he would run for governor — a sign that he thought the opportunity was gone for the federal office and that the state office was more attractive with the prospect of two prominent Republicans chewing each other up while voters ate popcorn and watched. The former comptroller, John Sharp, shuttered his campaign. So did Michael Williams and Elizabeth Ames Jones, the railroad commissioners, and Roger Williams, who had been Texas secretary of state and a big fundraiser for George W. Bush, and Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, the state senator who was the first Republican to declare. At the time, that was a significant declaration, as Shapiro and Hutchison had a political consultant in common.
What will happen this time around is anyone’s guess. Candidates file for office in the first days of the year in which they’ll be running. Hutchison’s office isn’t on the ballot until 2012, so it’ll be in the first week of January — not this one, but the next one — when she actually, legally, has to state her intentions. Only White has said he’s not interested this time. You can add Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst to the possible candidates on the Republican side (not saying yes, not saying no, so keep him listed). U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, got beat on Election Day but has lots of friends in the political money class and is the subject of much speculation. If you actually ask him, which risks spoiling the speculation, he says he hasn’t thought about future political races.
When she ran for governor, Hutchison signaled her seriousness not by resigning from one job to run for the other, but by nearly emptying her federal campaign finance treasury into her state political account. Texas, with more than a dozen and a half media markets, is a notoriously expensive place to campaign; a statewide Senate race usually costs upward of $10 million, more if it’s a real competition. At the end of September — the date of the latest report Hutchison filed with the Federal Election Commission — she had $52,053 in her federal campaign account.
Want to know what she’s up to? Ignore the pronouncements and the parsing of her statements. Watch the money. If she wants voters to give her another term in 2012, she’ll have to convince the political financiers first.