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Climbing the Ladder

What happens if Gov. Rick Perry or Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst decide to run for federal office and win, creating a vacancy — or two — in Texas? That sound you hear is a herd of GOP pols rushing to update their resumes.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst shakes hands with Gov. Rick Perry at the 2011 inauguration.

Could this be the last legislative session for Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst?

Both men were just elected to fresh four-year terms, but it’s a logical question if you have it in your head that one or the other is running for — and has a reasonable chance at winning — a federal office. The two have different ways of saying they’re not thinking about it right now, what with the legislative session opening and all, but each is positioning himself for a run.

Consider this week’s inauguration speeches. Both said they’re focused on state issues like the budget and border security, but both used the federal government as the foil, describing it as the source of the problems. That fits the 2010 general election theme of states’ rights and re-establishing federalism —a theme that works nicely for provincials who want to remake (or at least influence) the federal government.

In his speech this week, Perry hit Washington for “bloated stimulus spending, record debt and massive entitlement programs” and said solutions to government finance problems “will come from places like Texas.” He knocked the federal government for not doing more to secure the state’s border (and said earlier in the week that he’d like to see an additional 3,000 Border Patrol agents in Texas). Dewhurst chimed right in. He talked even more explicitly about border security (he included the call for more agents in his address), rang the bell about Texas being a financial example for the feds, said “Washington has run roughshod over state sovereignty” and mentioned “Washington” or “federal” a dozen times in his speech.

Perry has said repeatedly that he’s not running for president, isn’t interested, please be quiet. But there’s no obvious crowd favorite among the Republicans who might run against President Obama in 2012. Perry’s political attributes aren’t bad for a national race: governor of a very red southern state with a lot of electoral votes, popular with social and economic conservatives alike, simpatico with the Tea Partiers, solid public speaker, good-looking, not Sarah Palin. If not presidential material, he is certainly viable as a vice presidential candidate. He’s just off a national book tour, and he’s the new president of the Republican Governors Association. He might not be running for president, but he has grabbed a bit of the national spotlight.

A win would create a job opening here in Texas.

But the guy in line for that post — Dewhurst — is seriously considering a run for the United States Senate in 2012. He’s got a fallback, since he’s not up for re-election that year. If he wins, he’ll take Kay Bailey Hutchison’s place in the Senate, and if he loses, he’ll still be the lieutenant governor. If he loses and Perry wins, he’ll move to the big office in the middle of the Capitol, just as Perry did when George W. Bush became president.

The succession games are addictive: If both move up, they create openings for a pack of ambitious Republican officeholders and candidates who have been waiting for years for one of the upper rungs on the political ladder to clear. If the governor leaves, the lieutenant governor takes over for the rest of his term. If the lieutenant governor leaves, the state Senate makes one of its 31 members the presiding officer for the rest of that term. If both leave, two senators ascend, probably after a good fight. And two years later, the top two spots in state government are either open or are being defended by two former state senators who’ve never run statewide campaigns. That’s separate from the other big political speculation — who, other than Dewhurst, might run for Hutchison’s spot, and what offices would be freed up as a result?

It’s not entirely idle speculation. Hutchison’s announcement started a stampede. Dewhurst is “interested.” Railroad Commissioners Elizabeth Ames Jones and Michael Williams are running. So are Ted Cruz, the former state solicitor general, and Roger Williams, the former Texas secretary of state (who is getting George H..W. Bush’s endorsement). A couple of members of the state’s Congressional delegation are nosing around. The Dewhurst speculation has already spawned its own round of succession talk, with Comptroller Susan Combs and Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson saying they would be interested in running for lieutenant governor if and when that job opened up.

Maybe it’s just a collective fever dream. Perry might not be asked to join a ticket and might turn it down if he were. Dewhurst could decide he preferred splitting his time between Austin and Houston more than he’d like the Houston-Washington split. And everybody else on the ladder could be stuck, once again, where they’re now perched.

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Congress State government 2012 elections 82nd Legislative Session Campaign finance David Dewhurst Griffin Perry Rick Perry Texas Legislature