Texas conservatives target Hutchison

Several Texas conservatives are vowing to make Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) pay for her primary challenge to popular Republican Gov. Rick Perry.

The four-term senator hasn’t announced whether she’ll run for reelection, but, no matter her decision, Tea Party activists are preparing to run their own candidates. 

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Because of that, GOP activists and strategists suspect retirement will prove the more attractive option for the senator.

Hutchison lost a contentious primary to Perry in March, and her decision to challenge the sitting governor saw her go from one of the state’s most popular politicians to someone struggling for favor within her own party. 

Austin-based Tea Party activist Dean Wright said he anticipates as many as six to eight candidates challenging Hutchison from the right if she attempts to stick it out in 2012. 

“She’s burned some bridges,” Wright said. “And she hasn’t embraced the grassroots.” 

When asked for comment, Hutchison’s office only said: “The senator has not yet announced her plans.”

In the gubernatorial primary, one of Perry’s most effective tactics was to paint Hutchison as too far to the left for the Texas GOP. Her vote in favor of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) proved Perry’s trump card. His campaign tagged the senator with the moniker “Kay Bailout Hutchison” and successfully branded her as a Washington insider. She lost by more than 20 points. 

“The way that primary unfolded tells you all you need to know about her vulnerability if she runs again,” said Republican strategist Mike Baselice, who suspects Hutchison is leaning against a run. Baselice was Perry’s pollster in 2010.

Wright said the state’s Tea Party movement sees Hutchison as a relatively easy target. He named Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams as an early favorite of the group. Wright said Williams appeared at more than 150 Tea Party gatherings across Texas and “is saying all the right things” to activists. Williams hasn’t made a formal announcement.

Another Railroad Commissioner, Elizabeth Ames-Jones, is in the race whether or not Hutchison runs for reelection. She has attended several Tea Party events in an effort to drum up support.

The same set of issues that made Hutchison unpalatable to conservatives in the 2010 gubernatorial primary make her an obvious 2012 primary target, particularly among Tea Party backers. Baselice said her inability to make a decision on whether to remain in her Senate seat during her run for governor will only compound her problems.

Hutchison initially said she would resign her Senate seat to run in the gubernatorial primary, but reneged and later said she would resign her seat after the primary. But once Hutchison lost to Perry, she changed her mind again, telling voters she would remain in the Senate until the end of her term. 

For now, some of the bigger names on the Republican side of the ledger are still treading carefully. 

While former Texas Secretary of State Roger Williams has already jumped in the race, other potential top-tier challengers remain on the sidelines. 

“People are still frozen in place right now,” said Dave Carney, a senior political adviser to Perry. He also noted that a number of possible candidates are not just waiting on Hutchison, but on Republican Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, whom many think could emerge as the favorite if he decided to get into the race. 

Hutchison recently signed onto the moratorium on earmarks approved by the Senate GOP conference and she has come out strongly against the DREAM Act — both mark a shift to the right.

Hutchison could also put the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) in an awkward spot. Tea Party candidates won several primaries in 2010, and many expect a similar situation in the coming cycle. 

A Tea Party-backed challenge to Hutchison would prove doubly difficult for NRSC Chairman John Cornyn (Texas), who would be staring down a decision over how forcefully to back his home-state colleague if Tea Party momentum coalesced around a challenger. 

Democratic strategist Craig Varoga, a veteran of statewide campaigns in Texas, said while he considers Hutchison’s 2012 primary prospects “weak,” looking ahead to a general election, he admits Democrats are largely without top-tier statewide contenders at the moment. 

Former Houston Mayor Bill White, who originally jumped into the Senate race in late 2008 after Hutchison announced her intention to resign, has already ruled out a 2012 run. Former state Comptroller John Sharp (D) is in the race, but he’s run and lost two previous statewide races for lieutenant governor. 

One early indication of whether Hutchison is serious about running for another term will be the size of her federal campaign account. According to her most recent filing with the Federal Election Commission, Hutchison has just over than $50,000 in the bank.

“It costs as much to run statewide in Texas now as it did to run a nationwide presidential campaign 20 years ago,” said Varoga. “So if she doesn’t hit the fundraising circuit soon, that’s as good an indication as any.”