Republican candidate hopes early start nets him Hutchison’s Senate seat

Texas Republican Michael Williams hopes his early entry into the race for retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison's (R-Texas) seat will give him momentum in the crowded primary field.

"Voters are looking for a consistent conservative to represent them and someone who will stand up for their values in Washington," said Williams, who resigned his spot on the Texas Railroad Commission earlier this week to focus on the race.

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Williams is one of four Republicans who have already gotten into the race, and more are expected in the coming months, including Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst — the expected frontrunner on the Republican side.

"The advantage for us is that we can get to work early and show our commitment to this campaign," said Williams, noting that he was mixing in lots of calls to donors and activists between his official campaign kick-off duties Thursday.

Williams, pegged as an early favorite among Tea Party activists in the state, said his schedule is quickly filling up with campaign events and fundraisers and that he expects to make the rounds in Washington, D.C., in the coming weeks.

He’ll likely need the early start given Dewhurst's anticipated entry into the race. The lieutenant governor is a popular statewide name with the ability to pour his own money into a bid — an enormous advantage in a state with 20 media markets.

Fundraising will prove a critical early test for Republican hopefuls, but it's particularly crucial for Williams, who Texas Republicans say could emerge as the top contender to Dewhurst if he can demonstrate the ability to rake in some cash.

"No matter how big this field is, I have a statewide organization, and I've run and won statewide three times," said Williams. "I'm confident we'll have the money we need to win."

Williams was first appointed to the Texas Railroad Commission in 1998 by then-Gov. George W. Bush (R). He has won three subsequent statewide elections, reelected in 2000, 2002 and 2008 — a record he said gives him a big leg up on some other rumored contenders. He was also the first African-American to win a statewide election for an executive position in Texas.

Williams noted that no member of Congress or mayor has run a successful statewide campaign since former Sen. Phil Gramm (R) did it in 1984.

"It would have to be a fairly special individual [to make that jump]," he said.

A handful of members of the state's congressional delegation are considering the race, including the man who took over Gramm's 6th district seat the year he was elected to the Senate — Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas). Barton told The Hill earlier this month that he's weighing a run, but indicated he was unlikely to get in if Dewhurst ran.

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) is also weighing a bid, and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) wouldn't entirely rule it out, either. Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert is another rumored GOP contender.

The rest of the Republican field includes several current or former statewide officeholders. Railroad Commissioner Elizabeth Ames Jones is officially in the race, as is former Secretary of State Roger Williams. Former Solicitor General Ted Cruz has also jumped in.

As for the Tea Party's impact on the primary, Williams said, "I can't ordain myself as the Tea Party candidate, but I would welcome their support."

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) hasn't yet weighed in on the crop of GOP Senate hopefuls in Texas, but Williams already has a DeMint endorsement under his belt from two years ago and could very well earn another ahead of the primary. Williams said the two have spoken recently.

After Hutchison announced in 2009 that she would resign her Senate seat to pursue a campaign for governor, Williams quickly jumped in the race and won the backing of DeMint. An expected special election for the seat never happened, though, after Hutchison reneged on her pledge to step aside.

This time around, DeMint has signaled his desire to have a say in the primary process in Texas, touting the candidacies of Williams and Cruz in an e-mail earlier this month to supporters of his Senate Conservatives Fund. DeMint also took a shot at Dewhurst in the message, labeling him the "establishment" candidate in the race.

"I'll let voters make that determination," Williams said of DeMint's slapping of the label on Dewhurst. "We'll lay out my record before the voters and let them make a determination on the distinctions between myself and the lieutenant governor."

As crowded as the Republican field is in Texas, however, Democrats are off to a slow start. San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro (D) doesn't sound all that interested in a bid. While former state Comptroller John Sharp has already jumped in, he's run and lost two previous races for lieutenant governor.