Would-be successors increasingly dubious Hutchison will resign

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s (R) decision to delay her resignation has thrown the special election for her seat in doubt and is wreaking havoc on the plans of Texas politicians.

Many of those politicians continue to be frustrated by the saga, and some believe she won’t resign her seat after all.

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Hutchison promised in her speech Saturday to the Texas Federation of Republican Women that she would resign after the March 2 gubernatorial primary, but her wording leaves it open-ended as to when that will be.

“For all of the good Republicans out there who plan on running for my seat next year, make no mistake: This is going to happen,” she said. “It just isn’t going to happen until after healthcare reform and cap-and-trade are finished. And that will be after the primary election.”

Despite her assurances, few feel better about the situation. Healthcare reform is the current priority in the Senate, but the cap-and-trade bill could work its way into mid-2010. Operatives and candidates see plenty of uncertainty ahead.

They also believe Republicans in the Senate might ask her to stay on simply to keep the seat firmly Republican through 2012, when her term is up.

The campaigns of those running to succeed Hutchison say privately they just can’t take her at her word.

“I personally have never believed she is going to resign,” said a source close to a Democrat running for Senate. “With one caveat: She could say after losing in March, ‘[Forget] it. I’m out of here.’ ”

The campaigns are proceeding as if the election is right around the corner, but despite Hutchison’s rumored disillusionment with Washington, they aren’t counting on anything.

“She’s said at least a half a dozen times, ‘I’m resigning’ during this period, and she hasn’t done it,” said a source working on a Republican’s campaign. “Do I personally believe she’s actually going to resign? No. But what choice do we have?”

Added a GOP consultant: “Everyone’s muted, but the real reaction is that they’re pissed. But they really can’t register their dismay. She’s playing within the rules.”

Hutchison previously indicated she would resign this year, clearing the way for a May special.

And while her announcement provides some guidance for politicians facing an early-January filing deadline for other offices, it also opens up a whole new can of what-ifs for Senate hopefuls.

If Hutchison resigns between the primary and April 2, a special election could still be held on May 8 — as many campaigns had been planning. If it occurs April 3 or later, the next regularly scheduled election would be in November.

Republican Gov. Rick Perry can also legally set the election for whenever he wants to, by declaring an emergency or delaying the declaration of the vacancy. That makes a May special election seem even more unlikely.

Republicans generally think having the race in November would be better for them, because it would feature regular turnout in a red state. Also, it likely wouldn’t be as attractive to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), with so many other races on the map.

But former Hutchison staffer Matt Mackowiak suggested there could be a reason for her to hold her seat, even if she wins the gubernatorial primary, where she faces incumbent Perry.

“Would she resign her Senate seat and have her defeated opponent appoint her successor — especially with wide-open road in front of her?” Mackowiak said, noting the temporary-appointment powers of the governor. “We have to take her at her word … but it’s impossible to know what will happen until after March 2.”

National Republicans are confident the race will not be in May, and they profess relief that they probably won’t have to deal with another isolated special election where they could lose a seat, as they did in New York’s 23rd district.

“For the moment, it’s a weight off our shoulders,” said a national GOP source. “I really would be very surprised if we did [have a May special].”

The candidates mostly say their plans are unchanged by Hutchison’s prolonged resignation drama, but a few of them fear decisions in the next two months.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and state Sen. Florence Shapiro will both have to file for their current positions if they want to make sure they are on the ballot next year.

Dewhurst, a potential appointee and likely GOP front-runner for the seat, will file for a third term at his current post. But if the special election is held in November, he would have to run for two offices simultaneously, which is a legal issue Republicans are confronting.

Neither of the two Democrats running — Houston Mayor Bill White or former state Comptroller John Sharp — will be faced with running for another office (White is term-limited). But there will continue to be speculation about one of them stepping aside to run for governor, where the Democratic field hasn’t wowed anyone.

Both say they are in for the long haul, though.

“Bill is committed to running for Senate, regardless of when this election takes place,” White spokeswoman Katy Bacon said.

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On the GOP side, former Texas Secretary of State Roger Williams and state Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams will press forward.

Both gain by having a longer special election, as they haven’t raised big money with the field so unsettled. If he decides to run, Dewhurst would likely garner much of the establishment’s support and can self-fund extensively.

A spokesman for Michael Williams said he has faith Hutchison won’t allow a May special election to take place.

“The senator has always been one who understands these dates and what they mean for the team,” said the spokesman, Corbin Casteel. “I think we’re looking at an April 3 or later resignation.”

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