Texas GOPers not just waiting on Hutchison

When it comes to Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s (R-Texas) expected retirement from the Senate, the question is moving from “Will she or won’t she?” to “Will he or won’t he?”

As Hutchison appears to come closer to calling it quits to focus on running for governor, the emerging question in the Lone Star State is, when she does, whether Republican Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst will throw himself and his hundreds of millions of dollars into the race.

ADVERTISEMENT
Without Dewhurst, there doesn’t appear to be a Republican front-runner, and the GOP field has been badly outraised by a pair of Democrats. With Dewhurst, there wouldn’t exactly be a clear GOP field, but he would give the party a sense of clarity and a near-lock on gaining at least half of a two-person runoff.

For special elections, Texas holds an open election in which any number of candidates from either party can run. With a diluted and under-funded GOP field right now, Democrats are feeling good about the chances of Houston Mayor Bill White and former state Comptroller John Sharp, each of whom have amassed a few millions dollars for the race.

That growing imbalance is one of Dewhurst’s biggest assets, should he join the race. As the founder of an energy company, he can instantly tip the financial factor in the GOP’s favor.

Dewhurst has mostly played his cards close to the vest, but a month ago he expressed interest in the race to The Austin American-Statesman. Since then, the Dewhurst-for-Senate talk has reached a fever pitch among political operatives, with many seeing him as a good bet to enter the race.

Dewhurst has certainly shown plenty of interest in the upper chamber and considered running for an open Senate seat in 2002. In the American-Statesman interview, the 63-year-old noted it’s rare to have two chances to run for the Senate.

A Texas Republican operative said Dewhurst’s past and his recent public posturing as the presiding officer of the state Senate indicate he’ll run for the U.S. Senate.

“I would fully expect him to make the race, period,” the operative said. “He’s always thought the U.S. Senate was just the bomb. And his legislative actions indicate he’s trying to curry favor with the conservatives that he’ll need in a primary.”

For now, the two-term lieutenant governor has said he is running for reelection and will look at running for Senate if and when that opportunity comes along.

Spokesman Rich Parsons said Dewhurst “has been encouraged by a lot of supporters around the state to run for the Senate if a Senate seat comes open.”

If Hutchison doesn’t resign before late September, the special election would likely be held in May 2009. But lately there has been some indication that Gov. Rick Perry (R) could call an emergency special election with a much shorter campaigning period.

Either way, Dewhurst has the luxury of time because of his personal fortune, which has been estimated at up to $200 million. With the race looking likely to be held well before the next general election, Dewhurst’s ability to infuse his own cash instantly would be a big boost for a frugal national party.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) endorsed Florida Gov. Charlie Crist in his Senate primary in hopes of saving money in the general election, and Dewhurst could provide the same kind of assistance.

A Washington GOP source said Hutchison’s Texas colleague, NRSC Chairman John Cornyn, would probably support Dewhurst in the race. Failing that, though, state Attorney General Greg Abbott (R) would be a good alternative.

“Cornyn is friends with all of them, but because it will likely be a May special election, [he’ll] lean toward someone like Dewhurst or Abbott,” the source said. “Privately, I suspect Dewhurst will be the one.”

On the Democratic side, White and Sharp have put together nearly $7 million, with White raising big money and Sharp self-funding much of his $3.2 million. Meanwhile, the entire GOP field — former Texas Secretary of State Roger Williams, state Sen. Florence Shapiro and state Railroad Commissioners Michael Williams and Elizabeth Ames Jones — has raised less than $2 million.

Most GOP donors are playing wait-and-see on the race, but with Hutchison continuing to draw things out, Republicans will have less and less time to pick their horses and make up ground on the big-money Democrats.

Money is also important to Abbott’s decision. Many see him as a future gubernatorial candidate, and he has amassed a $10 million state bankroll that he can’t use for federal races. If Dewhurst were to run for Senate, many see Abbott as next in line for lieutenant governor.

Much of whether Dewhurst runs could also depend on whether he receives an appointment to the seat. Insiders see Perry appointing either Dewhurst, a placeholder or Michael Williams.

Dewhurst and Perry haven’t always been close, but lately things seem to have gotten better. Perry also just hired Dewhurst’s chief of staff and former campaign manager to run his race against Hutchison.

Williams would have a big leg up on the competition as an incumbent and has wagered heavily on it. But he hasn’t yet shown the ability to raise lots of money, so questions remain about his viability.

Williams’s spokesman said that even a Dewhurst appointment wouldn’t affect his boss’s resolve.

“We’d have to look at it then,” spokesman Corbin Casteel said. “Michael’s running for the U.S. Senate, and I don’t see anything getting in his way.”