AUSTIN — The primary is still more than 11 months away, but U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Gov. Rick Perry are already jockeying for position in their bid to win the Republican primary for governor.
Hutchison struck first this month at a Round Rock reception when she chatted up professional fundraiser Susan Lilly.
Lilly is respected in Republican circles and has helped raise money for Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and the Republican Party of Texas, among others. Her presence at the March 20 event has touched off political tension between the campaigns, with Perry consultant Dave Carney saying it meant Hutchison was shoring up lackluster fundraising. And, Hutchison campaign manager Rick Wiley said that Hutchison entered the year with more cash to run than Perry.
With Republicans nationwide wondering how to reunite the party, two of Texas’ highest-profile Republicans are trading jabs in advance of the 2010 primary race.
Perry insists he’s not thinking about any election during the legislative session, and Hutchison has said she won’t formally declare her challenge until summer.
But still, it’s clear that their clash has already started. Hutchison has rapidly built her campaign team, while the Perry re-election campaign has been digging for dirt on her husband, Dallas bond lawyer Ray Hutchison, at Dallas City Hall.
Meanwhile, the pair spar indirectly over issues including federal stimulus money (both dislike it, but Hutchison said last week that Perry should have tried to find a way to get unemployment money while avoiding federal strings) to million-dollar bonuses for managers of a state investment fund (Perry attacked the bonuses, while Hutchison suggested he was trying to punish one of her campaign supporters).
What looms could be a political cage fight on the national stage that could further split and weaken the party.
“There will be blood,” consultant Mark McKinnon said Sunday in the Austin American-Statesman. He has advised former President George W. Bush and the late Democratic Gov. Ann Richards. “Doesn’t matter who you’re for. It will be fun to watch the shoulder pads crack.”
Watching from afar, University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato said the Texas governor’s race, along with fights in Florida and California, could reveal whether Republicans across the board are forswearing political habits.
“If Hutchison can beat Perry in a GOP primary dominated by conservatives, it may indicate that some of the activists have gotten the message: The Republican Party cannot continue to win national elections simply with conservative white males,” Sabato said. “It will project (Hutchison) even further into the national debate.”
“She’s a prominent senator now. To be governor of Texas and to win as a moderate conservative Republican, she becomes a very hot property,” he said. “She’ll automatically become a prospect for vice president.”
Recent polls give Hutchison the early advantage. Most recently, a University of Texas survey of Republican primary voters found Hutchison was the favorite of 36 percent, compared with 30 percent for Perry.
But Perry, who has never lost an election, hasn’t given up ground.
Intent on winning a third term, which would give him up to 14 years as governor, he’s cast Hutchison as representing freewheeling Washington values in conflict with conservative Texas beliefs.
He hasn’t said so, but Perry’s camp is almost certain to remind voters she’s been a senator for nearly double the eight-plus years he’s been governor. At 65, she’s also older (he’s 59), and the two offer similar big-stage longevity. Both won their first statewide office in 1990.
Some Republicans worry that the contentious fight for the governor’s mansion could strain party ranks.
“I don’t understand this race,” said Jim Lunz, a veteran Bexar County activist. “Why are we having this? Why does Perry want to serve another term? And why does Kay want to leave the position she’s in?”
“If she doesn’t like the job she’s got, then why doesn’t she just go home? ... I would say there are probably a lot of people with these questions,” Lunz said.
While Republicans worry about the party, some Democrats are betting on damage to both Perry and Hutchison.
Fort Worth lawyer Tom Schieffer, a former Bush-appointed ambassador exploring a run for governor as a Democrat, predicts Perry and Hutchison will turn off most voters by focusing on conservative-leaning primary voters.
“It gives somebody like me with a middle-of-the-road philosophy an opportunity to demonstrate what a common-sense approach can do,” Schieffer said.
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