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Kay Bailey Hutchison weighs reelection, could face real primary

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Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison could be the first primary casualty of 2012.

The Texas Republican, after years of back and forth over whether she will or won't retire, will have to make a decision soon about 2012. Waiting in the wings are a slate of Republicans who have already spent two years eyeing the race, including some who are prepared to run against her even if she seeks reelection.

Hutchison was on the wrong end of a bruising, lopsided primary loss in March to Gov. Rick Perry (R) in which she saw her sterling public image take a big hit. Perry, who began the race as an underdog in the minds of many, nailed Hutchison over her vote for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) bailout and her ties to Washington. He wound up beating her by more than 20 points.

Before, during and after Hutchison's primary loss, she engaged in an extended will-she-or-won't-she-leave-the-Senate internal debate that has tried the patience of Texas Republicans and, some would argue, left her as damaged good for another political campaign.

Hutchison initially said she would resign in order to run for governor last year. But then her fortunes faded in that race, and Republicans in Washington urged her to stay in the Senate a little while longer in order to avoid a potential special election (which could have given Democrats a 60-seat, filibuster-proof majority). Hutchison said she would retire after the primary.

After her March primary loss, though, Hutchison said that she would serve out the final two years of her term, which expires in 2012. She made no more promises about retirement, and in May she said she wouldn't talk about it for the foreseeable future.

Hutchison, who previously broke a term-limit pledge when she ran for reelection in 2006, had been saying since 2007 that she would not seek another term in the Senate. Everyone now agrees that no longer applies, and many expect her to run again.

When contacted by The Fix about her decision-making process, a Hutchison spokeswoman said only that "the senator has not yet announced her plans."

But that doesn't mean people are waiting around to see what she does.

State Railroad Commissioner Elizabeth Ames Jones and former Secretary of State Roger Williams are both actively campaigning for the seat, and several other candidates are threatening to run regardless of Hutchison's announcement.

Among the undecideds are a number of well-known candidates, including wealthy Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams and, potentially, Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert.

Dewhurst would be formidable because he would instantly be financially competitive due to his personal wealth and already has a cultivated statewide profile (he was just elected to his third term as lieutenant governor with 63 percent of the vote). He also has the luxury of taking his time to make a decision because of his high name identification and money.

At the same time, he's not regarded as a great candidate, and because he is part of the establishment, he wouldn't bring the tea party, insurgent-type profile that was so successful in the 2010 Senate primary season.

The candidate that fits that bill the best would appear to be Michael Williams. But Williams, like other tea party candidates, could face a funding problem, which is even more deadly in such a big state.

Enter Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). Williams had the backing of the tea party benefactor when it looked like there would be a special election. But a spokesman for DeMint said the senator isn't necessarily backing Williams for 2012. (Indeed, Williams hasn't committed to running for the seat and could well run for Congress or other office.)

"[DeMint] hasn't made any commitments for 2012 and is not recruiting candidates," the DeMint spokesman, Matt Hoskins, said. "In each race, he will wait to see who runs and wins the support of the grassroots."

Observers say Hutchison is vulnerable for the very same reasons she got destroyed in the governor's primary: TARP and her more mainstream Republican politics. Though she was once the most popular politician in the state, that is no longer the case. A poll from Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling in September showed just 56 percent of Republicans approved of Hutchison, and she was at just 34 percent in a ballot test against Michael Williams -- horrible territory for an incumbent.

Williams was at just 13 percent in the head-to-head, but much of that is because people don't know who he is. When Hutchison was matched up against a generic "more conservative challenger," that challenger beat her 62 percent to 25 percent.

That's not a perfect comparison -- a generic candidate almost always does better than one with his or her own foibles -- and Hutchison has plenty of time to restore her image, but the poll does suggest plenty of vulnerability.

What's more, Texas's primary system works against Hutchison. That's because it includes a runoff, which means a wide field of Republicans could run against her, and as long as they held her below 50 percent, she would face a one-on-one matchup in which the anti-Hutchison vote could coalesce around one candidate.

Hutchison would likely benefit from high turnout in the presidential primary (assuming the race is still competitive in early March 2012). But that turnout model doesn't apply to an April runoff, where turnout generally drops precipitously.

It's plenty for Hutchison to think about as she weighs her reelection race. After seeing her image tainted in a primary with Perry, does she want to go through it all again two years later -- with the very real possibility that she could lose?

Hutchison is keeping her political plans close to the vest and has been known (see above) to change her mind. But plenty of people think she's running and are gearing up for that very real possibility.

By Aaron Blake  | November 15, 2010; 10:06 AM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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