Bush Returns to a Divided Texas Republican Party

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(L to R) Ronald Martinez / Getty ; Alex Wong / Getty

Texas Governor Rick Perry, left, and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison

As he returns to his hometown of Midland, Texas, George W. Bush is surely happy to be back in the friendly confines of the Lone Star State. But he may be surprised to find a very different — and more divided — Republican Party from the one he left behind eight years ago. Rural conservatives in the party are losing clout to more moderate and urban forces, while a potentially nasty internal battle for the governor's mansion in 2010 is brewing.

The talk of Texas politicos these days, in fact, centers on another politician returning home from the nation's capital, U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. The two-term Republican senior Senator has her eye on the governor's mansion, currently held by Republican Rick Perry, who has already announced his intention to run for re-election, to an unprecedented third full term. (See pictures of President George W. Bush.)

Since shortly after winning her second full term in 2006, which she said would be her last, Hutchison has been dancing a coy waltz across Texas over her plans to run in 2010 for governor. But in December she set up a gubernatorial exploratory committee, funding it with $1 million from her $8 million federal campaign chest. That move forced major Republican donors to choose sides, and it has sparked a wave of speculation about whether or when she might resign her Senate seat and who would seek to replace her.

The sniping between the two giants of Texas politics has already begun. Hutchison has said state government needs a long-overdue "scrubbing," while Perry has suggested her vote for the $700 billion Wall Street federal bailout reflects a "Democrat Lite" approach to economic hard times. At a press conference to unveil a pro-life auto-license plate, Perry intimated that his potential opponent has been less than 100% supportive of pro-life policies. Hutchison, whose position on abortion has been described as "nuanced" by conservative columnist George Will, has supported federal funding for stem-cell research and opposed federal funds for abortion and late-term procedures, but she backed a 2003 Senate resolution endorsing the U.S. Supreme Court landmark Roe v. Wade ruling on abortion.

In addition to being Republicans, Perry and Hutchison have much in common: Both were cheerleaders in college, she at the University of Texas, he at rival Texas A&M. Both have moved up through the ranks in Texas politics, serving as members of the Texas house of representatives, then holding state office — Perry, a rancher and U.S. Air Force pilot, as agriculture commissioner and then lieutenant governor, and Hutchison, a former television reporter and lawyer, as state treasurer. But the two rivals draw their support from different wings of the Republican Party. Perry has found strength among conservative Christian Republicans, while Hutchison gets high marks from urban Republicans, many of them female, plus independents. And Hutchison's move is forcing some of the party's major financial backers to choose sides, among them several important Perry backers — including Houston beer distributor John Nau and Dallas oilman Louis Beecherl — who have switched their allegiance to Hutchison. Well-known Texas personalities, former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach and movie star Chuck Norris have also donated to the Senator's exploratory committee. (See George W. Bush's top 10 YouTube moments.)

To push her candidacy, the Hutchison camp has released a poll by Voter Consumer Research showing her defeating Governor Perry 55% to 31%. Perry's pollster, Michael Baselice, scoffs at the numbers, telling the Houston Chronicle, "He beats her like a drum." But the prospect of two rival Republicans facing off is making for a Texas-size game of falling dominoes involving a slew of top politicians from both parties.

Democratic wannabes, most notably Houston mayor and former Clinton Deputy Energy Secretary Bill White and former Texas comptroller John Sharp, are lining up for the potential Senate seat, leaving Perry and Hutchison to fight it out in the governor's race. "If people knew it was going to be [just] Rick Perry, you'd see folks willing to put their name forward," Democratic state representative Leticia Van de Putte told the San Antonio Express. "People understand in a general election that Kay Bailey Hutchison is such an intense brand, it's hard to get market share on that one." (See pictures of Barack Obama's Inauguration.)

Despite pressure from fellow Republican Senators to hold on to her seat while she runs for governor, Hutchison is being opaque about her plans. Already some well-known GOP names in Texas have announced they will run for Hutchison's seat whenever she moves on. They include Republican railroad commissioners Michael Williams and Elizabeth Ames Jones. Hutchison's resignation would allow Perry to name her replacement, supposedly giving that person an advantage in a special election. But special elections in Texas have an unpredictable quality. In 1961, after Lyndon B. Johnson's move from the Senate to the vice presidency, Republican John Tower emerged from among 70 contenders to win a seat he went on to hold for 24 years. Then, in 1993, when Democratic U.S. Senator Lloyd Bentsen became Secretary of the Treasury in the Clinton Administration, Governor Ann Richards named fellow Democrat Bob Krueger to the seat — a job he held for just six months before Hutchison won the seat.

"I don't think she resigns much before the election if at all," says Harvey Kronberg, editor of the Quorum Report political newsletter. "Perry has already signaled he would replace her with someone committed to sniping at her from D.C.," he said.

In another sign of strains in the Texas GOP that Bush will find upon his return home, Midland's second most famous politician, conservative Texas house speaker Tom Craddick, was recently ousted from his leadership position. A 38-year veteran of the state legislature, Craddick assumed the speakership in 2003, the first Republican since Reconstruction to do so. He went on to play a key role in the infamous Tom DeLay–orchestrated mid-decade redistricting battle, which shifted the balance of power in the congressional delegation to the Republican side. Ruling with an iron fist, he alienated a small group of fellow Republicans, which proved to be his downfall. (See the top 10 Bush Administration figures to miss.)

With Republicans holding only a two-seat margin in the statehouse, 11 of the disaffected Republicans crossed the aisle and joined the 74 house Democrats to oust Craddick from the speakership as the state legislature convened last week. The new speaker, San Antonio Republican Joe Straus, is a moderate scion of an old Republican family with ties going back to John Tower and George H.W. Bush. The Straus victory is evidence of a shift in the GOP power base as urban voters gain a larger voice. Royal Masset, a longtime Texas Republican analyst, says the GOP will continue to fare well in Texas, but he sees a new polarity in the state as the old conservative/liberal labels often used to define Texas politics give way to the emerging urban/rural dichotomy.

"Voters in cities want government services," Masset says. "They want social security and health care. They want public education, student loans, public safety, financial security, good transportation and job creation. Republicans can still stand for limited government, but we will have to show how we can deliver needed services."

In that sense, Hutchison's more moderate Republican stance may be just what Texas voters have been looking for. Since being elected to the Senate in 1993, she has always won with more than 60% of the vote. But Perry, the former lieutenant governor who moved into the governor's mansion when Bush left for Washington in 2000, has also proved popular, serving longer than any other Texas governor in history.

Perry insists that " 'no one is more socially conservative than me,' " says Kronberg, but "that message is getting a little frayed, even in Texas."

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