Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison is running an unorthodox primary challenge to Gov. Rick Perry, refusing to speculate publicly about her intentions even as she privately prepares for the possibility of a bruising intraparty battle.
Aides to Hutchison argue that she has truly not decided whether she will run for re-election in 2006 — a race in which she would likely cruise to victory — or challenge Perry in a contest that would set off a civil war within the party.
“She is definitely on the ballot in 2006 and we are acting accordingly,” explained Terry Sullivan, who is overseeing Hutchison’s campaign.
He added that Hutchison has not sent out a single campaign press release this year and will not make a decision on which race to run until the Texas legislative session concludes June 21.
“She does not want to be a distraction to the Legislature,” Sullivan said.
Hutchison’s closed-mouth strategy essentially puts Perry on the spot. In the face of a possible challenge from Hutchison, Perry has been seeking scads of endorsements from state and local elected officials during the session. But the risk, argue Hutchison supporters, is that the governor may seem to be abusing his power.
Ted Delisi, a consultant to Perry’s campaign, dismissed Hutchison’s strategy, saying it’s not altruism but rather a tactic born of necessity.
Hutchison is “setting up fake instances where they can’t win the battle so they don’t play,” Delisi said. “Don’t be fooled. Just because the duck is sitting on top of the water doesn’t mean it isn’t paddling underneath.”
Without question, the Texas Senator has done a large amount of behind-the-scenes legwork to make herself a viable candidate against Perry.
She has raised money at a fever pitch, bringing in $759,000 in the first three months of the year. Hutchison flexed her fundraising muscle at the end of March by holding a series of four fundraisers in the state that brought in $750,000.
She closed March with $7.2 million in the bank, the second largest war chest among the 33 Senators up for re-election in 2006.
Under a provision added to the omnibus spending bill passed by Congress in November 2004, Hutchison would be able to transfer her entire federal account to a state account if she runs for governor.
Although Perry is barred from raising money during the legislative session, he showed approximately $8 million on hand at the beginning of the year. State Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn (R), who is also mulling a gubernatorial race, had $5.7 million in the bank at that time.
Beyond stockpiling the necessary funds in what would likely be a primary race costing $20 million or more, Hutchison is also putting together a campaign team of sufficient size and expertise, which would be unnecessary if she were merely seeking re-election to the Senate.
Sullivan is a transplant from South Carolina, where he managed the successful effort of now-Sen. Jim DeMint (R).
Hutchison has also brought on Scott Howell as her media consultant. Howell, who worked with Sullivan in South Carolina last cycle and is based in Dallas, is seen as the rising star in Republican media consulting ranks.
In Washington, Hutchison’s political operation is overseen by David Beckwith, who has considerable experience in Texas politics — most recently on the 2002 campaign of Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (R).
Chris Paulitz, a former staffer at the National Republican Congressional Committee, was hired in February to serve as Hutchison’s communications director and supplement Beckwith’s efforts.
As Hutchison has bolstered her staff, the back and forth between her and Perry has grown increasingly bitter.
The most high-profile incident came late last month when Perry’s camp released a videotape showing Hutchison hugging New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D), who praised her Texas colleague as a “partner on so many fronts.”
Less than a week later, a letter written by Perry from the early 1990s lauding Clinton’s health care plan was circulated. In the letter, Perry, who was then state agriculture commissioner, called Clinton’s attempt to reform the health care system “commendable.”
Sullivan said the stepped-up rhetoric between the camps is entirely one-sided, as Hutchison feels compelled to respond to attacks by Perry.
“The back and forth has been when they have gotten caught lying or doing something stupid,” said Sullivan. “We don’t go out seeking media as it relates to what she will be running for.”
Sullivan added that the increased tit for tat should not be read as a sign that Hutchison is leaning toward a race for governor.
“Regardless of what she is running for, she is the senior Senator, and when the governor lobs grenades at you, you feel compelled to respond back,” he said.
Delisi argued that Hutchison’s unwillingness to publicly announce her intentions for 2006 is complicating her plans to challenge Perry.
“Kay is asking people to jump into an empty pool,” Delisi said. “She wants people to commit to her for a race that is yet undetermined.”
Hutchison allies downplay the importance of political endorsements, pointing out that Perry’s outright politicking paints a stark contrast with the statesmanly image that the Senator is portraying.
Perry’s camp is less philosophical and more practical about their tactics thus far.
“The establishment and infrastructure of the GOP is enormously important in winning an election,” Delisi said. “In that regard, the momentum is with Gov. Perry.”