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Hutchison Rejoins Leadership Fray

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s announcement that she will forgo a gubernatorial bid in Texas has already changed the GOP leadership race landscape, as her office confirmed that she will bid for a new post after the 2006 elections.

Hutchison, who announced late Friday she wouldn’t challenge Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) next year, is term-limited in her role as vice chairwoman of the Republican Conference.

Her office said Monday that Hutchison has every intention of running for one of the seats higher up the leadership ladder. Five of the six GOP posts will be open, and in most of those there is at least some degree of uncertainty as to who will hold the spot in January 2007.

But the Lone Star State Republican is not yet showing her cards in terms of which job she’ll be gunning for.

“Sen. Hutchison will be looking at a number of different positions and seeing what works best for her and the party,” said Chris Paulitz, her spokesman.

The most likely targets for Hutchison are either Conference chairwoman, considered the No. 3 position, or Policy chairwoman, the No. 4 post in leadership.

Both of those positions have already drawn the interest of GOP Senators, with Jon Kyl (Ariz.) and John Ensign (Nev.) telling Roll Call last week that they are running for Conference and Policy posts, respectively.

This places Hutchison in the position of deciding whether to take on Kyl, who is already in the leadership team as Policy Committee chairman and looking to move up, or Ensign, who is making his first bid for leadership in seeking to replace Kyl.

“I’m trying to talk to Jon Kyl,” Hutchison said Monday, predicting a decision within a week. “We’re going to have to talk a little.”

Ensign is also expected to be involved in those discussions.

Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) is the current Conference chairman but, like Hutchison, faces the conclusion of his six-year term at the end of 2006. Santorum, who must first win a tough re-election battle against state Treasurer Bob Casey Jr. (D), intends to run for Majority Whip.

Huchison’s staff declined to speculate on the specifics of her plan.

“Anything beyond that will be announced at a later date,” Paulitz said.

Hutchison’s decision to take a pass on the governor’s race shocked the political community, as she had been assembling the kind of first-tier team necessary only if she was plotting a primary challenge to Perry.

Sources in both Hutchison’s and Perry’s camps insisted that the White House played no role in keeping her out of the race.

Given the number of Bush allies on the Hutchison campaign team (Bracewell and Giuliani managing partner Pat Oxford being perhaps the most prominent), her advisers said the White House could have sent a message to her if they were so inclined, but did not.

Those familiar with Hutchison’s thinking portrayed the no-go as being born not of outside forces pressuring her but rather a personal decision based on the need to campaign full time for the next year to win the office.

“She liked being a Senator more than she wanted to run for governor,” said one Hutchison source. “If a campaign wouldn’t have required her to abandon many of her duties in the Senate for a year, it would have been different.”

Now Hutchison will focus solely on her future within the chamber. And any long-term national ambitions she may hold could be determined by her ability to continue to hold a seat at the GOP leadership table.

Given Santorum’s electoral instability in the Keystone State, the only position where the outcome seems certain post-2006 is that of Republican leader, which will almost surely be occupied by current Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (Ky.). McConnell’s camp already claims more than 40 votes secured for his elevation to Majority Leader.

Hutchison has planned a press conference in Texas on Monday to serve as a kickoff to her re-election bid, and it is expected that she will coast to a third term against attorney Barbara Radnofsky (D). In 2000, Hutchison won 65 percent of the vote.

Some consider Hutchison a strong communicator, making a bid for Conference the most likely target as that job’s primary responsibility is to lead message events and press conferences. Kyl has never been viewed as being particularly strong on message.

But some strategists pointed to Policy as a more likely possibility, which would fall in the hierarchical line of thinking in Republican circles, with the party traditionally elevating leaders according to seniority.

Whatever post she goes for, Hutchison’s re-entry into the leadership competition is sure to mean heightened efforts on the fundraising circuit from her, Kyl, Ensign and others gunning for spots at the table.

In the 2004 cycle, Kyl’s Senate Majority Fund funneled $298,000 to other federal candidates and party committees. He is facing re-election himself in 2006 and could be in for an expensive race if wealthy developer Jim Pederson, the Arizona Democratic Party chairman, enters the campaign.

Ensign’s Battle Born PAC donated $171,500 to candidates and committees last cycle and has already dumped $25,000 into federal races in the first five months of 2005.

Hutchison’s K-PAC donated $190,000 to House and Senate candidates and party committees last cycle. In the early months of 2005, her leadership political action committee has given the maximum $10,000 to Santorum and Sen. George Allen (R-Va.).

In what could have been a signal that she was trying to shore up her home-state political bona fides with conservatives, Hutchison cut a $5,000 check from K-PAC last November to the legal defense fund of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who is fighting allegations of ethical wrongdoing. DeLay has been considered a Perry ally.

Although the Hutchison camp refused to acknowledge it, the Senator’s decision was also clearly affected by the aggressive campaign being run by Perry.

He had already lined up endorsements from every statewide Republican official save one — state Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, who announced over the weekend that she would challenge Perry.

Hutchison insiders, however, pointed out that polling conducted within the past week showed the Senator with a lead of more than 20 points over Perry.

“The poll numbers were through the roof,” said a Hutchison loyalist.

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