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Texas Deathmatch

Two GOP heavyweights in a fight to the finish.

Feb 22, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 22 • By FRED BARNES
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Austin, Texas

Texas Deathmatch

Texas governor Rick Perry and Sarah Palin are friends from her years as governor of Alaska. In April 2008, a very pregnant Palin joined Perry and other Republican governors in Dallas at a conference on energy. While addressing the group, Palin suddenly turned to Perry and asked him to take the microphone. She had gone into labor. Palin rushed to the airport and flew back to Alaska, where her son Trig was born.

Last week, Palin returned to Texas to speak at a rally for Perry outside Houston. (She noted Trig was “almost a Texan.”) Perry is facing a primary challenge from Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, and Palin took up the theme of his campaign: He’s the Texas candidate, Hutchison belongs to the alien world of Washington. “What’s it going to be,” Palin said, “the way they operate in D.C. or the way y’all get things done in Texas?”

Perry, 59, made the most of Palin’s appearance. It was hours before the Super Bowl. “Think about it,” he said. “In ten years, you may not remember whether the Colts or Saints won, but you’ll never forget the time you got to see one of America’s superstar conservative leaders and joined with thousands of your fellow conservatives standing tall for conservatism.”

Palin’s entry into the Texas campaign wasn’t quite that historic. But it did reflect the thrust of Perry’s pitch for a third full term as governor. “The answer,” he declared at the rally, “is less Washington and more Texas.” And Palin’s embrace of Perry targeted the conservative grassroots of the Republican party in Texas in a way that Hutchison can’t match.

Hutchison, 66, first elected to the Senate in 1993, is the preferred candidate of the party’s upper crust, which has soured on Perry. She’s been endorsed by George H.W. Bush, Dick Cheney, James Baker, Phil Gramm, and a host of Texans identified with the two Bush administrations. (The only prominent Bushie to back Perry is Joe Allbaugh, a campaign aide to George W. Bush in 2000 and later the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.)

The Perry-Hutchison race is a battle of Texas titans. They are the state’s biggest names, the leading political heavyweights, and (along with Senator John Cornyn) its top elected officials. 

Sharply contested primaries are often defended as invigorating for political parties. But this one is more likely to be harmful to whoever wins. Perry and Hutchison have portrayed each other in harsh terms—Perry as a patron of cronyism that borders on corruption; Hutchison as an aloof, Washington big spender—that practically write the TV ads for the Democratic candidate, probably former Houston mayor Bill White. Perry is regarded as the stronger primary candidate, Hutchison the better vote-getter in the general election because of her appeal to moderates. At the moment, Perry leads Hutchison by double digits in primary polls. Against White, both run about 5 percentage points ahead.

The trepidation of Republicans is twofold. Should White win the governorship, he might sweep Democrats into office at the state and local level, particularly in Houston and Dallas. Even if Republicans retain control of the state legislature, White as governor could force reapportionment of congressional districts into the federal courts just as Texas is gaining as many as four or five House seats thanks to population growth. That could cost Republicans seats.

At a time when the party is just recovering from heavy defeats in 2006 and 2008, the loss of Texas would be a major setback—and awfully embarrassing. For the past two decades, Texas has been one of the biggest arenas of Republican success.

But the anxiety, while not un-founded, is overblown. I suspect one reason for the angst is that the Perry-Hutchison battle has become a blood feud. Another is that it was unnecessary. Hutchison is the most successful Republican office seeker in Texas history. She has never received less than 60 percent of the vote in her four Senate races. She wanted to run for governor in 2006 and tried to force Perry to withdraw without a primary contest. 

He didn’t flinch. As lieutenant governor, he succeeded George W. Bush when he resigned in 2000 after his election as president. Perry was then elected in 2002. In 2006, he rounded up impressive support across Texas and refused to surrender to Hutchison.

A truce of sorts was reached when Perry sent word through emissaries that 2006 would be his “last” race for governor, and 2010 would be Hutchison’s turn. Karl Rove, then White House political chief, was among those who prompted her to drop plans to run in 2006.

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