HOUSTON – An indisputable Washington insider, Kay Bailey Hutchison has been so close to the federal government's levers of power in her three Senate terms that former Vice President Dick Cheney has endorsed her over another Republican.
The ultimate incumbent, Rick Perry is Texas' longest-serving governor heading into his 10th year at the helm of a no-term-limit state — and the Republican wants four more years.
A Texas-sized brawl is under way between Hutchison and Perry in a GOP primary race that's pitting the public's anger at Washington against its anti-incumbent fervor.
"I'm going to do everything I can to stop the government takeover of health care, and it's why I'm staying in the Senate through the primary at risk to my political future," Hutchison says in a TV ad seeking to counter criticism that she went back on her word that she would resign this fall.
A Perry commercial paints him as an anti-Washington crusader, saying: "Deficits. Bailouts. Pork Barrel Spending. A $12 Trillion debt. Washington is broken. In Texas, Gov. Rick Perry proves conservative leadership works. While Washington gives us politics, Texas delivers results."
The March primary is shaping up to be a test of sorts for the 2010 midterm elections nationwide, when Senate, House and gubernatorial candidates of all political stripes will face an electorate that's sour on both current lawmakers and the federal government.
Will Republican primary voters in Texas stick with the governor, Perry, in an anti-incumbent year? Or will they choose the senator, Hutchison, at a time when the public is blaming Washington for excessive spending, partisan gridlock and expanded government?
The answer could serve as an important lesson for Republicans and Democrats alike as they try to figure out how to win over disgruntled voters.
Nationwide, they are negative about the state of the country and pessimistic about the direction it's heading; just 41 percent surveyed in a recent Associated Press-GfK poll say the nation is going the right way while 51 percent say the wrong way. With little regard for political party, they blame those in office. Roughly one-third approve of the Democratic-controlled Congress, and just over half approve of President Barack Obama's job performance. Republican and Democratic governors also are facing low marks.
Governor's races in New Jersey and Virginia this fall highlighted themes that — unless the political environment changes dramatically — are certain play out everywhere in 2010. Voters booted Democrats from power in both states as independents angry about the state of the nation swung behind Republicans.
Now, the focus turns to Republicans and Democrats battling for party nominations nationwide.
The Texas race is one of only a handful where a governor faces a serious primary challenge. It's not much of an ideological battle; both candidates are conservative and trying to prove each is more so than the other. Both also seem to be trying to prove each is more Texan than the other; neither passes up the opportunity to extoll the state's virtues.
Perry, 59, was lieutenant governor when he took Texas' reins in 2000 as George W. Bush became president. He then won two full terms, and is seeking a third. Hutchison, 66, was elected to the Senate in 1993, serving on Capitol Hill longer than Perry has ruled the statehouse. She had said she would resign the Senate to focus full-time on the primary but recently reversed herself; she had a double-digit lead in early polling but recent surveys show that advantage has disappeared. Her decision to challenge Perry has drawn criticism from some fellow Republicans, who worry that she's unnecessarily endangering the GOP's hold on the state.
Democrats haven't controlled the governor's office since 1995 but a contentious GOP primary could give them an opening.
"There's no question that anytime you have an expensive, divisive primary it raises the degree of difficulty," said Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, chairman of the Republican Governors Association. He expressed confidence a Republican would win nonetheless.
Although the RGA doesn't endorse in primaries, Barbour made known his displeasure with Hutchison's candidacy when he personally endorsed Perry. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the GOP's 2008 vice presidential nominee, is backing Perry as well.
While the race is heavily focused on local issues and personalities, Washington and incumbency are playing outsized roles. The two themes were on full display one recent week.
Because of Senate votes on Capitol Hill, Hutchison delayed a campaign appearance in Houston for two hours. She flew to Houston from Washington to stand before TV cameras with Cheney — the epitome of Washington himself — as he gave her candidacy a thumbs up.
"I've known Kay for many, many years," Cheney said, calling her a "real deal" conservative. He noted that the two had worked together before and noted that she had been part of the Senate Republican leadership.
Hutchison, in turn, said: "I have worked with him to try to change the way Washington works ... to try to bring Texas values to Washington." She ticked off problems with the state and argued that it was time for change in Austin, saying: "We need new leadership."
Back in the state capital, Perry was busily cheerleading for Texas while hob-knobbing with the cozy club of Republican governors that he's been a part of for nearly a decade.
"Endorsements are interesting things and we've got a whole pile of them," Perry told reporters, dismissing Cheney's nod on a conference call intended to preview the RGA's gathering.
He spent the rest of the week trumpeting Texas under his leadership and railing against Washington, frequently emphasizing the 10th Amendment and accusing the federal government of trying to create "one-size-fits-all policies for all of the states."