As temperatures dip into the low 80s, providing a brief respite from the searing September heat, a crowd of people enter the side entrance of the Jewish Community Center in North Dallas. Perhaps the pleasant afternoon weather is bashert, Yiddish for "meant to be," as the local Republican Jewish Coalition, which is hosting a Kay Bailey Hutchison meet-and-greet, hopes for a large turnout.
Democrats might view the notion of a Republican Jewish coalition as oxymoronic, considering the Jewish community is not widely perceived as part of the traditional base of Christian-right conservatives, small-government libertarians and country-club establishment types who make up the true believers of the Republican Party. But tell that to the other 43 Republican Jewish Coalition chapters across the country or the middle-aged man entering the meeting wearing a black yarmulke with the GOP elephant sewn on the back. Or to Senator Hutchison, who's relying in her primary battle to unseat incumbent Republican Governor Rick Perry on a big-tent campaign—one that seeks to expand the base of the party by appealing to like-minded minorities and independents.
Many in the crowd don't need to be reminded of Perry's comments three years ago after he attended Sunday services at a mega-church in San Antonio and voiced agreement with its minister who declared in a sermon that all non-Christians would be condemned to hell. "In my faith, that's what it says, and I'm a believer of that," he told The Dallas Morning News in November 2006.
Kay Bailey Hutchison
Hutchison is dressed in a pastel pink suit with an austere, high-buttoned collar that makes her seem more rigid than usual. She takes the microphone and quickly aligns herself with her audience, speaking about the historic relationship between Israel and the United States as "the strongest bond between two countries in the world." Then comes the Obama-bashing: She casts the president's September 9 health-care speech before Congress as "much ado about nothing" and his health-care reforms as a government takeover that will "tear down our system."
The senator then turns her attention to Perry: Texas, she says, has the country's highest property taxes, an educational system with the worst drop-out rate in the country and cronyism in its state agencies, which she attributes to Perry being in office too long (he is seeking an unprecedented third four-year term) and the appointment of his friends and donors to positions of power. Sure, the state is in "pretty good shape" to weather out the recession, but that's because Texas is a right-to-work state and has no state income tax—neither of which Perry can take credit for.
"I do think Texas is better off treading water than every other state, but I don't think treading water is good enough," she says.
Never much of a spellbinder, Hutchison fails to stir the audience or, for that matter, articulate a compelling message as to why, by waging a primary battle against a sitting governor, she is forcing Republicans to choose sides and risking the implosion of the party from within. She does, however, manage to wake up the crowd near the end of her speech with a big-tent plea that garners the loudest applause of the day.
"We need to rebuild the Republican Party, and we need to do it by welcoming people in," she says. "If you're for limited government, if you're for low taxes and if you're for a good business climate in our state, we want you to be a Republican."
In the audience sits Dallas County Republican Party chair Jonathan Neerman, who's Jewish and an avowed big tenter. He would later say that his presence at the event was not an endorsement of Hutchison's candidacy but rather her campaign strategy. As county chair, he has reached out to Hispanics, blacks, gays—even moderates. "If we believe we are right in our principles, then we should be proud to go into any neighborhood in the country and talk about them."
Neerman remains unconcerned with alienating social conservatives who say "yes" to God, guns and the pro-life agenda and "no" to gay marriage, evolution and stem cell research. But Hutchison doesn't have that luxury. Hers is a delicate balance between broadening the appeal of her candidacy while energizing the traditional base of the party, which might easily see her outreach efforts as treason. And if she paints herself too far to the right in the primary, she may have trouble moving to the center in the general election—though that might not be a consideration if the Democratic field remains as it is now, bereft of a formidable contender.
No one is quicker to holler treason than Governor Rick Perry, who though only reelected in 2006 by an embarrassing 39 percent of the vote, has managed to reinvent himself on the national stage, perhaps even as someone with presidential aspirations. His anti-federal stimulus, anti-Washington, pro-secessionist rhetoric has tapped into the sentiments of extreme right Tea Party activists who see Obama as the anti-Christ and his proposed health-care reforms as Hitlerian. It also serves another purpose: By attacking Washington, he attacks Hutchison who has spent the last 16 years as a Washington insider.
As a result, Hutchison has been forced into an "I'm more conservative than you are," message war, which she is ideologically ill-equipped to win as a right-of-center Republican who has compromised on social issues such as abortion.
And yet to win the Texas Republican primary, she must out-conservative Perry, who is in perennial campaign mode and always on the attack. He has been quick to cast her as an inept, inside-the-Beltway politico who is out of step with everyday Texans and a compulsive flip-flopper who can't make up her mind whether she even wants to run for governor.
Hutchison, although at one time considered unbeatable with through-the-roof approval ratings, the highest of any officeholder in Texas, came out of the blocks clumsily when she officially announced her candidacy in mid-August. She scored a direct hit in the conservative endorsement wars by signing on former Vice President Dick Cheney, but her recent decision to remain in the Senate until after the March 2 primary could cause voters to question her commitment to her campaign and result in some hard feelings among ambitious Republican leaders who had placed their own political careers on hold until she made her intentions clear.
"The fact that she's holding onto the seat is screwing up the plans of a lot of other prominent Republicans, and they can't be happy about it," says Southern Methodist University political scientist Cal Jillson. "Even if they understand it, they're not pleased because they thought they were going to make their next move."
Both candidates are running guarded campaigns at this point—their public appearances are heavily scripted, their exposure to media questions limited, their attacks and counterattacks done through representatives (Jennifer Baker for Hutchison, Mark Miner for Perry) or unmanned press release drones. Both candidates have refused multiple interview requests for this story through their representatives.
At stake is more than just the governor's mansion. It's a pitched battle for the soul of the Republican Party not only statewide, but nationally as the GOP tries to figure out how to keep itself relevant in the age of Obama. Must it go to the hard right and maintain ideological purity by purging itself of moderates, as Perry suggests; must it cast its lot with newly elected Republican Party of Texas chair Cathie Adams, the former president of the socially conservative Texas Eagle Forum and a Perry supporter who feels there's a high moral cost to tempering ideology with moderation?
Or is there room underneath the tent for pro-choice Republicans, Log Cabin Republicans and "environmental wackos" as Adams describes them, who believe in limited government, lower taxes and a strong national defense?
"I'm not going to change my philosophy. I just want all the people who agree with us to be with us," Hutchison tells those assembled at the Jewish Community Center.
The battle lines of the civil war are drawn: Hutchison vs. Perry, Longhorn vs. Aggie, party diversity vs. party purity, right of center vs. extreme right, a race that could energize the party or one that may tear it apart.
After nine years as governor, his face is etched with a few more wrinkles, but he hasn't lost his thick head of dark brown hair—a Perry trademark—neatly trimmed and delicately styled with just the right touch of distinguished gray.
"The guy is attractive as all get-out," says veteran Austin-based GOP analyst and former Republican Party of Texas political director Royal Masset. "He's got the Marlboro image."
On November 4, Perry took the stage at the Texas Economic Development Summit, an initiative of the Office of the Governor's Economic Development and Tourism Division, held at Union Station in downtown Dallas. Perry, 59, is touted as the featured speaker, but his succinct speech hits the same grand, canned theme he uses on the stump: the Texas miracle. "I'm willing to tell anyone that will listen that the land of opportunity still exists in America, and it's in Texas," he says, triggering applause from the nearly 200 attendees. By embracing principles that cut spending, limit government and strengthen schools, Texas is attracting employers who have been chased out of other states. "When they get here, they find that our doors are open."
Perry mentions that he is often asked by companies to back up his claim that Texas is the best place to do business in the country, and he cites various magazine articles that name Texas cities such as Houston, Dallas and San Antonio as the first to emerge from the recession. "Bottom line," Perry says. "The word's out on Texas. The word is good."
His view of economic theory is decidedly trickle-down and Reaganesque. By shrinking the size of government, by having fewer regulations, more businesses will be attracted to the state, which will in turn stimulate economic growth. Hardly the philosophy you'd expect from a former liberal, but Perry's come a long way from his days as a Democrat in the Texas House and serving as statewide chair of Al Gore's failed 1988 presidential bid.
But times were changing and Republicans were ascending. The proud Texas A&M grad and former cotton farmer switched parties in 1989 to challenge Democratic Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower, and Perry's arrow has bent to the right ever since. A narrow win over Hightower in 1990 and a successful reelection campaign in 1994 convinced him to make a run at becoming the first Republican lieutenant governor elected in the history of the state. He won a close race in 1998 against Democrat John Sharp (now a candidate for Hutchison's seat) in what proved to be a fast track to the governor's mansion when George W. Bush left the office in 2000 to become president.
Despite supporting the 2008 presidential campaign of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, whose liberal views on abortion and gay rights are well-known, Perry regularly sounds a pro-life, anti-gay rights refrain and is depending on his conservative résumé to energize his base of extreme right-wing supporters. He also favors the death penalty, so much so that he vetoed a bill in June 2001 that would have exempted mentally retarded inmates from execution. Texas might still be executing the mentally retarded if the U.S. Supreme Court hadn't banned the practice a year later, ruling it cruel and unusual punishment.
Perry wrapped up the 2001 legislative session by vetoing 82 bills—the most any governor has nixed in any one session since Reconstruction. Masset says "the real burn" was that Perry didn't give legislators advance warning of his intentions, which didn't allow lawmakers time to amend their bills to ensure passage. "It's part of a theme with Perry that he doesn't communicate effectively or maybe he sees his position as governor as one where he doesn't have to communicate—he can just order by mandate."
In early 2002, Perry announced plans for the Trans-Texas Corridor, a $175 billion, 50-year plan that included 4,000 miles of new toll roads, rail lines and pipelines to be funded by public-private partnerships. The massively ambitious project—not exactly a shrine to limited government—soon became a drain on Perry's political capital as rural conservative voters grew outraged by the plan's liberal use of eminent domain.
It even upset conservatives in wealthy areas such as Dallas' Preston Hollow neighborhood, where Hutchison resides and George and Laura Bush now call home. Former Dallas City Council member Donna Blumer, who once represented Preston Hollow and served as president of the Dallas Eagle Forum, recalls the anger of her former constituents toward the corridor, "That has made people mad," and toward Perry, "That is one of his warts."
And yet in 2002, Perry coasted through his first reelection campaign as governor, attracting nearly 58 percent of the vote, despite a $60 million campaign mounted by Democratic nominee and businessman Tony Sanchez. The mandate emboldened Perry's conservative agenda, and in 2003, he signed into law one of the most sweeping pro-business tort reform bills in the country. The legislation included a cap on medical malpractice awards that has dramatically curtailed personal injury litigation against doctors and hospitals in Texas. That same session, he made deep cuts to the state Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which had been approved by the Legislature four years earlier when he served as lieutenant governor.
Perry's popularity reached new lows when the state faced a critical school-funding shortfall during the 2005 legislative session. Despite the majority of school districts assessing the maximum amount of property taxes they could under the law, it simply wasn't enough to adequately fund the school system. Because Perry refused to increase taxes to make up the difference, he vetoed all public-school funding for 2007 and 2008. To resolve the issue, he called two special sessions of the Legislature, both of which proved unsuccessful. It was only after he enlisted the help of Democrat John Sharp to head an education task force that the issue was resolved during a third special session in April 2006.
In the 2006 gubernatorial election, outgoing Republican state Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn seized on Perry's ineffectiveness during the school-funding debate and ran as an independent against him, receiving 18 percent of the vote. Although Perry handily defeated Democrat Chris Bell, Perry only received 39 percent of the vote with the rest split among the three independent candidates, among them Kinky Friedman, who is again running in 2010, this time as a Democrat.
If his hollow victory wasn't enough of a humiliation, Perry's approval numbers continued their downward slide, particularly after making national headlines in February 2007 when he signed an executive order requiring girls entering the sixth grade to be vaccinated for HPV, the most common sexually transmitted disease. Some conservatives began to question his commitment to the cause: Here was big government as big brother, mandating personal decisions better left to parent, child and doctor. And the whole matter had the stench of cronyism after the media revealed that Mike Toomey, Perry's former chief of staff, worked as a lobbyist for Merck & Co., the drug manufacturer that sold Gardasil, the brand name of the vaccine. Merck's political action committee had also donated $6,000 to Perry's reelection campaign.
Even Cathie Adams, then-president of the Texas Eagle Forum, spoke out against Perry."The first state to mandate this vaccine will be placing children as the objects of experimentation," she told The Dallas Morning News in February 2007. The Legislature eventually approved a bill rescinding Perry's order, with just a handful of lawmakers voting against it.
Perry badly needed to turn things around and reestablish his conservative bona fides. He saw that opportunity by embracing the Tea Party movement, a seemingly grassroots libertarian group that took to the streets, '60s-style, to protest President Obama's federal stimulus package but had the organizational and financial backing of former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey and the FreedomWorks nonprofit group he leads.
Perry's involvement in the Tea Party movement was no ideological leap: He's consistently criticized Obama's stimulus package and curried immediate favor with Tea Party activists when he rejected $550 million in stimulus money for unemployment insurance, claiming that to accept it would mean higher business taxes. But Perry has been a bit disingenuous in his posturing. While branding Hutchison as "Kay Bailout" because she voted for President Bush's Wall Street bailout, Perry accepted $14 billion in stimulus money that was used to balance the budget during this year's legislative session.
Despite the racial composition of Tea Party members, who are mostly white, and their unseemly tactics of demonizing Obama as Hitler, the Joker or Mao, Perry became one of the first high-profile officeholders to offer them legitimacy.
On April 15, 2009, at a Tax Day Tea Party outside Austin City Hall, Perry became the public face of the movement when he told reporters that Texas had the legal authority to secede from the United States because it was a country when it entered the union in 1845. "We've got a great union. There's absolutely no reason to dissolve it," he said. "But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, who knows what might come of that?"
Millions of online Drudge Report readers awoke the next morning to see the headline: "Rick Perry's star is rising." Interviews with Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity followed. And rather than distance themselves from the Tea Party movement and its incendiary rhetoric, others within the Republican establishment have followed Perry's lead.
"All good candidates repeat what the mob says," says Masset, who believes that Perry, by thrusting himself into the national limelight, has an ulterior motive: a potential presidential run in 2012. "I have just no doubt about it," he says. "I'm just cynical enough to believe that a lot of people, despite what they say, they all kind of want to go to higher office."
But to run for president, he must do so from a position of strength, which makes it even more important that he win the governorship again, and win convincingly. Standing in his way, of course, is Kay Bailey Hutchison.
Hutchison has not been a monument to certainty when it comes to making her next political move. As a freshman U.S. Senator, she was interviewed about term limits. "I've always said that I would serve no more than two full terms," she told the Austin American-Statesman in 1994. "This may be my last term or I could run for one more, but no more after that. I firmly believe in term limitations, and I plan to adhere to that."
Hutchison changed her mind and her plans in 2006 when she ran for her third consecutive six-year term. But that was after she went back and forth on whether to take on Perry for governor, twice—once before Bush's election as president in 2000 when she was stared down by the advantage of Perry's incumbency, and then again in the run-up to the 2006 primary when in June 2005, according to The Dallas Morning News, she told a group of supporters that she "would love to be governor" and felt she could beat Perry, but had decided against running because she "wanted to do what was right for Texas."
(Hutchison currently backs a Senate bill that would limit U.S. Senators to two six-year terms.)
Rumors again began to circulate in 2008 that she was interested in running for governor because she had tired of Washington and wanted to return home to raise her two children. She did little to dampen speculation that August when she spoke before the members of the Texas Association of Broadcasters: "The longer I am in Washington, the more I understand why senators and prisoners say they're serving a term."
Hutchison and Perry have been taunting each other ever since: She, by forming an exploratory committee for a gubernatorial bid in December 2008, jump-starting it with $1 million from her Senate campaign, and saying: "There's too much bitterness, too much anger, too little trust, too little consensus and too much infighting. And the tone comes from the top." He, by telling the Associated Press in mid-January that he had doubts she would actually run against him for governor. "There's plenty of time for the senator to think that it's not in her best interest, Texas' best interest or the country's best interest to leave the United States Senate."
With Hutchison seemingly putting the "will she, won't she" speculation to rest, Texas leaders up and down the political spectrum began to jockey for position to take her place and the place of those who were jockeying. State Senator Florence Shapiro, Railroad Commissioners Elizabeth Ames Jones and Michael Williams and former Secretary of State Roger Williams began campaigning for her seat on the Republican side, while Houston Mayor Bill White and John Sharp announced their same intentions as Democrats. Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst and Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert, both Republicans, have also said they would consider running for an open seat in a special election—a rare political opportunity because of its short campaign cycle and absence of primary contests.
A head-to-head special election between all candidates, Democrat and Republican alike, could mirror the same free-for-all that landed Hutchison in the Senate when Lloyd Bentsen resigned his seat in 1993 to become Secretary of the Treasury in the Clinton administration.Hutchison and Bill Krueger, who had been appointed as Bentsen's replacement by then-Governor Ann Richards, emerged from a pack of 24 candidates to face each other in a runoff.
Her victory was historic: She became the state's first woman elected to the U.S. Senate. She seemed groomed for higher office, serving as a state rep from Houston from 1972 to 1976, where she met her second husband, Ray Hutchison, a savvy Dallas state rep who's currently a public finance lawyer at Vinson & Elkins. Kay spent the two years following her state legislative stint as vice-chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, while Ray lost the state's first notable GOP primary battle in 1978 to Bill Clements, who became the first Republican governor in Texas since Reconstruction.
In 1982 she too suffered a political setback, losing a bitter primary fight in Dallas for the U.S. House to future Dallas Mayor Steve Bartlett. Taking a break from politics, she became a bank executive and ran a candy company, giving her the small-business credentials politicians love to tout on their résumés. When Ann Richards resigned as state treasurer in 1990 to run for governor, Hutchison resurfaced to run for the open seat with Karl Rove as her campaign manager.
Although Rove led her to victory, then-Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle derailed her momentum when he raided her office shortly after her 1993 Senate runoff. Earle had received a tip from a Treasury employee claiming Hutchison ordered him to delete computer records that proved she was using Treasury employees for political purposes. Earle had been conducting an investigation of possible abuses by Hutchison for more than a year, but the tipster had evidence to corroborate his story: He had kept backup copies of the deleted computer files stored in a pizza box in his garage. A grand jury subsequently indicted Hutchison on felony charges of official misconduct and tampering with governmental records.
At trial, Judge John Onion refused to rule on the admissibility of the "pizza-box tapes" until after the testimony began, which oddly resulted in Earle refusing to present his case until he knew the tapes would be admitted. Onion swore in a jury anyway and then, faced with the state's refusal to proceed, ordered the jury to find Hutchison not guilty.
Despite the acquittal, Earle gave the Dallas Observer ("The Case Against Kay," June 23, 1994) access to his case file, which included sworn grand-jury testimony from 26 Treasury employees. The resulting article detailed Hutchison's alleged misconduct at the Treasury and referred to testimony that painted her as a demanding, paranoid boss who berated her staff and used them to handle her personal affairs. While the story provided a damning insiders' perspective on Hutchison, she was able to escape the trial and the bad publicity with her reputation virtually unscathed.
In November 1994, she was reelected by a landslide, receiving more than 60 percent of the vote against her Democratic opponent Richard Fisher and taking her seat among a new Republican majority in the U.S. Senate.
The American Conservative Union, a lobbying organization that provides annual rankings indicating how aligned politicians are with its conservative ideals, gives Hutchison a lifetime 90 percent rating. Yet Hutchison has been difficult to categorize on litmus-test issues near and dear to the religious right. While she bristles at labeling herself pro-choice, she has supported a woman's right to choose, but with limits such as parental notification and a ban on partial-birth abortions. Unlike Perry, the 66-year-old University of Texas alum also supports embryonic stem cell research.
Yet true to her constituency, she is a staunch gun rights advocate and voted in favor of the "don't ask, don't tell" legislation that prohibits individuals who are open about their homosexuality from serving in the military. In 1996, she also voted for passage of the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife.
Donna Blumer says she doesn't trust Hutchison because she's an establishment candidate and not a true conservative. "Perry has his warts, but he's a conservative. And Kay is kind of like a chameleon."
As with other establishment Republicans, her voting record is decidedly anti-Obama. She voted against the confirmation of U.S. Supreme Court Justice nominee Sonia Sotomayor and has held fast with her party's majority in opposing Obama's proposals for health-care reform. After she officially entered the race, she said her commitment to defeating "Obamacare" was her reason for delaying her Senate resignation until October or November.
But October passed and November came, and the issue of her resignation continued to be a drag on her campaign. Resign and she risked losing everything: her Senate seat, the governorship, the right to appoint her own successor. Stay in office and she risked running a shoddy, part-time campaign. Perry was already exploiting the issue, saying she needed to stay in Washington and represent the good citizens of Texas—not go "AWOL" and miss important votes for the sake of some political campaign. But delaying only made her look indecisive again, and it frustrated many politicians ready to make their political move if and when she did.
Her paralysis even made ideologue Cathie Adams sound pragmatic. On October 24, the new Republican State Party chair told reporters, "If she's going to run for governor, I think that it would be best for our party if by the January 4 filing deadline that we know clearly who is running for what."
Finally, on November 13, Hutchison put an end to several months of speculation: She announced she would resign from the Senate, but only after the March primary. Her obligation to defeat health-care reform, she said, as well as the cap-and-trade legislation endorsed by the White House to control environmental pollutants, had made her resignation at this time untenable. She would do the statesman-like thing and stay.
"I know that keeping my Senate responsibilities while running for governor may not be the best thing for my campaign," Hutchison said in a press statement. "Some have told me that for the sake of political expedience I should quit the Senate now to focus on winning the primary. To them I say perhaps it's time we elect a governor who puts a little less priority on what is politically expedient."
Her decision played right into the hands of Perry, who had been saying she should remain in Washington. Now she appeared to be conceding the point.
"We appreciate that Senator Hutchison has taken the governor's advice and finally decided to make a decision to stay in Washington," Perry spokesman Mike Miner said in a press release after her announcement. "Hopefully, this will allow her to be a full-time senator for the people of Texas."
SMU's Jillson thinks her decision to delay her resignation is a strategic mistake. "If there is a concern among voters about Hutchison, it's not so much substantive as much as if she has the fire in the belly," he says. "She needs to convince people that this is her race to make, and she intends to take the governorship from Rick Perry against his will."
Perhaps that was her intention the day after her announcement, when she restated unequivocally that she would resign in March, and reiterated her personal commitment to the race by upping the stakes for herself. She told the Texas Federation of Republican Women in Galveston that regardless of who wins the gubernatorial primary, she would be stepping down in 2010 before her term expired—meaning, if she beats him, she is out of the Senate, but if he beats her, she is out of politics.
Of course, she's been known to change her mind.
If Perry's early antics are any indication, voters should brace themselves for a bloody brawl when the campaigns kick into high gear after the January filing deadline. The Perry campaign has characterized the race as Washington vs. Texas, punctuating its dubbing of her as "Kay Bailout" by delivering a cake to her headquarters on the anniversary of her vote supporting the federal government's bailout of financial institutions.
The pomp and circumstance that should have greeted the formal announcement of her candidacy on August 17 was instead met by an airplane flying a banner that read: "Kay Come Clean—Release Your Taxes." But even Hutchison's own handlers scripted the event poorly. It was staged at the high school where she graduated in 1961 in her hometown of La Marque in Galveston County. It started late, was wheelchair inaccessible so the mayor of Texas City couldn't join her on the podium and was so thinly attended that to make the event worthy of a photo op, her staff had to ask the audience to leave its bleacher seats in the gym and crowd together onto the floor. At other campaign stops, Perry's campaign wheeled out a rolling billboard criticizing her record in Congress, and campaign workers were spotted wearing pig noses and accused the senator of voting for pork.
"It's cute, but it's mostly about psychological warfare on the opposition, and it's definitely juvenile," says Harvey Kronberg, publisher of the Quorum Report, an online political newsletter based in Austin.
It's not as though the Perry campaign has itself been devoid of political blunder:
In late September, Perry came under fire after The Dallas Morning News exposed an "Amway-style program" called Perry Home Headquarters, which offers cash to volunteers who sign up other volunteers to Perry's campaign.
The following day, Perry abruptly dismissed three members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission, which two days later was scheduled to hear testimony from Craig Beyler, a nationally recognized fire expert hired by the panel to review the Cameron Todd Willingham case. Perry dismissed a fourth member on October 9, which completed his housecleaning of the commission.
In 2004, Willingham was executed for the arson-murder of his three young daughters who died in a house fire as he watched in the front yard. Beyler had released a report in August casting doubts about whether arson was involved in the killings, claiming investigators had a "poor understanding of fire science" and had misread burn patterns.
Although other evidence suggests Willingham was guilty, Perry's decision to dismiss commission members prompted scathing editorials across the state. The governor's explanation—that their terms had expired—and his refusal to release the clemency report he received before denying Willingham's stay of execution led to speculation that Willingham could become the first person executed since capital punishment had resumed in 1974 to be proven innocent. Not the best résumé item for someone with presidential ambitions.
"Governor Perry is acting almost Nixonian in his failure to release all the documentation that his eyes saw in making this determination," Democratic gubernatorial candidate Hank Gilbert says. "It could really lead someone to believe that there's something contained in that material that's so blatantly obvious that would have cleared this guy or at least stayed his execution."
The Hutchison campaign seemed to steer clear of the issue.
Perry took another hit on October 21 when the chairman of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission sought $1,000 to $5,000 donations for a Perry fund-raiser. José Cuevas, a Midland restaurateur and Perry appointee to the TABC, solicited contributions from hundreds of restaurants that serve alcohol. The governor's campaign claimed Cuevas was acting as a restaurateur, not in his capacity as TABC chair. But Perry hasn't explained why Cuevas' actions aren't improper, given his campaign manager in 1990 called similar behavior "reprehensible" when a grain and seed regulator solicited campaign contributions from those he regulated during Perry's run for agriculture commissioner.
Perry finally received some good news three days later when the State Republican Executive Committee elected hardcore conservative Cathie Adams as the new chair of the Republican Party of Texas to finish out the term of Tina Benkiser, who stepped down to join Perry's reelection campaign.
"It's pretty clear the organizational Republican Party in the state has been pretty much totally captured by the extreme right, with Cathie Adams being the most recent example by winning the vote in their executive committee," University of Houston political scientist Richard Murray says.
Dallas County Republican Party chair Neerman, who subscribes to the big-tent approach, has traded jabs with Adams in the past and says she is the wrong person for the job. She has led an issue-based group—Texas Eagle Forum—that has attacked Republicans, he says, and now Adams has to shift gears and grow the party rather than purge it of those who don't subscribe to her views.
"I don't think that this leadership is what the Republican Party needs at this time," he says. "In fact, what's happened is we've set the party back five years."
Certainly Rick Perry wouldn't agree. He seems interested in purging the party of moderates and grabbed national attention while doing so in October after he endorsed the more conservative third-party candidate Doug Hoffman over moderate Republican Dede Scozzafava in the race for New York's 23rd Congressional District.
Perry, along with Sarah Palin and Dick Armey, supported Hoffman. Perry even sent a letter to Texas donors labeling Hoffman as "the true conservative candidate" and urging them to contribute "generously" to his campaign. "There is a reason that our party lost power in Washington, D.C.," Perry wrote. "A lot of folks went to Congress wearing the Republican jersey, but far too many played the game like Democrats."
Armey, in campaigning for Hoffman, told RedState, a conservative political blog, "We win when we are us. We lose when we are Democratic lite."
Their pressure may have forced the pro-choice, pro-gay marriage Scozzafava to withdraw from the race just days before the election, but it wasn't enough to swing the election Hoffman's way—not after Scozzafava subsequently endorsed Democrat Bill Owens, who won the race on election night. (The results could be overturned: A recanvassing of votes has narrowed Owens' lead to 3,000 votes and another 5,800 absentee ballots have yet to be counted.)
Perry has also made moderate California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger the butt of one of his stump speeches, comparing Texas, with its pro-business economic climate and Legislature that balances its budget, to California with its state government teetering on bankruptcy and Legislature in deficit-strapped gridlock. He told The Wall Street Journal in August that California needs a strong leader who will take the special interests out of government, cut spending and change its Constitution, but "Arnold squandered that chance."
Perry's political enmeshment beyond Texas, and his role as finance chair of the Republican Governors Association in helping secure important gubernatorial victories for Republicans Bob McDonnell of Virginia and Chris Christie of New Jersey, could shed light on what some believe is his true motivation for remaining in office: making a run for the White House.
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"That's a possibility now that his new good friend Sarah Palin is unlikely to run," the University of Houston's Murray says. "Social conservatives love [former Arkansas] Governor [Mike] Huckabee but doubt that he could be a serious candidate. If Mr. Perry is reelected governor of Texas, they might give him a good, hard look."
Hutchison and Perry are each expected to spend at least $20 million in the primary, and so far, neither candidate has raced significantly ahead of the other in fund-raising. Both seem fairly flush with $12.5 million in Hutchison's campaign account and $9.3 million in Perry's, according to mid-July campaign reports. The two have also neutralized each other in the battle of big-name endorsements with Perry nabbing Sarah Palin early on and Hutchison recently securing the backing of Dick Cheney.
A Rasmussen poll released on November 13 showed Perry leading Hutchison by 11 points—46 percent to 35 percent—with Wharton County Republican Party chair and Tea Party activist Debra Medina a distant third at 4 percent and 14 percent undecided. In mid-September, Rasmussen had Hutchison slightly ahead of Perry, 40 percent to 38 percent, but in mid-July, it was Perry ahead of Hutchison, 46 percent to 36 percent. With the race so contentious and in such a state of flux, the candidates are looking for any edge—fund-raising, endorsements, missteps—that can sell them to a divided party that has known them and voted for them for many years.
"We now have two reasonably popular Republicans in a bloodbath with each other," Kronberg says. "Everybody who is an active Republican understands the loser's supporters are going to be put into exile—they won't be able to play in politics anymore. So it's going to divide the fund-raising base; it's going to divide the supporter base; and it's going to damage the party for years to come."