Which is worse: Austin, Texas, or Washington, D.C.? That, at least for the moment, appears to be a central question driving the Republican primary in the Texas governor’s race that officially got underway on Monday when Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison kicked off her campaign. Hutchison is challenging Gov. Rick Perry in what will likely be the most hotly contested primary in the country that could have national implications for the Republican Party. In her announcement—check out her web video below—Hutchison, a former state treasurer, is arguing that Perry’s leadership has failed the state and that she can help rebuild the Republican Party by bringing in new voters. Perry, on the other hand, has already spent significant time casting Hutchison as a big spending Washington insider.
The race will provide early hints as to whether the GOP is heading toward a bigger tent or a more ideologically defined group. It could also answer the question of whom voters blame more for the economic recession: State governments or Washington, D.C. On a local level, the race is exposing long held and deep divisions within the Texas Republican Party. “The staunch conservatives in this state have really had control of the party for quite a while,” said James Henson, a political scientist at the University of Texas. Those “rock-ribbed conservatives,” as Henson called them, took over the party when George W. Bush left for the White House and took much of the party establishment, which was more moderate that the current establishment, with him. Karen Hughes, for example, left her job as executive director of the Texas GOP to go with Bush to Washington. The problem for Hutchison is that those rock-ribbed conservatives are perceived to support Perry, who attended several Tea Parties earlier this year. They are also generally the party activists that vote in Republican primaries, serve as precinct captains and have experience turning out the vote. That’s led some analysts to believe Hutchison will try to ramp up turnout from outside of that base. “So far Perry’s strategy has been to solidify the conservative side of the party and Hutchison now knows that’s going to be hard for her,” said Mari Woodlief, a strategist at Allyn Media in Dallas. “The Hutchison campaign is looking toward maximizing turnout and turnout people that might not be tradition primary voters.” Hutchison’s campaign adamantly denied that they are using that strategy. “That is ludicrous,” said Terry Sullivan, Hutchison’s campaign manager. “The Perry campaign’s story line is that she’s going to have to turnout Democrats and it’s absurd to think that Democrats are going to vote in a GOP primary.” Sullivan also disagreed with the premise that Perry is to the right of Hutchison. “She is going to win Republicans and not just Republicans but conservative Republicans,” he said. “At the end of the day, she has a more conservative record than Perry.” Republican primary voters will vote against Perry, Sullivan said, because they are tired of the type of politician he is. “The Republican Party is shrinking because officials are saying one thing and doing something else,” he said. “[Perry’s] going to say what the 50 percent plus one of the people in that room want to hear. The issue is politicians who flip flop.” But Hutchison may face a problem convincing voters that the problem is in the state capital and not the U.S. Capitol. Polling shows people are more willing to blame Washington for the recession than state governments, though by a narrowing margin. A Pew Research Center found that 50 percent of respondents view their state government favorably, down from 59 percent earlier this year. On the other hand, 50 percent view the federal government unfavorably, down from 58 percent earlier this year. Pew attributes the change to the budget woes facing many states. But Republicans in particular appear to have a better view of their state governments than of Washington. Fifty-seven percent of Republicans had a favorable view of their state governments in the survey, compared to 24 percent who said the same of the federal government. That is something the Perry campaign is looking to capitalize on. “This issue is really about Washington versus Texas,” said Dave Carney, a Norway Hill consultant who is working for Perry. “She wants to bring her style of leadership to Austin, and there is not a single person who is voting in our primary who thinks that’s a good idea. They may like Kay and they may vote for her for other reasons, but not for that.” Hutchison, though, could benefit from the rift in the state GOP that has developed since Bush left the state. Put simply, there are Texas GOP insiders who are tired of Perry. In 2006, Hutchison considered running and instead opted against it because many believed Perry wouldn’t run for another term next year. “If you step back, Republicans are plateau-ing,” said Henson, the UT political scientist. “They have been wildly successful for 15 to 20 years. After a while, you run out of rewards to divide up and you wind up with conflicts.”Jeremy P. Jacobs is a Staff Writer at Politics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org