Republicans for Governor: Hutchison’s End Game

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UPDATED AT 9:30: Sen. Hutchison’s long, deranged trip of a campaign has ended in defeat. In Dallas, she just addressed a small, glum gathering and called for Republican unity after the fractious primary. “I ask my supporters tonight, all through Texas, to join me and united behind Governor Perry,” she said to scattered applause. “Our party must come together.” We’ll see about that.

Hutchison gave a gracious nod to Debra Medina’s campaign, crediting her with fighting for “our conservative principles.” She did not provide any clues to the ongoing mystery of whether or when she’ll resign from the Senate, as she’s pledged. “I will always do everything I can, in whatever capacity, to protect Texas,” was all she had to say about her political future.

UPDATED AT 8:50: With nearly 10 percent of precincts reporting, Gov. Perry still has runoff-proof numbers: He’s at 52 percent, with Sen. Hutchison a distant second at 31 percent and Debra Medina at 16.5. The big drama tonight will be whether Perry can stay above 50 percent—and if he doesn’t, whether the gap between him and Hutchison will close enough for her to justify calling a runoff.

UPDATED AT 7:55: With fewer than 2 percent of precincts reporting their totals thus far, the GOP primary seems to be shaping up much as expected—as Gov. Perry’s race to avoid a runoff by garnering more than 50 percent of the vote. In the very early returns, Perry’s there: He has a healthy edge with 51.5 percent, with Sen. Hutchison at 31 and Debra Medina at 17.

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From the get-go, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s long-anticipated run for governor has been a clumsy affair at best. At her official kick-off rally last August, Hutchison drew only about 150 folks to her high-school gym in La Marque. The most lasting image of Hutchison’s big campaign launch (courtesy of The Austin American-Statesman‘s Ken Herman) was of her staffers trying to move the sparse crowd around to concoct the appearance of a throng. “First we were there,” one bemused man told Herman, gesturing, “then we were behind the rope, and then we were behind the podium.”

Hutchison’s final day of campaigning on Monday was considerably smoother—but hardly more energetic. After stops in Houston, Tyler, Texarkana and San Antonio, Hutchison smiled her way into an Austin coffee shop a little before 5 p.m., greeted by about 50 supporters who’d been waiting for her since 4:15. As they’d waited, the mostly white, mostly middle-class folks milled around, chatting quietly, murmuring about their candidate’s grim prospects. “We need a runoff,” one man said to another in a low voice. “Might have a chance then.”

Aside from an elderly lady wearing Kay stickers from toe to forehead, who tried to start up a “Kay! Kay! Kay!” chant with no success, it was the most solemn election-eve event I’ve ever seen. Another odd thing: There was no electioneering going on. Folks weren’t asked to volunteer in GOTV. They weren’t asked to promise to take at least two Hutchison voters to the polls. They weren’t asked to make phone calls. They weren’t asked anything.

Wearing a bright red coat and looking remarkably well-rested, Hutchison hugged and hand-shaked her way around the room, veering away from me when she saw my microphone and note pad, and gave brief remarks in front of a wall of coffee canisters and a row of youngsters arranged as a backdrop for the cameras.

As usual, Hutchison was low-key and negative. She did nothing to fire up the troops. Even on the eve of the primary, the senator still had not found a theme for her campaign—unless “Rick Perry stinks” is a theme. With months of practice, Hutchison has sharpened and honed her litany of reasons to dump Perry: fiscal irresponsibility, too much meddling with state universities, soaring dropout rate. But she still can’t make the positive case of why she’s the right candidate to replace him.

“Tomorrow is the day we can change Texas for the good,” Hutchison told her fans in Austin. But there’s still no way for voters to know what kind of change Hutchison would represent.

Hutchison has promised to “start all over again” if she makes it into a runoff with Gov. Perry. As she walked out of the coffee shop on Monday, headed to Dallas under stormy skies, Hutchison remained a profound enigma. If Republican primary voters give her a chance to redeem this mess of a campaign in a runoff, the senator will have to figure out how to define herself far more strongly in the next six weeks than she’s done over the past couple of years.