WASHINGTON — Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison's announcement that she won't seek another term in the U.S. Senate — after serving more than 17 years there — set off a political scramble Thursday among Texas Democrats, Republicans and the tea party over who might run for her seat.
Hutchison, 67, ended months of speculation with a letter to backers, thanking them for their support and vowing to finish her term that ends in January 2013, but not to seek any more time in Washington. She said she's known since 2006 that she wouldn't seek a fourth full term in office.
"I'm happy," a cheerful Hutchison told McClatchy Thursday. "I never intended to run again, and I just had to find the right time to make an announcement. This is the right time to announce to give Texans a chance to look for a successor and the right time for a change for me."
The reason for her departure is her family, those close to her said.
"I think her children were a huge factor," said Pat Oxford, a Houston lawyer and close confidante of the senator. "Family time is probably the dominant factor. Her children are getting older and they need her more." Hutchison and her husband, Ray, adopted Bailey and Houston, who are now 9.
Hutchison for years has been a shinning star among Texas Republicans — at one time even being considered a contender to become vice president. But after losing her primary challenge last year to Republican Gov. Rick Perry, drawing just 30 percent of the vote, her political popularity took a hit.
Asked if her poor showing in the governor's race had an impact on her decision not to run again, Hutchison said, "Not at all. I made the decision four years ago not to run again."
While earlier she said she'd resign from her seat win or lose, Hutchison said she felt a duty to finish her term and protect the seat for Republicans. A recent poll showed she has the approval of 44 percent of Texas adults, 56 percent among Republicans.
A slew of candidates have expressed interest in running for Hutchison's Senate seat, including Republicans former Secretary of State Roger Williams, and Texas Railroad Commissioners Michael Williams and Elizabeth Ames Jones.
Democratic former state Comptroller John Sharp and Republicans Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert are considered potential candidates as well. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, has said he's considering a bid, and tea party officials have said there could be several candidates running for the seat under the tea party banner.
"Some big hitters are going to be getting in on the Republican side," said Larry Sabato, a political analyst and director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "This will be a Texas-sized, big-spending contest, and that's for sure.
"The real question is whether Democrats can be competitive," he said.
Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee officials say they hope to make the 2012 general election for her seat competitive. Republicans currently hold every statewide office in Texas.
Hutchison, a former University of Texas cheerleader and TV reporter, was the first female Republican elected to the Texas House of Representatives in 1972 and the first Republican woman elected statewide as state treasurer in 1990. In 1993, she was the first Texas woman elected to the U.S. Senate when she beat Democrat Bob Krueger in a runoff to replace Democrat Lloyd Bentsen, who left the Senate to become treasury secretary for then-President Bill Clinton.
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