The swirling force of Texas politics

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison: Conservative Enough?

Experts, opponents divided on Hutchison's conservative credentials

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    Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison often talks up her anti-abortion voting record in Washington, but she has a steep hill to climb with many conservatives who think her views on abortion and embryonic stem cell research make her a bad fit for the Texas governor's office.

    Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison often talks up her anti-abortion voting record in Washington, but she has a steep hill to climb with many conservatives who think her views on abortion and embryonic stem cell research make her a bad fit for the Texas governor's office.

    Hutchison has repeatedly expressed support for individual abortion rights, even as she's racked up a mostly anti-abortion voting record in Congress. It's contributed to her image as the more moderate choice in her bid to unseat Gov. Rick Perry, who has doggedly courted the right wing in his bid for an unprecedented third four-year term in office.

    It is not hard to grasp the key role bedrock conservative voters will play in the upcoming March Republican primary, where the Hutchison-Perry showdown is shaping up as a clash of titans. A UT Texas poll conducted this summer found that 83 percent of likely Republican voters identify themselves as right-of-center, and 61 percent call themselves "very" or "extremely" conservative.

    Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, said the question is not whether Hutchison is a conservative: her voting record clearly makes her one. But she's in a pitched battle with someone who is viewed as even more conservative -- and on social issues, he said, conservatives tend to give no quarter.

    "Running to the center in a Republican primary with a conservative opponent is very difficult. She's certainly not the first person to face that," Henson said. "She has to move herself pretty far to the right to outflank Perry right now."

    The Hutchison campaign says the senator is every bit as conservative -- on social issues and other initiatives -- as Perry. Aides cite her resolute opposition to gay marriage, her unflinching support for gun rights and a long list of votes against federal funding for abortion. They also point to her score on issues tracked by the anti-abortion National Right to Life Committee: a 94 percent lifetime rating in the Senate, where she has served since 1993.

    And they say Perry has had his own problems with staunch conservatives. Perry upset them by pushing (unsuccessfully) for mandatory vaccinations for the sexually transmitted human papilloma virus, or HPV. And property-rights advocates have criticized his support for land-grabbing transportation projects and for his 2007 veto of legislation aimed at restricting government condemnation powers.

    "Kay Bailey Hutchison has a solid conservative record across the board and she has a solid record working to protect the rights of the unborn and promoting a culture of life," said Hutchison spokeswoman Jennifer Baker. "There is not a single piece of pro-life legislation that has been passed by the Texas Legislature that she would not have signed."

    Hutchison emphasized her abortion funding stance again this week, when she publicly condemned Democrats for failing to support a permanent ban on using tax dollars for abortions in a health care overhaul working its way through a Senate committee.

    Still, a couple of Hutchison's votes, and past comments in support of individual abortion rights, have earned her the enduring ire of many activists and voters on the far right. In June of 2004, during the Republican state convention, she told reporters she supported a woman's right to have an abortion early in a pregnancy.

    "My position is I think there can be an ability for a woman, until viability, to make a choice," Hutchison said. A year earlier, Hutchison expressed the same sentiment in a non-binding Senate vote in support of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 court decision that made abortion legal. The resolution stated that Roe v. Wade "secures an important constitutional right" to the procedure and that it should not be overturned.

    For some conservative activists, it was an unpardonable act of defiance that drew support from only nine Republican senators. (Five of those seats are now held by Democrats).

    "The vote on Roe v. Wade to me seemed like that she was showing her true colors. She's never renounced that vote," said Joe Pojman, a Perry supporter and director of the anti-abortion group Texas Alliance for Life.

    Hutchison also riled evangelical conservatives by bucking President George W. Bush on a bill aimed at easing restrictions on embryonic stem cell research funding -- legislation that prompted the very first White House veto in 2006. A decade earlier, it was Bush -- then as Texas governor -- who rushed to Hutchison's side when GOP anti-abortion activists nearly denied her credentials to the 1996 Republican National Convention. They were angry about Hutchison's abortion views back then, too, though she retained her spot a delegate after party leaders rallied behind her.

    Perry, like Bush, opposes abortion in all cases except rape, incest or danger to the life of the mother. Almost 70 percent of the Republicans surveyed in the UT Texas poll this summer agreed abortion should be limited to those circumstances -- or never allowed.

    Social issues like abortion and stem cell research have not been a prominent feature of the governor's race so far. Job losses, health care and fiscal issues have been far more dominant, and current polls indicate economic concerns are foremost on voters' minds.

    Henson, the UT expert, said literature attacking Hutchison on those social issues is sure to land in the mail boxes of GOP voters before March -- compliments of the Perry campaign.

    But he said Perry, who has made his share of verbal gaffes and policy goofs on his way to becoming the longest serving governor in Texas history, can't treat social issues or anything else at this point as a silver bullet in what otherwise has been an extremely competitive race.

    "It's not like (Hutchison) has been some kind of flaming liberal in Congress," Henson said. "A close primary race is extremely hard to call. This is a close race."