There’s no question that the headlines of 2008 were dominated by presidential politics: the rivalry between Clinton/Obama; the national debut of Sarah Palin; and, of course, Obama-mania. But for Texans, and North Texans especially, 2009 is proving to be a year filled with politics focused on the home front.

Former President George W. Bush returned to Dallas while the pundits debate his legacy. The Texas House of Representatives elected a new speaker, Joe Straus. And former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk headed to Washington, D.C., as the local figure named to the new Obama administration.

cowboy_race illustration by Douglas Jones

But nothing will beat the talk of an election, and the juiciest talk and headlines for 2009 will center around the race for Texas governor and the resulting open seat for the U.S. Senate. Both will be interesting topics—but one more so than the other. The governor’s race will no doubt be decided in the Republican primary between Gov. Rick Perry and U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. This is the show. Not one notable Democrat has signed up for this race. The question is, can Hutchison unseat Perry after his nine years in the governor’s chair? I say yes, and so does SMU political science professor Cal Jillson.

“Likely Hutchison can get by Perry in the Republican primary,” Jillson says, “because lots of moderates and others will come to that primary. Then she will cruise in the general election going up against a minor Democrat to provide inconsequential opposition. No major Democrats think they can defeat her. It will be a fairly clean fight by dominant Republicans.”

Which is why nearly everyone interested in seeking higher statewide office in Texas is lining up for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Hutchison. This is the race where we can expect the excitement. On the Democratic side, Houston Mayor Bill White and former Comptroller John Sharp are the top contenders. Many have either thrown their hats in the ring or are said to be considering a run for the Republican nomination: Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Attorney General Greg Abbott, Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams, Rep. Kay Granger, Rep. Joe Barton, and state Sen. Florence Shapiro, just to name a few. 

But don’t presume that Republicans have the same advantage here. Recent history predicts that in a race with so many contenders, anything could happen. “There are still no statewide elected Democrats in Texas and may not be for another six, eight, 10 years,” says Jillson. “But this Senate race will be much more unstable and less predictable.”

Consider, Jillson says, when LBJ left his Senate seat to become vice president in 1961, and John Tower, a Republican, was victorious among a crowded field of 71 candidates in a state then dominated by Democrats. Hutchison won her current Senate seat in 1993 against about two dozen opponents when Lloyd Bentsen resigned from the Senate to become Treasury secretary. “That’s why so many get in the race in an election like this,” Jillson says. “They figure lightning might strike and they’ll come out on top.”

Despite a governor’s election that won’t take place until 2010, expect the heat and headlines this year to be dominated by the mercurial sizzle of the Senate race as the two heavyweights, Hutchison and Perry, battle it out for the governor’s chair in Austin.