AUSTIN -- U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison on Thursday set the stage for what promises to be an explosive 2010 race against Gov. Rick Perry and put $1 million into a gubernatorial race exploratory committee.
"I am filing an exploratory committee so I can begin the process of organizing a campaign for governor of Texas," the senior Texas Republican senator said in news release.
Hutchison has been considering a run for the state's top elected seat for years, and in 2004 top El Paso Republican business leaders urged her not to risk dividing the party with a tough primary election campaign against Perry in 2006. She decided not to run then, but appears now to be on a clear path to a 2010 candidacy, and at least one of those El Paso Republicans said this time could be different.
"In my opinion, I think all bets are off," said J. Robert Brown, who owns a capital investment company in El Paso. "I know a lot of people didn't expect Governor Perry to run again."
Brown was among a group of about a dozen Republican business leaders and generous contributors to Perry who in 2004 asked Hutchison to hold off on a gubernatorial bid.
The group included Hunt Building CEO Woody Hunt, Western Refining CEO Paul Foster and Bank of the West-El Paso Chairman Rick Francis, who have given hundreds of thousands to Perry and have been appointed by Perry to some of the most powerful boards in the state. Their contributions to GOP leaders in Austin, they told Hutchison then, had increased El Paso's influence in Texas. And they liked the new status quo.
But Brown said the situation has changed since 2004. Most, he said, expected the 2006 gubernatorial race to be Perry's last. And some in the group said they would support Hutchison in a 2010 bid for the seat.
"Governor Perry has done a lot of great things to help support El Paso, but so has Senator Hutchison," he said. Brown said Hutchison has supported the Base Realignment and Closure, which has brought expansion and billions of dollars in construction to Fort Bliss.
In October, Hutchison spoke at Biggs Army Airfield at the dedication of the post's first new Brigade Combat Team Complex and said the $5 billion in construction expansion projects at Fort Bliss would not be affected by the costly Wall Street bailout or by the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan.
But for El Paso businessman Ted Houghton, who was also in the 2004 meeting and was appointed by Perry to serve on the Texas Transportation Commission, nothing has changed.
He said that El Paso business leaders' contributions have paid dividends for the city, and that without Perry's support the Texas Tech University medical school would have never materialized in El Paso.
"The proof is in what's happening in the state of Texas. The proof is what's happening in the city of El Paso," he said. "When the country has caught pneumonia (economically), we've got a cold."
Perry, who will become the state's longest-serving governor this month, won re-election in 2006 with 39 percent of the vote in a race against a Democrat and two independent candidates.
He announced plans to run again in 2010 earlier this year.
Hutchison had $8.67 million in campaign money, Federal Election Commission reports as of Sept. 30 show. The most recent Texas Ethics Commission reports from July show Perry had nearly $3 million in his campaign coffer.
A spokesman said Perry wasn't concerned by Hutchison's move Thursday.
Mark Miner, a spokesman for Perry, said Hutchison has been talking about running for governor for years.
"Today," Miner said, "she continues her track record of indecision."
Brandi Grissom may be reached at email@example.com; 512-479-6606.