Moderate Hutchison worked for Texans

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When Kay Bailey Hutchison, the senior U.S. Senator from Texas, retires at the end of this legislative session, we will have a front-row seat to a marked shift in the Texas Republican Party. Likely to replace her is Republican nominee Ted Cruz, a Tea Party favorite who currently leads his opponent, Democrat Paul Sadler, by nearly a 2-1 margin. While both the senator and her likely successor are Republicans, a comparison of Hutchison’s legislative record with Cruz’s goals highlights the contrast between them.

Hutchison, a former UT cheerleader who graduated at 19 and obtained a law degree five years later, was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1993. During her 19 years in that office, Hutchison stood with the GOP on most issues, voting with the majority of Republicans almost 90 percent of the time, according to The Washington Post. She invariably supported the oil and gas industry at the expense of environmental protection, and voted for an outright constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. She also voted to exclude sexual orientation from hate crimes criteria. However, her breaks with recent trends in the Republican Party show that she isn’t as through-and-through conservative as many of her colleagues.

Hutchison’s voting record presents a mixed bag on the issue of abortion. She consistently voted for strict restrictions on abortion and contraceptives, but supported Roe v. Wade and repeatedly voted against efforts to prohibit the practice altogether. In a 1993 Senate debate, she argued for restricted but legal abortions up to the third trimester, saying, “I’m not for abortion … The question is, should I make that decision for you, and that’s where I come down on the other side.” In 2003, she told the Dallas Morning News, “I’ve always said that I think that women should have the ability to make that decision, even if I disagree with it.”

The most striking departure from others in her party, however, was her openness toward government spending. In contrast to the Republican holy war on earmarked funds, a major talking point for some Republicans, Hutchison unabashedly sought a great deal of pork barrel government money for her home state. In 2008 and 2009 alone, she claimed almost half a billion dollars in earmarks for spending in Texas and was outspoken in her support of the practice. “I’m proud of being able to garner Texans’ fair share of their tax dollars,” she said in 2009.
Hutchison has also enthusiastically supported federal funding for higher education in Texas. Her website proudly proclaims that  she “has worked to move Texas from sixth in the nation in federal research funding to third.”

That friendly view toward government spending combined with her relatively moderate stance on abortion crippled Hutchison in a 2010 run for Texas governor. Although she was the early frontrunner by a large margin, incumbent governor Rick Perry succeeded in portraying her as a pro-choice, liberal spender and himself as a fiscally and socially conservative alternative to retain the governor’s office for another term. Hutchison had difficulty adapting to an electorate that had turned from predominantly moderate “country club Republicans” to right-wing ideologues, and she lost big. That defeat was more or less the end of her career on the national stage.

Two years later, Hutchison has confirmed her long-rumored retirement and opened up her seat for the next generation. Tea Party Republican Ted Cruz is the overwhelming favorite after his defeat of the GOP establishment’s preferred candidate, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, in the Republican primary. Cruz, by finding room to the right of the Republican leadership in one of the reddest states in the country, represents a new breed of conservative. Unlike Hutchison, he supports a repeal of Roe v. Wade, calling it a “shameful decision,” and opposes abortion even in cases of rape or incest. He also proposes the complete elimination of the Department of Education, which would end federal financial aid for college students. Furthermore, Texas can kiss the gravy train of government spending it enjoyed under Hutchison goodbye. In a recent interview with Texas Monthly, Cruz said, “I am absolutely opposed to earmarks. When 435 members of Congress and all 100 members of the Senate go to Washington and view their jobs as feeding at the public trough, that’s how we bankrupt our country, and I don’t think Texans want their senator to be part of that.”

Being a fiscal conservative is one thing, and earmarked spending can certainly be taken too far, but completely cutting off federal support for states and students in a weak economy makes no sense.

It’s a shame that Hutchison is retiring, because she’s the kind of senator Texas needs right now. As she rides into the sunset, a less open-minded generation of Republicans takes her place. That means all the federal spending that brought jobs and growth to Texas, and much-needed help to students, will soon be a thing of the past. That should be cause for concern.