U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison said Wednesday she will step down this fall to challenge fellow Republican Rick Perry for governor in 2010, setting the stage for what will be a crowded race to replace her.
Hutchison told WBAP radio of Fort Worth-Dallas in an interview that she'll quit the Senate in October or November, signaling that she will return to Texas full time to campaign for the governorship as soon as this fall. She reiterated that she would formally declare her candidacy in August.
"Then the actual leaving of the Senate will be some time -- October, November -- that, in that time frame," Hutchison said.
The Republican primary is in March 2010. The winner of that race will be heavily favored in the general election.
Hutchison's campaign did not elaborate on her comments. She told WBAP she is still working in Washington to fight President Obama's health care plan and a cap-and-trade proposal on greenhouse gas emissions.
"I am trying to do everything that I can while I am in office to responsibly serve as a senator. But it is hard because my heart is in Texas," she said. "There are so many things that I think we have not done in Texas that we need to do. I think we need new leadership in Texas."
Perry is running for an unprecedented third full term, a span in office Hutchison says would be too long. She said she gave him a "free ride" by deciding not to run against him in 2006 and that no one expected him to run again.
Meanwhile, Perry's spokesman, Mark Miner, said Hutchison is breaking a promise by not remaining in the Senate for her full term, which expires in 2012.
"Today it's clear that she's put her own political ambitions over the needs of the people of Texas," Miner said.
He said Perry is prepared for her challenge: "We've been ready to go since Day One. She's the one who has announced three times that she's going to announce (her candidacy)."
The question of when Hutchison would leave the Senate has been swirling for months.
As governor, Perry would get to appoint an interim senator to fill her seat once she leaves. He could call a special election in November or in May 2010, depending on when Hutchison steps down and how much lead time he has to order the election, according to laws cited by the Texas Secretary of State's Office.
Miner said Perry would call a special election as soon as possible.
Already, a well-known lineup of Republicans and Democrats are considering trying to succeed her. Among the Republicans are Roger Williams, the former secretary of state; Railroad Commissioners Michael Williams and Elizabeth Ames Jones; and state Sen. Florence Shapiro. The leading Democrats are Houston Mayor Bill White and former Comptroller John Sharp.
Hutchison won the Senate seat in a special election in 1993 after veteran Democrat Lloyd Bentsen left to join President Bill Clinton's administration as treasury secretary. Hutchison won her first full six-year term in 1994 and was re-elected in 2000 and 2006. She is the only woman ever elected to the U.S. Senate from Texas.
The Republican gubernatorial primary promises to be a rough and expensive showdown between Hutchison, who enjoys general statewide popularity and has won elections by large margins, and Perry, who has never lost a race and has stronger backing from the social conservatives who traditionally dominate the GOP primary.