WASHINGTON -- Some Democrats are taking obvious satisfaction in the indictment of Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas. But they are kidding themselves if they believe the conservative direction of the state's politics is likely to be changed by what happens to one GOP incumbent.
Hutchison won a landslide victory in a special election June 1 and had been odds-on favorite to win a full Senate term next year. But there is the appearance of an opening now that she has been indicted on charges she misused her office for political purposes while she was state treasurer.
But the opportunity may be illusory. If Hutchison is acquitted, there will certainly be a backlash against the Democratic prosecutor she has accused of a political witch-hunt, a complaint that has some credibility simply because the charges against Hutchison first arose during the special election campaign.
Indeed, that could happen even if she were convicted. It is hard to believe Texas voters are shocked by the idea that elected officials do political business on public time, a bipartisan failing in Texas and elsewhere.
So it is even possible to write a scenario in which the Republican senator is convicted but still re-elected, thus forcing the Senate to a decision on whether to expel her from the body. Although there has been some quiet muttering about other Republicans challenging Hutchison in a primary, no one who knows Texas politics thinks that is feasible unless she is guilty of something far more heinous than what has come to light.
It is more likely that Hutchison's travail will encourage the candidacies of some Democrats who otherwise might have waited for a more promising opportunity. The obvious suspects include two members of the House, Jim Chapman of Sulphur Springs and Mike Andrews of Houston, as well as Jim Mattox, a former attorney general who considered running in the special election earlier this year.
And there is the inevitable talk about some super-candidate to save the day, such as Henry Cisneros, the former mayor of San Antonio who now serves as secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Clinton administration.
But there is nothing in the overall direction of Texas politics to give Democrats much reason for optimism. Ronald Reagan won the state in a walk in 1980 and 1984, and George Bush carried it in both 1988, when Sen. Lloyd Bentsen was on the Democratic ticket, and 1992. And Republicans like Hutchison are beginning to win other statewide races that were beyond them a decade ago.
The deceptive exception to the trend is, of course, Gov. Ann Richards. But her success was far less a testimonial to Democratic liberalism than to her own vivid personal force and the self-inflicted wounds suffered by her Republican opponent in 1990, the colorful but politically flawed Clayton Williams.
The Republicans have suffered in the past from a lack of bench strength -- that is, too few of their party in places like the state treasurer's office that are legitimate stepping stones to the governorship or a Senate seat. The other Republican senator from the state, Phil Gramm, got there by changing parties as a House member, then moving up to the Senate.
But that situation is changing. There are more Republicans in state office, more Republicans in Congress, more Republicans in the Legislature. Opinion surveys show the electorate split close to even in their self-identification, and election results show more conservative Democrats willing to support Republicans in state as well as presidential elections.
The electorate is increasingly conservative on social issues and suspicious of government activism. Although candidate Bill Clinton was within range of being competitive in Texas last year, in the end his strategists decided -- wisely -- that he couldn't carry the state and didn't make a full-scale press.
It is impossible at this point to forecast the effects of a Hutchison trial. She is charged not only with misusing the office but taking actions to destroy evidence, a potentially explosive issue. But the Democrats would be foolish to draw any satisfaction from the problems of the Republican incumbent. Texas has become a two-party state with a vengeance.