Updated at 8:34 a.m. on January 14.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, announced today that she will not seek reelection in 2012 when her current term ends, setting off a flurry of activity in a state that has been reliably Republican but where a growing Hispanic population is giving Democrats some hopes of a comeback.
In a statement today, Hutchison said she was stepping aside so the 2012 race can start in earnest without her.
"I am announcing today that I will not be a candidate for re-election in 2012,” she wrote in a letter to supporters. “That should give the people of Texas ample time to consider who my successor will be.”
The most senior Republican woman in the Senate, Hutchison said she wanted to live "full-time in Texas with my family." She's the mother of two pre-teens, whom she adopted in 2001.
News of Hutchison's retirement doesn't come as a major surprise. She had originally planned to vacate her seat to run for governor last year, but stuck around after losing the Republican gubernatorial primary.
Hutchison held a fundraiser for her Senate campaign committee last month, to help replenish her nearly empty campaign account -- sparking speculation she was looking at running again. She had just $52,000 in her Senate account at the end of September after her unsuccessful run for governor.
Suspicions about Hutchison's vulnerability led a couple of Republicans to jump into the Senate race even before the senator's announcement: former Texas Secretary of State Roger Williams and Railroad Commissioner Elizabeth Ames Jones.
Party sources also say that Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst is likely to take a good look at the race and would be a major force to be reckoned with. The legislature is currently in session for the next several months, and Dewhurst will be playing a high-profile role in the legislative efforts.
Attorney General Greg Abbott -- widely considered a rising star in Texas politics -- is another potential Republican contender. Like Dewhurst, Abbott would be a very capable fundraiser.
Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert is another top candidate who had been positioning himself for the race in recent days. He's an ally of Hutchison and was said to only be interested in the race if she retired.
Another potential GOP contender is Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams, an African-American, who formed an exploratory committee when it looked like Hutchison would vacate her seat to run for governor. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., endorsed Williams at the time, and he has strong appeal with national conservatives. The name of state Sen. Florence Shapiro has also been floated in what could be a crowded GOP field.
Potential Democratic candidates could include former Houston Mayor Bill White, who geared up to seek the seat last year; former state Comptroller John Sharp; Rep. Lloyd Doggett; and former Rep. Chet Edwards.
Texas Democrats have struggled in statewide races, but the 2008 presidential vote, which Sen. John McCain won over Barack Obama, 55 percent to 44 percent, was the closest in 20 years. One reason is the changing demographics of a state that is now 37 percent Hispanic.
Back in 1993, Hutchison was an early harbinger of the Republican wave that was about to swamp a state of "yellow dog" Democrats when she won a special election shocker that gave the GOP control of the seat once held by Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, a Texas Democratic icon.
More recently she's become a symbol of the problems that have befallen centrist Republicans in an era of tea party activism. Long one of Texas's most popular politicians, she lost badly when she challenged incumbent Gov. Rick Perry last year. A recent poll by the firm Blum and Weprin Associates for Texas newspapers showed Hutchison's approval rating at 46 percent among registered voters, with just 56 percent approval among registered Republicans. Another poll, from the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling, showed her with just a 58 percent approval rating among Republicans.