KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON PUSHED INTO RETIREMENT…. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s (R) career trajectory took a rather dramatic turn for the worse in recent years. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

As recently as three years ago, Hutchison was Texas’ most popular political figure. In 2009, she launched a gubernatorial race, taking on incumbent Gov. Rick Perry in a Republican primary, and early polls suggested Hutchison was the frontrunner.

But the far-right went after her, sullied her reputation, and soundly defeated her gubernatorial campaign. Today, Hutchison announced she’ll walk away from politics altogether at the end of her term next year.

Kay Bailey Hutchison will not run for re-election to the U.S. Senate.

In a letter to supporters, Hutchison said she enjoyed serving Texas.

“I am announcing today that I will not be a candidate for re-election in 2012,” she wrote to supporters. “That should give the people of Texas ample time to consider who my successor will be.”

There’s one very good reason Hutchison won’t seek another term: she would have faced a right-wing primary challenger, and she likely would have lost.

Just this week, the Dallas Morning News published a poll showing the three-term senator’s approval rating dropping below 50% statewide, and down to just 56% among Texas Republicans.

Public Policy Polling’s Tom Jensen added, “The fact that someone like Hutchison who has generally been among the more popular senators in the country and has always won by wide margins has been at least partially pushed out by the Tea Party is indicative of a new reality for Republican Senators — pretty much no incumbent is safe if these folks decide to target them.”

Hutchison, by all appearances, didn’t want to walk away from public service, but it seems she didn’t have much of a choice — her conservative voting record wasn’t enough to protect Hutchison from her very conservative party.

It’s a stark example of Republican politics in the 21st century.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.