This summer, she began to describe herself as "pro-life," to the dismay of some anti-abortion crusaders.
"It's a very difficult issue," she told The News in 2005. "Sometimes being predictable is easier, even if people disagree with you, than when you are thoughtful and maybe conflicted about an issue."
As a Senate operator, though, Hutchison found a political strong suit.
Early in her tenure, she teamed with Maryland Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski and others to create tax-free individual retirement accounts for homemakers; Mikulski and Cornyn have worked this fall to rename these the "Hutchison IRA."
With growing seniority on the Appropriations Committee, she funneled many billions to Texas military bases, water projects and university researchers.
Cornyn likens his departing colleague to the Energizer Bunny.
"I spend most of my time just trying to keep up with her," he said. "She's a person of enormous energy and intensity, particularly when it comes to advancing Texas issues."
Jack Peterson, who lobbies Congress on behalf of Houston and Harris County, lauded Hutchison for championing transportation projects, and prodding the Army Corps of Engineers to widen and deepen ports along the Texas coast, often through tedious, little-noticed backroom work.
"That keeps the economic engine purring. If you can't move your ships and barges, you don't move goods," Peterson said. "She's been a tremendous champion. . It's every single solitary issue that impacts the state of Texas. Only the very largest ones get talked about."
One of her secrets, he said, was a knack for understanding what Senate colleagues needed for their states and helping them get it, racking up chits in the process.
Hutchison's efforts went toward landing research grants for Texas A&M, the University of Texas and other institutions, or to scrape together funds for a desalination plant in El Paso, a new border crossing or housing at Fort Hood. She protected Dallas' Trinity River project.
She steered more than $10 billion to Texas in the five years leading up to the 2010 primary. In another era, that tally would have endeared any senator to her constituents.
But old-fashioned logrolling had begun to fall from public favor, as deficits grew and excesses such as Alaska's infamous "Bridge to Nowhere" came to light. With prodding from Perry, Republican voters punished her.
Pauken, a Perry ally, foresees a sharp contrast between the outgoing senator and her successor. She's been conservative but pragmatic. Cruz has vowed a more robust brand of advocacy for fiscal restraint, state's rights and restrained federal government.
"It's timely because there are so many big issues, fundamental issues. It's a different mood, a different situation. He will have a different focus," Pauken said. "Kay was very good at bringing home the bacon. . She played to her strengths and there's nothing wrong with that. That's what she was comfortable with."
One other likely difference: Hutchison's willingness to work across party lines.
In 2003, the Veterans Affairs Department announced it wanted to close the Waco VA hospital, a major employer and source of pride for the city.
For Edwards, the timing was especially bad. Redistricting had left the Democratic congressman vulnerable for re-election.
But as chairman of a subcommittee that controlled billions of dollars in spending for military bases, he had worked closely with Hutchison on behalf of Fort Hood and other Texas priorities.
Edwards' political scalp was a top priority for Texas Republicans, but Hutchison jumped into the fight to save the Waco VA, working very publicly with Edwards and later, after the VA relented in May 2004, rebuffing pressure to campaign against him.
Edwards, ousted two years ago, remains a fan.
"She has left a lasting mark on Texas, whether it is our military installations, NASA, water infrastructure, or hundreds of other critical projects," he said. "Everyday citizens would have far more respect for Congress if they knew that people such as Kay were just out working hard every day in behalf of their states and our country."
One of Hutchison's most lasting legacies will be the role she played in breaking down barriers for women.
Famously unable to find work as a lawyer after graduating from the University of Texas law school, she began her career as a TV reporter before running for the Legislature, and became the first Republican woman elected statewide, winning the now-defunct office of state treasurer.
For years, she was one of only four women in the Senate. As of early January, there will be 20, the most ever, though only four are Republicans, down from five Republicans but a jump from 17 the last two years. (Women hold roughly 18 percent of House seats.)