Rick Perry Returns to Texas, and to Texas Politics

Gov. Rick Perry at his last campaign stop of 2011 in Boone, Iowa, on Dec. 31, 2011.
Gov. Rick Perry at his last campaign stop of 2011 in Boone, Iowa, on Dec. 31, 2011.

With Rick Perry’s star-crossed courtship of the national Republican electorate now ended, our attention turns — mercifully, some might say — back to the politics of his Texas re-entry. The governor returns to find Texas politics roiled, the electoral system in a state of flux as a result of a redistricting process that has run off the rails. Internecine conflict in the Texas GOP, already in evidence when the governor left to run for president, has increased with the inexorable approach of the party primaries.

The underlying fundamentals that buttressed Perry's political power in the state are not much changed since his departure for the national campaign trail, and these fundamentals suggest that Perry, if he wants to, will reassert his powerful presence in Texas politics now that he is back.

Worlds Away: Where We Left Off

In a universe without a Perry presidential candidacy, the politics of 2012 in Texas would largely be framed by the governor’s policy dominance in the last legislative session. The two sessions of the 82nd Legislature ended with the governor and his allies having achieved most of what they wanted in the legislative realm. The Legislature, for the most part, danced to the music of the Tea Party orchestra conducted by an ascendant governor, fresh from embarrassing a sitting U.S. senator in the GOP primary and yawning his way to a victory over another soon-to-be-forgotten Democratic candidate. In the Legislature, social conservatives won a raft of sought-after measures, from the voter ID bill to mandatory sonograms and the defunding of Planned Parenthood. Fiscal conservatives won big, too, from the avoidance of facing up to the defective margins tax to a budget that slavishly followed a no-new-revenue dictum and relentlessly curbed spending for social programs and education. The sanctuary cities debacle — they were unable to pass the bill pushed by the governor — stood out as an unfortunate glitch to be blamed on lack of time and a few recalcitrant legislators.

When the Legislature decamped from Austin in July, there was a sense of order in Texas politics. For all the dark grumbling about the smoke and mirrors that enabled the powers that be to declare the budget “balanced,” and even taking into account the public objections of Democrats (and the more private reservations of moderate Republicans) to the stingy treatment of education and services for poor people, there was political clarity. The governor and his allies had boxed the Legislature in, and lawmakers behaved accordingly, allowing for the usual displays of internecine maneuvering, ego-driven flare-ups, tweaks for the big powers in the lobby, and sniping and gamesmanship between the chambers.

 

And yet, a mere seven months later, conditions on the ground in Texas border on the chaotic.

Redistricting, several open seats created by retirements and a rash of primary challenges to incumbents have fueled a mood of uncertainty hanging over the Legislature and, in the longer term, a 2013 legislative session that already promises to continue the grinding tone of the last Legislature. Infighting in the GOP ranks and an electoral system in flux pose no direct threat to the governor’s political position, but there is unrest in his political family. Part of the governor’s claim to political fame going into his bid for the nomination was his skill in managing his increasingly unruly coalition in both the electoral arena and in the Legislature. Those skills will be put to the test again now. But the familiar faces and the advantages of playing on his home turf should be a relief after deflecting Mitt Romney’s opposition research operation and jockeying for position with Newt Gingrich et al. to be the anti-Mitt. He may, however, have to work on his image with one of his most reliable assets, the conservative base of the GOP.

Perry and Support From GOP Voters

There is no sense in minimizing the apparent short-term negative impact of the governor’s time in the national arena on his assessment by Texans. His political strategy here hinged on maintaining his appeal to the various factions of the Texas GOP, with little or no regard to accommodating Democrats, independents or the minute number of crossover voters in the state. He has assumed this will be a politically divided state with a stable GOP majority, and expended little effort trying to be a “uniter,” to borrow a term. Consequently, the governor cultivated no willingness among leading Texas Democrats and independents to transcend partisan politics and rally behind a native son in a presidential election simply because he is a Texan. For all his frequent invocations of his Texas identity, Texans not already supporting Perry were absent during his presidential bid.

Potentially more of a problem for his return to Texas, those who have supported him for governor did not automatically support his bid for the presidency. A mid-January survey by Public Policy Polling found Perry weak among Texas Republicans, losing to both Gingrich and Romney. In the October 2011 University of Texas / Texas Tribune Poll, it was evident that Texans not already supporting Perry were not rallying around his presidential race – only about 3 percent of those supporting Perry in a hypothetical 2012 matchup with President Obama were self-identified Democrats, and he only attracted the support of 23 percent of self-identified independents — only a slight increase from the 19 percent of independents who approved of his job performance as governor in the same survey.

Both polls revealed signs that his presidential campaign might have soured some Texans’ views of him. His 39 percent overall job approval in October was in line with previous trends, but his negatives inched up steadily during the preceding year, from 37 percent in October 2010 to 44 percent in October 2011. While his lackluster showing in the October survey was widely chalked up to the Herman Cain media boomlet, it’s also plausible, if undiplomatic, to point out that the results showed no signs of a bottomless well of affection among Texas Republicans. One week before he dropped out of the race this month, Perry was running third in his home state, at 18 percent, behind Romney at 24 percent and Gingrich at 23 percent.

The possibility that his national campaign has actually dampened enthusiasm for the governor lurks in some of the other results. When we asked in October whether Perry’s presidential campaign had helped or hurt Texas’s image in the rest of the country, very few respondents thought that the governor had a positive effect. As the table below illustrates, only 19 percent thought Perry’s candidacy had helped Texas’ image, while 37 percent thought it had hurt the state’s image and 34 percent said the Perry candidacy had no effect.

"Regardless of how you view Rick Perry, do you think his candidacy has helped, hurt, or had no effect on Texas’s image among voters outside of the state?" (UT/Texas Tribune Poll, October 2011)
 Strong DNot Very Strong DLean DIndepLean RNot Very Strong RStrong RNot SureTotal
Helped 1% 7% 10% 12% 26% 26% 36% 9% 19%
Hurt 72% 45% 74% 43% 21% 19% 10% 15% 37%
No effect 17% 37% 13% 24% 48% 45% 44% 56% 34%
DK 9% 11% 2% 21% 6% 10% 10% 20% 10%
(totals) (157) (71) (63) (100) (120) (76) (190) (14) (790)

Source: UT/Texas Tribune Poll, Oct. 19-26, 2011, N=790, MOE: +/- 3.46 percentage points. Totals may not add up to 100% due to rounding and weights.

 

It’s not surprising that these results express the expected partisanship responses toward the governor: Strong Democrats were eight times more likely than strong Republicans to say his campaign had hurt the state’s image, and virtually no Democrats viewed it as having a positive impact on Texas’s image.

But Republicans were hardly effusive in their assessments of how the governor’s campaign reflected on the image of his home state: More of them said Perry’s campaign had no effect on the state’s image than than said it had a positive effect. Even among strong Republicans, typically a redoubt of Perry strength, 44 percent opted for “no effect” versus 36 percent opting for a positive effect. PPP used a nearly identical version of this question in their January survey, and got similar results, though slightly worse for Perry: 13 percent said the campaign had helped Texas' image, 39 percent said it hurt and 45 percent said it hadn’t made a difference.

Anti-Washington Blowback

Hostility to the federal government in Washington, D.C., in general and to the Obama administration in particular have played a central role in Perry’s political identity. However, this did not prove to be fertile soil in which to germinate a national campaign for federal office, especially from the perspective of Texans who have spent the better part of the last three years hearing the governor rail against all things federal and assuring them he had no desire to leave Texas for such foul environs.

The anti-Washington theme of the 2010 campaign against Kay Bailey Hutchison, along with the vitriol (and lawsuits) aimed at federal regulatory agencies that dared to act in Texas, also undermined Perry’s effort to make the trip to Washington himself. Perry is far from the first national candidate to run against Washington, D.C., even as he asks voters to send him to live there to fix it; it worked pretty well for Barack Obama four years ago. But unlike then-Sen. Obama, Perry has railed against not just “the folks in Washington, D.C.” His opposition has been much more fundamentalist, even if the phrase “states' rights” was quietly purged from his presidential campaign rhetoric. That adjustment notwithstanding, the governor spent many a Texas campaign speech and the better part of his book Fed Up fuming about the modern conception of a strong national government, and vehemently arguing for the inherently superior democratic virtues of state government.

That stand on federalism and Perry’s candidacy for national office generated dissonance on the ground in Texas. His effort to rebrand himself as an “outsider” in the national nomination race was a hard sell for a three-term governor to make in his home state. When asked to rate on a scale of 0 to 10 how well a list of traits fit Perry in the October UT/TT poll, “outsider” generated the lowest mean score among the options offered (2.74), while a 7.1 mean score for “career politician” was second only to the 7.4 for “conservative.” Perry may literally be from somewhere outside of Washington D.C., but in the larger political sense, Texans don’t buy him as a political outsider.

The governor's national campaign may have cooled the core of the Texas GOP base, left them scratching their heads at the spectacle of the dominant elected official of the last decade presenting himself as a rampaging outsider, or just had them laughing ruefully at his pratfalls. He does not have to face the voters any time soon – perhaps not ever again. Perry aide Ray Sullivan sounded a bullish tone at Perry’s farewell press conference, hailing the bright prospects of future campaigns for both governor and president. It was hard not to interpret this as a signal to the political audience in the state that the governor should not be discounted as a lame duck. There is plenty of work to be done in Texas, including a legislative session, before Perry has to decide whether he has the desire to woo the voters again. In the meantime, his relationship with the voters may be in a rut, but when it comes to the legislators, business interests, and interest groups who practice politics every day, to borrow from George Costanza, the governor has a lot of hand.

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