Rick Perry is slowly re-building his political brand in Texas after his dramatic flameout in the 2012 presidential race.
Pollsters privately say his popularity ratings are inching back up, and friends believe he is likely to run for re-election in 2014 — and possibly mount another presidential race four years from now.
But Perry is incurring some political risk in the U.S. Senate race. The governor is enthusiastically backing Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, and he hasn’t shied away from attacking Dewhurst's Tea Party-backed opponent, former Solicitor General Ted Cruz.
When Cruz suggested last week that Perry was backing Dewhurst to “get him out of Austin,” the governor didn’t hesitate to fire back with a sharply worded attack.
"Earlier this evening Ted Cruz falsely characterized my rationale for endorsing my friend and conservative colleague David Dewhurst for the US Senate,” Perry said, going on to extol the lieutenant governor’s legislative accomplishments. “Making false statements about my motives or David Dewhurst's conservative record is a disservice to Texas voters."
The problem with attacking Cruz is that the Harvard-trained lawyer has about as much Tea Party credibility and backing as a Texas Republican could want, from local leaders like JoAnn Fleming, chair of the Texas Legislature’s Tea Party Caucus Advisory Committee, to national stars like U.S. Sens. Jim DeMint, R-South Carolina, and Rand Paul, R-Kentucky.
Perry adroitly courted Tea Party groups in 2009, long before most other top Republican leaders had grasped the importance and staying power of the movement. But the more he is seen by them as the leader of the establishment — and backing a candidate that they think is too moderate — the more he risks alienating a key GOP constituency.
This is not some idle endorsement, where one politician wishes another one success and then walks off the stage. Perry is actively promoting Dewhurst, and so are a lot of people within the governor’s extended network of allies. Dewhurst recently picked up another operative from Perry World — his state campaign political director, Kevin Lindley.
Lindley, known as a ground game expert, is working for Dewhurst in the runoff, which falls on July 31. Perry Special Adviser Clint Harp is filling in for Lindley while he works on The Dew’s Senate campaign.
Because Perry is so fully invested, there inevitably would be some blowback on him if Dewhurst fails. Pundits would question why all the king’s men couldn’t get his hand-picked candidate elected, and other insurgent Tea Party candidates like Cruz might be emboldened to try to replicate his success in 2014 and beyond.
Perry could also find himself competing for the state and national spotlight if Cruz is elected. Pundits would inevitably compare Cruz to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who is also of Cuban heritage. A new star would be born.
Of course, Cruz could fail to live up to the hype even if he is elected. And his Canadian birth appears to rule out a future run for the White House. So, unlike Rubio, he wouldn’t be talked about as vice-presidential timber — or potentially as a future candidate for president.
If Cruz doesn’t win, chances are good he’ll run for statewide office in two years, probably for attorney general. That would give the Republican establishment a chance to collectively make up, put on a united front in the media, and nip this whole insurgent candidacy nonsense in the bud.