The next phase of Texas politics began on Monday, immediately after Gov. Rick Perry announced that he did not plan to seek another term, but we won’t be living in a post-Perry Texas for another 18 months.
Between now and January 2015, when his successor is sworn in, we will be watching something we haven’t seen in years: waning power in the governor’s office.
That didn’t happen when George W. Bush left, because Perry stepped right in. The distance between Ann Richards’ loss and Bush’s swearing in amounted to only 60 days. Bill Clements was the last lame duck, and his final two years (1989 and 1990) — after everyone knew he wouldn’t return — were packed with six special sessions on workers’ compensation insurance and public school finance.
The current governor was a legislator during those fights, and he is one of only a few state officials who have been through this. Maybe history won’t repeat; maybe this year’s second special session is Perry’s last.
In the meantime, his decision has enlivened Texas politics. Predictable and orderly elections may have been good for the incumbents, but they have made for poor theater in recent years.
Perry’s announcement set up the first open governor’s race since 1990 and the first one without Perry in it since 1998. The leading replacement candidate, Attorney General Greg Abbott, has enough money to run a primary, and a statewide organization that has helped him win election five times — twice to the Supreme Court and three times to his current job. The longest-serving governor in state history may well be replaced by the longest-serving attorney general in state history.
The conventional wisdom is that the top race is not competitive, in the same way that conventional wisdom held that last year’s U.S. Senate race wasn’t supposed to be competitive.
The downballot statewide races are, for the first time in years, genuinely competitive. Open seats are rare, and ambitious politicians — Republicans, anyway — are straining at their leashes.
Long tenure is common in legislative and congressional offices. Texas has a few legislators who have been in office since before the Nixon administration got into trouble. But not at the top.
It is weird to serve in executive office for as long as this bunch has served. It skews everyone’s perception of politics. A number of political careers either didn’t advance or didn’t start because the ladder was blocked by someone with a surprisingly strong grip on the top rung.
When the top six statewide officeholders end their current terms, they will have been in their current offices for a total of 66 years. That, among other things, thinned the ranks of people who might have been ready to succeed the governor. Many moved on, though one has hung in.
If you’re the sort of person who likes an orderly progression on the organizational charges of government, they’re playing your song.
If you like turnover, fresh ideas and new faces, get another hobby. Or watch the lower half of the statewide ballot.
We’re about to see a set of wagers from Texas Republicans deciding whether to hug Perry’s record and history or to pick some points on which they differ, even slightly, to get a little daylight in there.
That will be the first real test of his current popularity with Republican voters. Some will be reacting to the governorship, but Perry will increasingly be seen in a presidential context, where his politics are in need of some mechanical work. He’s popular as a governor — the electoral record is proof enough of that — but not as a presidential candidate. The proof, once again, is right there in the electoral record.
His job, if he is really going to jump into another presidential race, is to replace his public image as a goof with the image of a successful Sun Belt Republican leader, which is how he was seen before he entered the 2012 race. Until then, his voters will be like parents at a piano recital, waiting nervously for the next wrong note.
His fellow politicians will be there, too, the first judges of whether the outgoing governor still has some political appeal.
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