Twenty-six years after he rode into Austin as a Democratic House member from Haskell, Rick Perry sits at the top of one of the country's most conservative state Republican parties, having forged a coalition of economic, religious and social conservatives that has helped him become the state's longest-serving governor and poised for a national political run.
When he started, two of those groups weren't always welcome at the Republican table. Perry, who started his political career with "D-Haskell" appended to his name, fully consolidated his hold on the Texas GOP in March of 2010 with his crushing defeat of U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Debra Medina in the gubernatorial primary. Given the choice between an establishment conservative, an untested doyenne of the Tea Party movement and Perry, a social and economic conservative riding an anti-Washington wave, Texas Republicans chose Perry. He got 51.1 percent to Hutchison's 30.3 percent and Medina's 18.5 percent.
They also positioned him for a national race, which he is openly considering now, by significantly erasing doubts about his ability to consolidate the factions in the party.
"The Republican Party is pretty much a three-legged stool, with social and fiscal conservatives and kind of a mix of gun and property rights and other issues," says Stephanie Klick, chairwoman of the Tarrant County GOP. "Sometimes you have fights at the dinner table … but Perry does a pretty good job of balancing those groups."
Perry came into the top spot in his party as the social conservatives moved into the center of the party. Along the way, he's become much more outspoken on that faction's behalf. The governor's allies say his own views haven't changed, that his particular strain of conservatism is in his bones and that it's become more apparent as social conservatism has moved into the GOP's mainstream.
"The party has evolved to where he had the ability to be more open about some of his views," says Susan Weddington, a former chairwoman of the Republican Party of Texas. "I think it's the party that's changed some — this is definitely in his political DNA."
"Rick Perry has continued to stand up. I think that's who the man is," says Cathie Adams, who has been a Texas GOP chairwoman, national committeewoman and head of the Texas Eagle Forum.
She, like others in the Perry fold, believes he's been consistently conservative on issues that matter to social and religious conservatives — most of the time. Like others, she says his support for a mandated vaccine against human papillomavirus was off pitch. HPV, which is sexually transmitted, is the leading cause of cervical cancer; Perry wanted to require the shots for all 12-year-old girls in Texas, unless their parents opted out.
"I worked against HPV," Adams says. "I don't think he was ill-intended on that. He could have listened to more voices."
State Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center, agrees with that — "where he shot himself in the foot was a couple of sessions ago with that vaccination thing" — but also says Perry's place as the party's standard-bearer is safe.
"I've talked especially with the Tea Party people," he says. "If you want to say on the correct side of them, you need to stick with Perry."
Next month, Perry is fronting a religious rally and day of fasting called The Response at Reliant Stadium in Houston. It's a gathering of conservative Christian preachers and ministers and priests, among others, and has opened Perry to criticism for conflating religion and politics. It's appealing to some voters, repellent to others; in other words, it's a classic political wedge that forces people to take sides.
"If you're doing something like this, you can't worry about the politics of it," says Eric Bearse, a former Perry aide and speechwriter who's helping put The Response together. He concedes that "people will connect the political dots" but says Perry's intent isn't political. "While the attention gets placed on the person … it's about the movement and not the man in this case.
"We don't see it as a political event," he says.
Adams thinks the alarms about The Response are out of place. "No one should be concerned about that. … The people who don't like it don't have to participate," Adams says. "That's good. That's a free forum."
Perry's foes say they don't doubt his religiosity or his conservatism, but say he and the Texas party have moved to the right since he switched from the Democrats to run for agriculture commissioner in 1990. That year, he faced the state's most liberal Democrat in Ag Commissioner Jim Hightower, and he surprised Hightower and almost everyone else by winning the election. In 1998, with George W. Bush facing re-election, Perry won the closest race of his statewide career, beating Comptroller John Sharp, a Democrat, in the lieutenant governor's race.
"What I would say about Rick Perry is that he knows where his 50-percent-plus-one votes come from," says Kathy Miller, president and executive director of the Texas Freedom Network. "We have to look at the direction of his party over the course of that period. As the Republican Party has moved to the right, Perry has followed it."
And she's skeptical about events like The Response, or Perry's signing bills to restrict abortion and same-sex marriage at a religious school in Fort Worth in 2005, or his participation in the Restoration Project, designed in part to get Christian voters to the polls that same year.
"I don't question the governor's faith or his commitment to religion, but we've seen him using faith as a political tool or as a campaign prop … over the last decade or so," she says. "I believe that's come from the need to win Republican primaries."
She cites examples of the difference between Perry now and Perry 10 years ago. Shortly after he became governor in 2000, Perry signed a hate crimes bill that included gays among the protected groups. He appointed a moderate, Grace Shore, to chair the State Board of Education. He called for expansions of the state's Medicaid and Children's Health Insurance programs.
His last three SBOE appointees came from the conservative wing of that board. He's called for Medicaid cuts — saying at one point that the states should be allowed to opt out of it.
"I think this is a path," Miller says. "I believe that Rick Perry is a consummate politician and that his positions have moved in accordance with the votes he needs to win."
Bearse says that Perry has built a strong base of social conservatives, reaching out to clergy and others, but says he's also got a strong base among fiscal conservatives. He flatly disagrees that the governor has changed his politics to suit the times.
The political environment in Texas has changed, though. Statewide Democratic candidates haven't had a win since 1994. With the serious fights moving from general elections to primaries, positions on conservative issues are largely what decide elections in the state. The Rick Perry who wrote a 1993 letter calling Hillary Clinton's health care reform efforts "most commendable" now rails against "Obamacare" and federal health care mandates.
In 2002, Perry easily defeated Democrat Tony Sanchez (who spend an estimated $70 million in the race), and he got 39 percent in a four-way race in 2006, winning but raising questions about the popularity of a governor who couldn't win the support of 61 percent of the state's voters. After winning the 2010 primary, Perry got 55 percent in the general election, breezing past Democrat Bill White (who pulled 42.3 percent) and into his third full term.
The biggest questions in a national race might be about how those recent experiences shaped his politics: Does he remember how to run against a strong Democratic opponent? And have his ties to the GOP's most conservative factions made it difficult for him to appeal to enough independents and moderates to win a national race?
Adams says other states have conservative streaks, but she boasts a bit: "Texas is more conservative, traditional and liberty-loving in our thinking."
Weddington thinks Perry will be an attractive national candidate but says he might emphasize something other than social conservatism and religion in that forum. Until the showdown last year, Perry hadn't faced a primary opponent. With that behind him, he can argue that the Texas GOP is unified and try to appeal to national Republicans to take a dose of the same medicine.
"I think [his politics] would sell to independents," Weddington says. Perry's record in Texas is appealing, she says, if the subject of the election is the economy. "The social conservative base understands that they might not be front and center. What people want to talk about right now is jobs. Social conservatives are concerned about jobs, too.
"He doesn't offend the whole broad spectrum of economic and social conservatives," she says. "He's just the right person at the right time at the right place."