It’s not exactly a Left Behind story, but there were a fair number of conservative policy wonks and political operators in Texas who didn’t catch the train to Washington in 2000. Now, as Gov. Rick Perry dances closer and closer to the presidential flame, those Texas Republicans might get another chance.
The conventional wisdom just a few months ago was that the rest of the country was weary of Texans, that even if they were in a mood to put a Republican back in the White House, nobody with boots needed apply for the job.
But maybe 2012 is like 1980, and the same electorate that voted for Ronald Reagan only eight years after voting for a fellow Californian, Richard Nixon, might vote for Perry eight years after electing George W. Bush.
The Texas Republican Party’s fortunes, and its candidates, rose through the decade in a series that might be called “firsts since Reconstruction” — first Republican state treasurer since, first agriculture commissioner since, then lieutenant governor, land commissioner and so on. Texas Republicans haven't lost a statewide election since 1994, and their decade of ascent was capped by Bush’s election to the presidency in 2000.
It was like a startup company. People who hired on when there was no real good reason to think being a Texas Republican was a good idea — back in the 1980s, say — found themselves on the plane to Washington to head government agencies, run regulatory boards, staff the White House and the political campaigns for Republicans from all over the country, and got a disproportionate share of the most coveted ambassadorial postings.
For a long time, Republican operatives in Texas all shared Genesis stories: They started out working for either John Tower, or Bill Clements, or George H. W. Bush or some other member of Congress. They lost all the same campaigns together. They joked about holding state conventions in phone booths.
And the Perry people, in particular, might be thinking about this. Some of them were also George W. Bush people. For example, two of Perry’s top advisers — Ray Sullivan, his chief of staff, and Deirdre Delisi, his former chief of staff and now the chairwoman of the Texas Transportation Commission — worked for Bush. Both could have easily found work in Washington when their candidate won, but both stayed back to work for Perry. Sullivan was Bush’s deputy communications director, working with Karen Hughes, part of the so-called Iron Triangle that also included Karl Rove and Joe Allbaugh. Delisi came up on the policy side and worked on the presidential campaign before returning to state government to work for Perry.
Usually it would be safe to say that was their chance to go to the major leagues and they’d taken a pass. Nothing wrong with that — lots of people would rather live in Austin than in Washington. It was certainly a safe thing to say at the time; nobody else in Texas politics looked like a national candidate when Bush was elected in 2000. Phil Gramm had tried and failed. Paul had run as a Libertarian in 1988 and was focused on Congress. Everybody here thought Hutchison would be running for governor. Put it like this: Nobody watching the Bush train pull out of Texas in 2000 was saying, “I’ll catch the next one.”
Some of the people running the state government now were barely old enough to vote in 2000. They were too young to grab that ride.
It’s crazy to say right now that there will be another chance for any of them. But Perry is doing his exploring, rising in the polls. None of the potential competition is taking potshots yet, and he’s in the all-news-is-good-news phase of his campaign.
He’s thinking about what it might be like, and it’s fair to think the people around him are doing exactly the same thing.