Ambitious Republicans have been waiting in the wings for years, anticipating when Gov. Rick Perry will step out from under the spotlight they crave.
But the longtime governor may not be ready to move off the stage just yet.
Despite carrying the wounds from his gaffe-prone presidential campaign, Perry showed this week he still knows how to dominate the political conversation. He urged all Republican candidates for state office this year to sign on to his pledge to cut spending and oppose all tax increases — and many of them are rushing to embrace it. (And even if they're not embracing it, they're talking about it).
Whatever policy decisions flow from Perry’s “Texas Budget Compact” in the 2013 legislative session, his use of the bully pulpit to promote Tea Party conservatism a few weeks before Texas' 2012 primary is yet another signal that the governor wants to stay relevant, even though he isn’t on the ballot. Predictably, it has also sparked another round of speculation about whether he will run for an unprecedented fourth term.
Lobbyists and friends who know Perry say he is telling associates that he plans to run in 2014, which could give him 18 years in the governor's office. He has also publicly held the door open to another presidential run in 2016. On Wednesday Perry told CBS DFW TV that he was thinking about another White House bid and that his "instincts are very positive towards" a race for governor in two years.
“Everybody who I’ve talked to that’s met with him comes away with the idea that he’s running [for re-election],” said Austin lobbyist Bill Miller. “That’s what he’s telling them.”
Is it all a ruse? Some observers believe that Perry merely wants to avoid being written off as a has-been, that he wants to be taken seriously when Texas lawmakers meet again next year.
“I think he is re-engaging to make sure he is a player in the upcoming legislative session,” said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University. “It’s a good way to remain in the public eye after taking such a beating in the presidential election.”
Jillson predicted that Perry would not seek re-election but do something he hasn’t done in almost 30 years — work in the private sector. He said Perry needs to start pulling down some serious money before he’s too old for that.
On the other hand, Perry has shown in the past that he is capable of surprising Capitol watchers.
Before Perry signaled in 2008 that he would run for a third term, it was widely assumed that he was going to step aside. Like now, there was speculation that Perry was floating the idea of a re-election campaign simply because he didn’t want to be dismissed as yesterday’s news.
“Most folks wrote it off then as an effort to spike the idea that he was a lame duck,” Texas Monthly senior executive editor Paul Burka wrote in March 2008.
No matter what Perry says now, the landscape could change after the 2012 elections. If Mitt Romney were to win the White House, that would end any speculation about another Perry run for president in 2016, and it could dampen his enthusiasm for another run for governor.
How Perry’s agenda fares in the 2013 session is also sure to play a role in his decision.
Democrats generally regard the overheated Perry speculation with a sense of amused horror. For them he is Governor Oops, the guy who couldn’t remember what he was supposed to say in front of millions of people.
“I think Texas has some serious Perry burnout,” said Democratic operative Glenn Smith, who was an adviser to Gov. Ann Richards. “He’s like a bad TV sitcom that’s just run too long.” Still, Smith admits Perry would be a “strong if not formidable candidate” in a 2014 general election against the Democrats, who haven’t won statewide office since 1994.
Like it or not, Perry still gets a lot of love from the small percentage of the Texas electorate that decides who will be the Republican gubernatorial nominee — which in modern terms has come to mean the Texas governor. Already, Perry's budget pledge has drawn support from several influential conservative activists and groups, including the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Michael Quinn Sullivan's Texans for Fiscal Responsibility and Americans For Prosperity.
Tea Party activist JoAnn Fleming, who chairs the advisory committee for the legislative Tea Party Caucus, also praised the governor for pushing the budget compact. But she isn't ready to jump on the Perry 2014 bandwagon just yet.
Last year Fleming slammed Perry for not doing more to crack down on illegal immigration, and in a Texas Tribune interview she said her group still has differences with the governor. She said that on a "personal level" she would like to see someone else run for governor in 2014 but would wait until there are announced candidates to pick from before ruling it out.
"I think probably it's time for us to have a fresh face and fresh ideas," she said. "I guess it just depends on who is running at the time."
For a whole bevy of Republican officeholders, guessing what Perry will do next goes beyond idle political speculation. It could have a major impact on their own futures. GOP state officials like Attorney General Greg Abbott, Comptroller Susan Combs, Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples (plus all the people who want to replace them) have been itching to move up. Without a vacancy at the top, they potentially face bruising primaries or career stagnation.
Abbott in particular has a lot riding on Perry’s next move. He had $12 million in the bank at last count and is widely considered the top GOP contender for governor if Perry is not in the picture.
Allies of both men — and they tend to swim in the same political waters — say Abbott’s strategy is to give Perry a wide berth. They say Abbott wants to avoid backing Perry into a corner, for fear that doing so could push the easily provoked West Texan into making a rash re-election announcement.
Eric Bearse, an Abbott spokesman and a former top Perry aide, said the attorney general will be on the ballot in 2014, though for what job is not yet clear.
“He and Gov. Perry have been longtime friends and allies and will continue to work together,” Bearse said. “The politics of 2014 will work itself out. It’s still a long ways off.’’