It was a far-fetched notion at the time. Until Perry came along, no Texas governor had been on track to serve three consecutive four-year terms.
So when Perry answered yes, it was like a bomb went off inside the Texas political establishment — and inside Perry’s office, too, because his aides were about as surprised as the average Capitol insider.
With Perry approaching the end of another term, the idea that he would tempt re-election fate again strikes many observers as improbable. Not only would it put Perry within reach of serving for 18 years, but it also could set up a heavyweight showdown in the Republican primary for governor: Attorney General Greg Abbott appears to be setting up for a run for the office and has not said publicly whether he would step aside should Perry go for it.
The well-financed Abbott is popular with the same grass-roots conservatives who have propelled Perry to one statewide victory after another since 1990. But the conventional wisdom in Austin is that the two will not face off.
“All the indications are that Perry will not run and Abbott is the designated successor by the Austin insiders,” said Tom Pauken, a former Perry appointee who is waging his own campaign to become governor. “But who can predict what Rick Perry is going to do?”
Those who know Perry best are not ruling out anything. That is because the farm boy from Paint Creek, who became the governor in late 2000, has a long and colorful history of political shock-and-awe moves.
At a bill-signing ceremony in May 2011, Perry stunned his staff yet again when he said he would “think about” running for president. That marked a departure from previous remarks, and it was the first step in a climb toward his 2012 presidential run.
It turned out to be a bumpy ride, prompting one of his former advisers, Ted Delisi, to compare Perry, presciently, to a speedboat — “fast, agile, but capable of crashing.” A few weeks after Delisi said that, Perry, during a televised debate in November 2011, famously forgot the third federal department he wanted to shut down. He never recovered.
On the night of the January 2012 Iowa caucuses, where Perry finished in fifth place, his bedraggled campaign staff staged an impromptu party at the Sheraton West Des Moines Hotel, bidding tearful goodbyes and discussing plans for a future without Perry as a presidential candidate. Why not? Perry had just announced he would go home for some “prayer and reflection,” universally interpreted as a sign he was out.
But the next day, Perry tweeted, “Here we come South Carolina!!!” — a reference to the next state on the primary calendar that Perry was contesting. He wound up pulling out two days before that contest, but the sudden Iowa turnabout has not been forgotten.
“Ultimately, decisions like this he makes only with his family,” said Robert Black, a former Perry aide who was at the governor’s side in 2008 when he announced his re-election plans. “He does what he thinks is right, and sometimes his decisions come as a surprise even to people who are close to him.
“For those out there trying to read the tea leaves, don’t. Because you’re probably going to be wrong.”
That said, with political insiders being who they are, the tea-leaf-reading season is well under way. And there are plenty of signs to interpret.
For starters, there is the juggernaut that Abbott has systematically assembled: an $18 million war chest, an ever-growing staff and a spacious new campaign office near the Capitol. By contrast, Perry, at last count, had $6 million in the bank, and he has not been noticeably ramping up his campaign or appointing big-name consultants.
Nor have the last few months been filled with the kind of partisan intensity that characterized the run-up to Perry’s 2012 presidential run, when he was coming off a Tea Party-backed re-election victory and used his emergency powers to push conservative priorities on abortion, voter identification laws, property rights and immigration.
This legislative session, he issued no emergency decrees and instead focused mostly on a few core budgetary and fiscal priorities. A governor bent on a potentially tough re-election campaign would be expected to exhibit more aggressive and confrontational behavior, and perhaps some public jabs at Abbott. Yet recently the two men jointly toured the devastation wrought by North Texas tornadoes that killed six people, and associates say they genuinely like each other.
For many observers, those are subtle signs that, come 2014, Perry’s name will be missing from the statewide ballot for the first time in nearly 25 years.
On the other hand, Perry just called a 30-day special session, and he still has not combed through the newly passed state budget and most of the bills passed during the recently concluded regular session. So there is plenty of time to shake things up with his veto pen or by pushing for the enactment of hot-button measures on abortion, guns and school vouchers — which is just what one of his top allies, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, is asking him to do.
It has not escaped Team Perry’s notice that the governor was leading Abbott almost three to one in a spring University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll of likely Republican voters. And while Abbott has a bigger and better-financed organization, the governor is far better known, and allies say he would have no trouble putting together a campaign in a hurry. His campaign manager in the 2010 race for governor, Rob Johnson, did not settle into the post until June 2009.
“If Gov. Perry decides to run, he will have the team and the resources to win,” said Mark Miner, a former Perry spokesman. “He’s done it in the past, and he would do it again.”
Perry has also quietly made two recent campaign hires, including a fundraiser, and while there is talk of foreign trips this summer and fall, nothing is locked in.
“Ultimately, his schedule will depend on what he decides to do,” said Allison Castle, a spokeswoman for Perry. The governor has been widely quoted as saying he would make his intentions clear in June, but at a recent press conference he would not commit to a timetable.
While Republicans play the guessing game about their primaries, the down-and-out Texas Democrats, who have not won statewide office since 1994, are not close to coalescing around a candidate for governor. Many want the telegenic mayor of San Antonio, Julián Castro, to run, but he has said he wants to stay at City Hall. State Sen. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth, who is up for re-election in 2014, has been mentioned as a possibility.
Battleground Texas, a new Democratic group led by former organizers for President Obama, is making the first serious concerted effort in years to re-energize moribund Democrats and register new voters in the only reliably Republican state where minorities are in the majority.
“This is really a long-term project,” said Jenn Brown, the group’s director. “But whether it’s '14 or '16 or '18 or '20, whenever it happens, it’s this kind of work that’s going to make that happen.”