SAN ANTONIO — Gov. Rick Perry announced Monday that he will not run for re-election next year, creating the first open race for Texas governor since 1990 and making Attorney General Greg Abbott the instant favorite to replace him.
"I remain excited about the future and the challenges ahead, but the time has come to pass on the mantle of leadership," Perry said. "Today I am announcing I will not seek re-election as governor of Texas. I will spend the next 18 months working to create more jobs, opportunity and innovation. I will actively lead this great state."
Abbott hasn’t formally said what job he wants, but with the biggest war chest in Texas politics and a growing staff to match, his ambition for the top job in state government is not a secret. In a brief written statement, Abbott applauded Perry for helping to create the "best business climate in the nation" but said nothing about his intentions. His spokesman, Matt Hirsch, said Abbott would reveal his plans in "the coming weeks."
Perry’s exit from the statewide stage after nearly a quarter century doesn’t necessarily end his political ambition. He has said previously that he would make his decision about a White House bid before the end of this year; Perry made a brief and oblique mention of another run for national office.
"Any future considerations I will announce in due time, and I will arrive at that decision appropriately," Perry said.
Perry made Monday’s announcement at Holt Cat, one of the largest Caterpillar equipment dealers in the United States. The CEO of the company, Peter Holt, owns the San Antonio Spurs basketball team and is a major donor (nearly $600,000 since 2000) to Perry. He’s given $95,000 to Abbott since 2002, records show.
A huge throng of media was on hand for the announcement. Perry kept a tight grip on his plans, ratcheting up the speculation to a feverish pitch. Reporters were left guessing and parsing the words sent out in a “save the date” email that indicated he would reveal some “exciting future plans.”
Perry has 18 months left in his current term, so he’ll still have a huge political megaphone, appointment power and the ability to call a 30-day special session on any topic at any time. No one watching politics in Texas will be surprised if Perry makes full use of his authority and then some during his remaining time in office.
Friends and allies say Perry is energized by the abortion battle that propelled filibustering Democratic Sen. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth to stardom and temporarily derailed legislation that would ban abortions after 20 weeks and dramatically tighten standards on the facilities that provide them.
Perry came under fire for his criticism of Davis — for making it personal by saying that her compelling biography would never have been written had her mother taken a different path and not had a baby. But the controversy over the remarks and the legislation has helped Perry garner attention for his cause just as it has for Davis.
During an appearance on the weekend TV show Fox News Sunday, Perry said his comments about Davis were “meant to be a compliment.” He also said the disruptions by people in the gallery during the abortion debate amounted to “mob rule,” and predicted the GOP-dominated Legislature would soon send him a bill to tighten abortion regulations.
“The killing of babies that are viable outside their moms’ bodies, after 20 weeks, is what this is about,” Perry said. “In Texas we’re going to support protecting life … we are going to make sure that these health clinics are safe.”
No matter how much Perry involves himself in the matter of state government during his remaining months in office, Monday marks the start of a new era — with new personalities — in Texas politics.
Below him, in races for lieutenant governor, comptroller, attorney general and other offices, years of pent-up ambition have been unleashed. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst is trying to hang on, but his defeat in the U.S. Senate race last year, and a long list of opponents who want his job, will make for a tough re-election race. Comptroller Susan Combs is bowing out after two terms, and a host of other statewide officials are trying to move up the food chain.
Abbott stands to gain the most from Perry’s departure from the race. Because they are both staunch fiscal and social conservatives and share many of the same donors, they would have faced a high-stakes battle for the nomination had they faced off against each other. Republican Tom Pauken, a former Perry appointee to the Texas Workforce Commission, is in the governor’s race but faces an uphill climb. In a statement released after Perry's announcement, Pauken said the governor had made a "significant contribution to Texas history and will not soon be forgotten."
Evidence that the mantle has already been passed on to Abbott could be found in what Pauken said about Perry's heir apparent.
"He represents an Austin that has grown stale with insiders inheriting promotions whose primary allegiance is to those who write the big checks," Pauken said. "Every day Texans feel they don't have a voice anymore and that the insiders are running the show."
Hirsch, the Abbott spokesman, declined to comment on Pauken's remarks.
With that, the GOP primary for governor has more or less begun. Another candidate could emerge, but with nine months to go before the March primaries, Abbott is sitting pretty.
Perry, who will have been in office for more than 14 years when he departs in January 2015, leaves behind a long and colorful legacy at the helm of state government and the GOP political establishment. A former Texas House member and state agriculture commissioner, Perry was elected lieutenant governor in 1998. He became governor on Dec. 21, 2000, when George W. Bush resigned to become president. Perry is now the longest continuously serving governor in the United States and the longest-serving governor in Texas history by far.
He survived tough political scrapes, too. In 2006, Perry limped to victory in a five-way race with just 39 percent of the vote. For that the Democrats called him “Gov. 39 Percent,” though the name didn’t stick. A few years later, Perry made up a 20-point deficit in the polls and easily defeated Kay Bailey Hutchison in the Republican primary.
Perry said Monday that he approached the decision not to run for governor again "with a deep sense of humility and appreciation, knowing I will truly miss serving in this capacity because it is the greatest job in modern politics."
Democrats gave Perry a little kick in the pants on his way out the door. Jenn Brown, director of Battleground Texas, a Democratic group working to make the state politically competitive, said the longtime governor had failed Texans on all of the issues that matter, including transportation, education and women's health.
"After 12 years of failed policies and divisive rhetoric, it’s welcome news that Governor Perry announced he will not run for re-election," Brown said. "It’s time for a new era in the Lone Star State – Texans deserve a leader who will stand up and fight for their values.
Perry was at the top of his game as governor when he decided to throw himself into the 2012 presidential race. He entered the contest in August 2011, quickly raised millions and immediately shot to the top of the polls. But soon a series of missteps and gaffes began to drag down his once promising candidacy.
Then on Nov. 9, 2011, during a nationally televised debate in Michigan, Perry entered the political blooper hall of fame when he couldn’t remember the third of three federal departments he wanted to shut down if elected president.
“I would do away with the Education, the, uh, Commerce, and, let's see," Perry said toward the end of 53 seconds of campaign horror. “I can't. The third one I can't. Sorry. Oops.” (For the record, it was the Department of Energy.)
The embarrassment came as Perry’s campaign was struggling to revive a candidacy that had already become the stuff of late-night comedy routines. After the oops moment, he never recovered. Perry came in fifth in first-test Iowa, did not compete in New Hampshire and then withdrew before the South Carolina GOP primary — a southern state that had held promise for him — in January of last year.
Perry, who jumped into the race with almost no advance preparation, later pointed to his sudden entry in the contest and the health fallout from his July 2011 back surgery as major reasons why his candidacy faltered.
He’ll have a lot more time to prepare if he runs again as many expect, and analysts see a tough but not impossible road ahead for Perry should he get into the 2016 race.
Jim Henson, a Tribune pollster and head of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin, said Perry has already made a first impression, and what voters saw was a gaffe-prone, shoot-from-the-hip Texan. Now the first order of business is dialing that back.
“The first task is not to establish an image, it’s to reset one,” Henson said. “That presents difficult, if not insurmountable problems.”