Presidential election cycles can have the feel of the beginning of summer vacation for students: School seems like a long way off, but before you know it, it's here.
Positioning by prospective 2016 presidential candidates started as far back as 2013. Gov. Rick Perry's announcement in July of that year that he wouldn't seek another term as governor — 18 months ahead of the election — was seen by many political observers as one such move.
Texas’ role in presidential contests doesn’t typically extend to selecting nominees — at least not on the electoral side. It’s usually a done deal, or close to it, by the time primaries are held here. Reliably red for a couple of decades, Texas offers no swing-state drama. That may change in coming years, a possibility that has both major parties paying attention, but barring an almost unimaginable turn of events, the majority of Texans will vote for whomever the GOP offers as its candidate in 2016.
That candidate could turn out to be a Texas politician, or have deep Texas roots. No fewer than four early mentions with national name recognition and presidential-grade credentials were raised in the state: Both Perry and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush were born and grew up here. U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Rand Paul, R-Ky., were both born elsewhere but were raised in the Lone Star State.
And a handful of others have Texas ties. Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton registered voters in South Texas during George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign. Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard who unsuccessfully ran as a Republican for U.S. Senate in California in 2010, was born in Austin. Her family moved away when she was a toddler, but she remembers frequent visits.
Outgoing Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat,worked from Dallas as field director on Gary Hart’s 1984 campaign. Former Arkansas Gov. and Fox News host Mike Huckabee attended the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth from 1976 to 1977. Rick Santorum, who won the GOP Iowa caucus in 2012, is the CEO of a "family-friendly film company" based in Flower Mound, where he spends a significant amount of time.
U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., received her undergraduate degree from the University of Houston, and later taught law there and at the University of Texas at Austin. Jim Webb, a former Democratic U.S. senator from Virginia and secretary of the Navy, grew up in a military family that was stationed several times in Texas.
While Texans may be happy to bestow citizenship, the state’s significance in presidential politics transcends the candidates it offers. With its quickly shifting demographics and explosive population growth, nation-leading job creation and fossil fuel production, it’s both a piggy bank for politicians of all stripes and an electoral goldmine.
Perry, who ran unsuccessfully for president in 2012, has done nothing to suggest he isn’t up for another run. With pronouncements on foreign and domestic policies, Texas-touting trips to states across the country, more specific jaunts to Iowa and New Hampshire, high-profile international forums and gunboat trips on the Rio Grande, Perry's last 18 months as governor have hardly been those of a "lame duck" leader.
Along the way, he seems to have done much to rehabilitate himself from his self-inflicted wounds in his hasty and ill-fated 2012 run. Always a staunch opponent of what he sees as federal overreach, Perry found sure footing in the summer of 2014, when a surge of immigrants were coming to the border. His decisions to devote more Department of Public Safety resources to the border and send 1,000 National Guard troops there might have raised eyebrows in Texas, but it played well with his base and helped shore up his tough-on-immigration credentials after the 2012 campaign.
Perry’s political rehabilitation, however, is jeopardized by legal troubles. In August 2014, a Travis County grand jury handed down two felony indictments against him, alleging he abused his power by threatening to veto funding for the public integrity unit, which is charged with investigating state corruption. Perry vetoed the funding after Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg — whose office houses the unit — refused to resign after her drunken driving arrest.
Perry has dismissed the indictments as politically motivated and swiftly rolled out a dream team of top lawyers to defend him, even making a show of his booking before heading off to New Hampshire, traditional stomping grounds of presidential aspirants, just one week after his indictment.
What impact, positive or negative, all of this might have on his supposed candidacy remains to be seen. In the immediate aftermath, Republican voters warmly greeted him during his visits to early primary states, but that was long before any voting or side-by-side comparisons with other candidates who aren’t under indictment. The key might be to get the case dismissed as quickly as possible — a failed partisan attack might even burnish his conservative credentials.
If the GOP has a rock star, it’s Cruz. Like another first-term U.S. senator in recent memory, Cruz seems ready to make the leap to a national candidacy. He’s certainly been on the national stage almost since the day he was sworn in: His opposition to President Obama, to Obamacare, to Democrats and to Washington in general has been unwavering, but his fellow Republicans have felt the sting, too — perhaps more acutely. He may have stepped on some toes, but Cruz has captured ferocious grassroots support from the right wing of his party — and there’s a sizable delegation on Capitol Hill that join in that enthusiasm. Like Perry, he’s been making the requisite stops in the early primary states and at high-profile conventions.
Perry and Cruz are Texas politicians with their eyes on the White House, but they’re not the only Texans: Midland-born Bush, the son of one president and younger brother of another, has made several moves indicating he’s seriously considering a run. And with his family’s deep connections and history in Texas, a great deal of support — and money — could flow his way to other candidates’ detriment.
Paul was born in Pennsylvania but was raised in Lake Jackson, Texas, where his father, former U.S. Congressman, physician and Libertarian hero Ron Paul, practiced medicine. He may be the closest competition to Cruz ideologically, but he’s taken on Perry, too, sparring over foreign policy issues and reminding voters of the famous “Oops” moment.
Any of these men could emerge as their party’s nominee — Perry’s resurgence, aided by a strong staffing move and his own formidable political savvy, so far has been swift and sure-footed. Cruz has made his own staffing moves, and has little, if anything, to lose by running — he’s not up for re-election until 2018, and he may be too contrarian to advance far in the Senate in any case. Paul could split his support, the conservative establishment could rally around Perry…
Or none of the above: It’s worth remembering that in 2010, at least 17 names were being bandied about as possible 2012 GOP presidential candidates.
On the Democratic side, at least as far as Texas goes, the story probably won’t be so much who the nominee turns out to be, but what inroads — if any — Democrats are able to make. Demographics may or may not be destiny, but the population is inexorably shifting, and considerable money and effort were expended to turn the state from red to blue. November 2014 election results showed that day, if it ever comes, is still a long way off, but pundits, political professionals and politicians will be watching Texas closely: In 2016, even a bit of purple will be seen as significant.