Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a former Air Force captain, has successfully been flying under the national political radar for years. On Tuesday night, he kicked in his afterburners and lit up the sky.
Perry steamrolled a very popular U.S. senator to win the Republican gubernatorial nomination without a runoff and is now very likely on his way to being the first three-term governor of Texas. He’s the second longest serving governor in the country, behind North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven by only six days. He’s served for a decade and could be governor of Texas for 14 years unless something, umm, intervenes.
And so, come November, Perry and his skilled political team will likely be sitting around plotting his next move. And it ain’t likely to be a fourth term as governor.
The race against Kay Bailey Hutchison was supposed to be a classic political brawl. A year ago, most handicappers thought it was Hutchison’s to lose. At the very least it was expected to be a photo finish. Hutchison had approval ratings through the roof, the support of many establishment Republicans and prominent Bush supporters, including George H.W., and is well-known and well-liked by Texans. And Perry had won his last race with only 39 percent of the vote.
As the economic and political environment turned sour, Perry’s fortunes improved. And unlike Hutchison, who has never had a competitive race, Perry has been through a series of Texas-sized slug fests over the years and developed into a tough, aggressive campaigner. He let his veteran political dogs off the leash early, before Hutchison ever got off the blocks, and successfully framed the race as the true fiscal conservative fighting for and protecting Texas jobs versus the Washington insider Kay “Bailout” Hutchison.
• Linda Hirshman: Meet the Mini-Palins Perry has been underestimated for years by the media and his opponents. But, putting aside his politics, he looks good in person and looks good on paper. He’s a fifth-generation Texan, born to ranchers in Paint Creek in West Texas. He attended Texas A&M, where he was a “yell leader”—big deal in Aggieland. He served in the Air Force and then came home and farmed cotton. He married his high school sweetheart and has two children. He was elected as Democrat to the Texas House of Representatives in 1984. A year after he switched parties in 1989, Perry challenged the wildly popular, iconic but very liberal Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower. He then beat a very popular and savvy Democrat John Sharp in a razor-close race for lieutenant governor in 1998. When George W. Bush became president, Perry became governor. He then won his first race for governor against Tony Sanchez, beating him easily 58 to 40. His re-election bid was tougher and more complicated, as he had six-way race in the general election and won with a plurality of less than 40 percent.
Perry has governed and campaigned as an ideological conservative and populist railing against the evils of Washington. He made national news in April 2009 when at a tea party protest he said, “Texas is a unique place. When we came into the union in 1845, one of the issues was that we would be able to leave if we decided to do that...My hope is that America and Washington in particular pays attention. We’ve got a great union. There’s absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, who knows what may become of that.”
While he later disavowed advocating secession, the message was delivered and heard by exactly the people Perry wanted to hear it. The national press howled with derision, but it was a deliberately played primary card that lit up the Texas base and positioned Perry early at the forefront of the anti-Washington crusaders.
Perry has not been without controversy. He supported a $145 billion Trans-Texas Corridor, a project including highways, rail, and utilities financed, built, and owned by a Spanish company. He dismissed findings by forensic investigators that appear to prove the innocence of a man executed while Perry was governor. In 2007, Perry issued an executive order mandating that Texas girls get an HPV vaccine, a move that didn’t square with his conservative background and raised questions because his former chief of staff lobbied the issue.
But those and other scars from legislative battles over the years during his sometimes rocky tenure will likely “heal up and hair over” soon after he likely vanquishes his Democratic opponent, Bill White, in the general election in the fall. White is a savvy former Clinton Energy Department No. 2 and successful former mayor of Houston, and will run an aggressive, well-funded race. But Texas is probably still at least a cycle away from the demographic tide that will turn the state Democratic again.
And so, come November, Perry and his skilled political team, which includes Dave Carney, David Weeks, Mike Baselice, and Rob Johnson, will likely be sitting around plotting his next move. And it ain’t likely to be a fourth term as governor.
There’s a fight right now for the soul of the Republican Party. There’s a dominant and loud wing led by social ideologues like Sarah Palin, who endorsed Perry. But if she doesn’t run for president—and if she’s actually smart, she won’t because she’ll never wield as much power, influence, or money than she does now, and she’s unlikely to win a general election—then the field opens up considerably. And who’s left to fill that right- wing spectrum? Mike Huckabee has a prison commutation problem. Rick Santorum has a narrow Christian base of support and as a former senator spent a lot of time inside the unpopular Beltway. And if a more moderate candidate like Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, or Mitch Daniels (watch out for Mitch “the Knife”) wins the nomination, they’ll be looking for someone to put in the No. 2 slot with appeal to Southerners and strong conservatives.
The former Air Force captain is now flying high.
As vice chairman of Public Strategies and president of Maverick Media, Mark McKinnon has helped meet strategic challenges for candidates, corporations and causes, including George W. Bush, John McCain, Governor Ann Richards, Charlie Wilson, Lance Armstrong, and Bono. McKinnon is co-chair of Arts & Labs, a collaboration between technology and creative communities that have embraced today's rich Internet environment to deliver innovative and creative digital products to consumers.