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Perry Mixes Discipline, Savvy Skill

Texas Gov. Rick Perry is expected to run a disciplined, anti-Washington presidential campaign modeled on his successful takedown of Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in the 2010 Republican gubernatorial primary.

Perry’s March 2010 victory, initially unexpected, harnessed tea party energy and conservative angst with the federal government — offering an early glimpse of what was to come in November of that year. But interviews with Texas Republicans familiar with Perry’s career and an examination of old campaign ads reveal a politician with considerably more range than recent history suggests — and one who is capable of reinvention when necessary.

“There are many attributes about Rick Perry that everyone seems to continually underestimate,” said Luis Saenz, campaign manager for the governor’s 2006 re-election and his deputy campaign manager in 2002. “His media team will run a message until it burns in. You will see discipline in all aspects of the campaign.”

Perry was scheduled to formally announce for president on Saturday in South Carolina, followed by weekend campaign stops in New Hampshire and Iowa. Perry spokesman Mark Miner told Roll Call that the Republican’s main focus as a candidate would be to “get America working again,” while reducing the country’s tax burden and debt load.

Even critics who believe Perry has been the recipient of an inordinate amount of luck acknowledge the governor’s keen political acumen, likability and retail politics skills, a major strength in the early presidential primary states. Through Perry’s several campaigns, particularly his gubernatorial bids in 2002, 2006 and 2010, he has demonstrated an ability to find a campaign message that works, and the discipline to stick to it without being distracted.

In Perry’s quest for the Republican presidential nomination, that message will be lean and simple, focusing on a few broad, conservative themes that appeal to GOP primary voters: The economy is broken, Washington, D.C., is making things worse, he’s the outsider who can fix it and create jobs. In Perry’s 2010 re-election bid, he used Hutchison as a prop for Washington and ran almost exclusively against D.C. as the main threat to Texas’ relatively sound economy.

A Republican operative based in Texas and supporting Perry said the governor’s race against Hutchison gives a strong sense of what Perry will talk about nationally. The operative said that even though jobs weren’t a focus in the gubernatorial battle, “Obviously that will be No. 1.”

But Texas GOP insiders say the governor’s opponents in the presidential race shouldn’t assume he’s a one-trick pony with nothing more than an anti-Washington screed. A review of a dozen Perry campaign television spots dating as far back as his 1990 run for agriculture commissioner shows a politician who has not shied way from kitchen table issues that appeal across party lines and can adapt to the politics of the moment. “That played out in every one of his campaigns for governor,” the GOP operative said.

In 2002, Perry’s first gubernatorial campaign, he ran on George W. Bush’s then-popular coattails and focused on transportation, defeating a wealthy Hispanic businessman who spent about
$80 million of his own money on the race. In 2006, Perry prevailed despite a tough year for the GOP nationally, running on border security and tort reform. The themes of Perry’s ads over the years have run the gamut.

His agriculture commissioner spots show him dressed in cowboy gear and working on a ranch as he talks Texas values and job creation.

His lieutenant governor and gubernatorial pitches show Perry in business suits walking through offices and classrooms, bragging about economic growth, property tax cuts, government investments in public education and health care for children and the elderly. He also boasted about hitting “irresponsible” health maintenance organizations and health insurance companies with millions in government fines.

“As governor of a state the size of Texas, you’re involved with numerous issues that affect the lives of people,” Miner said. “People are moving here because Texas has good schools and because of the good quality of life.”

A Democrat in the Texas Legislature until 1989, when he became a Republican, Perry has never lost a race. He ran for agriculture commissioner in 1990, winning the first of six consecutive victories on the statewide ballot. Perry was elected lieutenant governor in 1998, becoming governor in late 2000 when Bush resigned to assume the presidency.

Perry has his critics. Some have hit the governor for being inarticulate on the stump, although Texans told Roll Call that he has improved markedly since earlier in his career. Others have said he is an empty suit with little to offer beyond rehearsed, political talking points. These critics say Perry might wear thin in New Hampshire and South Carolina, where candidates often meet individual voters several times in intimate settings before the first primary votes are cast.

But Perry supporters say this view might be the result of extraordinary discipline that extends to his campaign team, which is not prone to overreact to one bad news cycle or easily abandon an agreed-upon strategy.

Saenz, who managed the 2006 re-election bid, said Perry’s campaigns tend to be deliberate in nature and characterized by patience.

For example, Perry allows an advertising message to stay on the air long enough to reach the targeted electorate before switching things up, compared with some of the governor’s opponents, who would run with different themes from day to day.

One Texas Republican political consultant predicted Perry’s presidential campaign ads would veer more into bread-and-butter issues than many expect, given his identification with the tea party and conservatism — the governor famously said during a 2009 speech that states might be forced to consider secession if the federal government continued overreaching.

This consultant said Perry would deliver the red-meat rhetoric desired by the party faithful — particularly in Iowa. But the Perry message is likely to be more mainstream in New Hampshire and other states that might require a less overtly partisan style, the consultant said.

Royal Masset, a retired Austin-based GOP strategist and former state party operative who has watched Perry throughout his career, said the campaign will be governed by discipline no matter its themes.

“He will ride a very tightly controlled message,” Masset said. “Won’t even discuss as much as, say, Sarah Palin discusses. He knows you can get into trouble that way. He’s very disciplined that way.”

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