On Tax Day 2009, Governor Rick Perry—a man best known for his immaculately windswept hair, tailored suits, deep tan and bare-knuckle politics—swaggered cowboy-style onto a makeshift Tea Party stage outside the Austin City Hall. He was clad in a hunting jacket, jeans and boots. And practically as soon as he opened his mouth and unleashed his twenty-first-century impersonation of George Wallace, a political star was reborn—and an unofficial presidential campaign was launched.
Perry was in sore need of a new image as he soaked up cheers on that blustery day from the 1,000 or so Anglos who'd turned out, bearing signs like Honk If I'm Paying Your Mortgage. He was already the longest-serving governor in state history, having taken the reins from George W. Bush in December 2000. But Perry's business-first, Christian right–second brand of politics was starting to wear thin. The state's population was booming, and the new folks weren't the same old rural and suburban conservatives Republicans had been winning with since the early 1990s. And there was a more immediate problem: Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, long considered the state's most popular politician, was set to challenge Perry in the 2010 GOP primary for governor, and she was leading in some polls by more than twenty points. The governor needed some mojo. He found it at the Tea Party.
"I gotta say it gives me that thrill up my leg when I see all these people standing out here," the governor shouted in his best rural drawl, "with liberty in their hearts and independence on their minds. Plenty of patriots in this crowd today!"
Referring to the mainstream media (not to mention the Department of Homeland Security) calling elements of the Tea Party "extremists," Perry told the crowd, "I'm just not sure you're a bunch of right-wing extremists. But if you are, I'm with ya! 'Cause you are a true patriot today in this country." Perry was bellowing now. "I'm talkin' about states' rights! States' rights! States' rights!"
The patriots were all ablaze, one of them yelling over and over in a hoarse voice, "Secede Now!" Perry didn't answer back in kind, exactly, but he did rail about how the federal government had been rolling back states' rights practically since the Constitution was signed, and how Texans were not going to allow their liberties to be trampled by the federal government. Call it "flirting with secession," if you will. The national media certainly did. By the end of the day, Perry was riding the new Tea Party wave straight onto Fox and MSNBC, and back into the hearts of right-wing Texans who'd grown weary of his act.
One year later, after Perry had easily dispatched Hutchison and a strong grassroots Tea Party candidate, Debra Medina, his comeback was complete, his national profile higher than ever. On the first anniversary of the Tea Party's breakout, Perry landed on the cover of Newsweek, prominently displaying the steel plaque on his boot reading, Come and Take It.
"If he's good for Texas," Newsweek opined, "why not America? Could Perry be the second coming of Ronald Reagan, the plain-spoken man from the West who presided over a new 'Morning in America' by cutting taxes, reducing government (well, promising to), and standing tall against the nation's enemies?"
Perry had taken up the anti-Washington torch and run with it, crisscrossing the country and writing op-eds for the Wall Street Journal decrying healthcare reform and stimulus spending, and telling everybody about Texas's miraculous economy. Paul Burka, senior executive editor of Texas Monthly, repeated Perry's story well: "that by following conservative fiscal policies, Texas has been able to survive the recession in better shape than most, if not all, other states. Low taxes, low spending, constitutionally mandated balanced budgets, saving for a rainy day, and business-friendly regulatory policies have made Texas the top state in job creation year after year. Perry can say to residents of the other states: Do what Texas did and you can enjoy economic growth too. It is a strong message in a recession."
As he honed that message, Perry began to contrast his rhetorical enemy—Obama's Washington—more and more sharply with his great solution to all that ails the country: be more like Texas. As Sarah Palin told folks in the Houston suburbs at a Perry rally in February, "You have a clear choice. What's it going to be: the way they operate in DC or the way y'all get things done in Texas?"
Perry figured he could stick with the national message—Washington bad, Texas good—get some work done on his obligatory campaign book (Fed Up, to be released in November) and cruise to victory in the general election. After all, Texas Democrats haven't won a statewide election since 1994, and they haven't elected a governor since Ann Richards in 1990. And despite the state's booming population and rapidly changing demographics—Texas has been officially "majority minority" since 2005—too few newcomers, and far too few Latinos, have gotten in the habit of voting. But the rural parts of the state are withering; the cities are booming; the suburbs are diversifying. The days when an "R" beside your name was a winning ticket in Texas politics are likely numbered. Neither Perry nor the pundits expected that number to come up this year.
They also didn't figure on a sharp economic downturn in the state, with rising unemployment and poverty. The governor seemed taken aback in late summer when the nonpartisan Legislative Budget Board estimated a California-sized $18–$21 billion budget deficit for Texas over the next biennium, making his balanced-budget boasting ring hollow. In one recent survey, just 37 percent of Texans said Perry deserved re-election. By mid-September, his re-election was no longer a given. His Democratic challenger, three-term Houston Mayor Bill White, had pulled even in a couple of polls and trailed by no more than seven points in others, while Perry did not top 50 percent in any of them.
White is the other thing Perry didn't figure on. He is the strongest candidate the Texas Democrats have run for governor since Richards—a successful attorney, oil and gas entrepreneur, deputy secretary of energy under Bill Clinton and a mayor popular enough to win re-election with 86 and 91 percent of the vote in the state's largest city. Compared with Perry, White is decidedly low-wattage: a bald, slow-talking, policy-crunching problem solver. But he at least partly solved a problem that has bewitched Perry's opponents in the past: how to exploit Perry's vulnerabilities—how to use his very political slickness, and ambition, and economic setbacks, against him.
In an anti-incumbent year, a Texas Democrat is the one slamming a "career politician" who oversees "an old-style political machine." He's the one dispatching feverish Facebook entries and press releases decrying the entrenched corruption of his opponent. And he's the one with nothing to lose.