There’s no doubt that Rick Perry would be a president from every Democrat’s worst nightmare. Perry holds fringe views on matters of the economy and law: that Social Security is unconstitutional, Texas has the right to secede from the Union and direct election of senators is a mistake. His policy solutions consist mainly of serving his donors’ interests and asking citizens to pray.
But would he be a scary candidate for Democrats? After all, if he cannot win, his views are moot. When it comes to his political skill, Perry’s record in Texas offers a somewhat confusing and contradictory data set. Perry, unlike Barack Obama or Bill Clinton, has never in his career lost a race. Nate Silver of the New York Times points out that in Texas the Republican nominee for any statewide office typically wins in a landslide and Perry has actually underperformed the average Republican.
So Perry’s greatest asset is also his greatest liability. According to Texas political experts, Perry has learned well—perhaps too well— the lesson that in Texas all he needs to do is to win the Republican primary. And in such a conservative state that means running hard to the right. Perry has mastered the art of appealing to the right-wing base and getting the GOP nomination, but he doesn’t play to the middle because he doesn’t have to, hence his unbeaten streak with underwhelming performances in the general election.
“His strength is keeping his finger on the pulse of likely Republican primary voters in Texas,” says Harold Cook, a Democratic political consultant in Texas. “His people have been telling him correctly that all he needs to do is win the primary.” But Texas Republicans are right wing, even by the standards of the national Republican Party. How will Perry’s extremism play in, say, the New Hampshire primary, which is filled with moderates and independents? How about the general election? “The flip side,” notes Cook, “is that [Perry] hasn’t had to communicate with general election voters in a meaningful way in years, and no one knows if he can. He hasn’t come out with a message a moderate independent would find appealing.”
This wasn’t always the case. Perry used to have a more mainstream platform and inclusive rhetoric, but he has astutely moved rightward with his party, and stayed ahead of the curve so that he looks like a leader instead of a panderer. “He used to follow the George W. Bush model more, and he has become more and more conservative,” recalls Jason Stanford, who ran the 2006 campaign of Chris Bell, Perry’s Democratic opponent. “A couple things he did in the middle of this decade showed Perry where his party was going.” (Bush was a relative moderate in Texas, known for his outreach to Latino voters and “compassionate conservative” initiatives like education reform.) Specifically, Perry experienced right wing backlash over his planned private roadway, the Trans-Texas Corridor, and his support for requiring vaccinations against HPV for Texas school girls. Perry realized conservatism was moving in a more nativist, reactionary direction and adjusted.
Perry used to be relatively pro-immigration. He was the first governor in the country to sign a bill allowing illegal immigrants who came as children to pay in-state tuition at public universities. But by 2006 the Republican Party was in the throes of anti-immigration fervor. Perry squared the circle by cutting campaign ads promising to get tough on border security.
“We couldn’t figure out what to say that wouldn’t bother someone,” says Stanford. “He figured out that he could talk about border security and kind of leave immigration alone and no one realized how liberal he was on immigration. He took the issue and changed it. He even talks about terrorists as if we have Al Qaeda swimming across the Rio Grande. He won that issue huge with his people, they never realized he disagreed with them. It was brilliant, vaguely dishonest, but brilliant.”
Perry’s recent announcement that his campaign will be staffed primarily by long time loyalists from Texas doesn’t suggest he is staffing with an eye towards changing his strategy.