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?"