Rick Perry’s back in Texas, and some wonder if he’s lost political power there

Yes, to the non-Texan eye, it looks like Republican Gov. Rick Perry has slunk home from his last rodeo, having humiliated himself and his home state with a presidential run that will go down in history as one big “Oops.”

But even though Texas Monthly welcomed him home with a “bum steer” award, and a statewide poll shows him with a lower approval rating than even President Obama, neither Republicans nor Democrats in the state are sure his political career is over.

First, that’s because he continues to control so many state appointments — and, as critics see it, the unlimited contributions of the donors he doles them out to. A fourth term as governor isn’t out of the question in a state the size of France, where races are mainly run and won with expensive TV ads.

And his team has signaled that it believes he did so well that he might run for president again in 2016, or at least seek a fourth term as governor in 2014.

“You’ve got a situation where the 800-pound gorilla just did a season on ‘Biggest Loser,’ ” said Democratic strategist Joe Householder of Houston-based Purple Strategies. “But now he’s a 300-pound gorilla,” and that’s still not a house pet.

Over time, Texas Republicans who’ve long been overshadowed by Perry, such as Attorney General Greg Abbott, are expected to be watching carefully to see if he’s vulnerable enough to run against in a primary in 2014, if he does decide to run. But that’s far off, and it would serve no purpose to start making noises about that now.

Though many Texans told pollsters they thought the governor had reinforced the worst mistaken impressions of their state, that doesn’t mean those who’ve supported him in the past won’t see fit to do so again.

He’s kept a low profile since returning to the state last week, after suspending his campaign and endorsing Newt Gingrich. But you might be surprised how eager Texans seem even now to give him the benefit of the doubt — even praising such an imperceptible achievement as knowing to get out of the race when he did, before suffering yet another defeat in South Carolina, where he was polling at the back of the pack.

A Dallas Morning News editorial headlined “Rick Perry’s next act,” said that he had done an admirable job of making the state look darn good: “One sidelight of Perry’s brief presidential campaign was free advertising for Texas exceptionalism — our economy, business climate and mushrooming population.” Alas, “He wasn’t able to use that to sell himself nationally, but one thing is a cinch: Texas’ growth and growing pains are not going away, and a governor’s visionary leadership is indispensable in dealing with them.”

Which is not exactly, “Thanks for nothing, Gov.” It wasn’t that he was missed day-to-day during the months he was away campaigning, his critics said. “There were huge wildfires while he was gone, and nobody said he needs to come home and deal with this,” said Marc Campos, a Democratic communications consultant.

But lobbyists who have to work with Perry aren’t about to say a negative word, and Democrats aren’t laughing too hard over the recent poll numbers, Campos said, “because what does it say about us if we’ve been getting our [rear ends] kicked by Perry for 10 years, and it turns out he’s this weak?”

There are two phrases one hears over and over again from Texans talking about their governor’s less-than-glorious return. One is the cliche: “He has some fences to mend.” But fence-mending is an everyday chore, not one requiring any special strength or skill.

The other is: “Daddy’s back.” And even if you didn’t cry your eyes out while he was gone, there’s the sense that it would be smarter to wait and see what the situation is before saying anything publicly that he could take out on you later.

Polling done by a group of Texas newspapers showed 37 percent of those polled have a less favorable view of him now, and 45 percent think his run hurt the state’s reputation. But maybe more remarkable is that the percentage of those who disapprove of Perry is 40 — same as the percentage who approve. And though 45 percent think he damaged the standing of their proud state, 51 percent think it either stayed the same or was improved by his performance.

More than half, 53 percent, said they hope he doesn’t run again in 2014. But that’s two lifetimes away in political terms and time enough for him to recover and maybe even blow it again.

Letters to the editor published in the Dallas Morning News, for example, were more sympathetic than outraged:

Jacqualea Cooley, of Irving, Tex., wrote that his great honesty had done him in: “In Texas, we like our politicians open and honest like Rick Perry, but that way of campaigning just didn’t compete with the slick willies.”

Vickie McKillip of Carrollton, Tex., wrote that, sadly, Americans just weren’t ready “for yet another president from our great state,” and even if Perry had prevailed, “all the other states would have been jealous and picked on us even more than they already do.”

In all the postmortems going on across the state, there is general recognition that Perry wasn’t as well-prepared as George W. Bush, who spent years gathering experts of all kinds to help bring him up to speed.

Because Perry and Bush have never been close, Perry’s team didn’t have the benefit of the Bush team’s experience.

Perry, by all accounts, seemed to think any special preparation unnecessary, because he’d never had a tough race in the state and had done little debating or even meeting with newspaper editorial boards. Instead, his strength was in hiring a tough team that demanded and got absolute loyalty in return for appointments.

During his last gubernatorial run against Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R), I asked him in an interview about reports that he had let an appointee go after the official announced support for Hutchison. He made no attempt to deny the link.

“I do want people to be loyal from a political standpoint,” he told me. “I would be disappointed” if someone “I appointed decided to endorse a political opponent” and would “consider them a distraction to the other loyal members. I look at a little bigger picture.” (He also told me then that he had ruled out running for president this year: “Walking away would be like Van Gogh walking away when he’s two-thirds finished with a masterpiece.”)

One of the things that shocked Texans most about Perry’s race was watching him do things that weren’t like him, toughening his stand on immigration and adopting policies that were so outside anything he was interested in that he literally couldn’t remember them under pressure.

Back home now for just a week, it’s hardly surprising that Texas Republicans say they have no appetite to kick Perry publicly but will wait and see how it plays out.

As Democrat strategist Householder sees it, “He’s built his career not around being loved but feared, and fear goes away once you’ve shown you’re vulnerable,” so it’s in the months ahead that potential GOP rivals will be testing what kind of strength Perry still has inside the state.

Melinda Henneberger has been writing about politics and culture for the Washington Post since 2011.
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