One year ago, Texas Gov. Rick Perry was a world-beater in the world of Republican politics, having come off a big primary win over an incumbent senator in 2010 and inching toward what seemed to be a perfectly laid-out path to victory in the GOP presidential race.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst’s loss in the Texas GOP Senate runoff on Tuesday is the latest setback for Perry, whose presidential campaign was regarded by most political observers as something between a disaster and a huge disappointment.
Perry threw his electoral weight behind his lieutenant governor in the closing days and weeks of the campaign, when former state solicitor general Ted Cruz began gaining on Dewhurst, who had been the favorite in the race from day one.
In the end, the governor who dispatched Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) in a 2010 primary by more than 20 points couldn’t get his powerful, conservative and extremely well-funded lieutenant through a primary against a political newcomer.
The question is how much this affects Perry’s political brand going forward.
Nobody is writing the governor’s political obituary, but most everyone recognizes that the loss stings quite a bit.
“Perry’s support for Dewhurst cost him some support among grassroots activists, and Dewhurst’s loss signals that Perry’s political capital is clearly not what it was before he began his presidential run in 2011,” said Rice University political scientist Mark Jones.
Added GOP consultant Anthony Holm: “From a political perspective, does this hurt? Absolutely — as does the presidential.”
Perry’s political capital wouldn’t be such a concern, except that in the aftermath of his presidential campaign, he has signaled that he may run for governor or even president again. The former would come in 2014, when Perry would be seeking an unprecedented fourth full term (he has been in office since 2000).
Suddenly, this is a guy whose political capital matters. And after an embarrassing presidential race, Dewhurst’s Senate campaign offered Perry a chance to get back on the winning side of the ledger back home.
Perry was featured in Dewhurst’s final TV ad — often referred to as a campaign’s closing argument — and was increasingly visible in the final weeks of the campaign. Many of Perry’s top aides guided Dewhurst’s campaign down the stretch, including consultant David Carney and spokesman Mark Miner. Another top Perry aide, Rob Johnson (who has also worked for Dewhurst), spearheaded a pro-Dewhurst super PAC, the Texas Conservatives Fund. n a lot of ways, though, Perry and his team had little choice. He relies on Dewhurst, after all, to guide his agenda in the state Senate, where Dewhurst is unusually powerful under the Texas constitution.
“Failing to endorse Dewhurst would have been tantamount to implicitly endorsing Cruz and would have damaged beyond repair Perry’s relationship with Dewhurst, who was going to be either the next U.S. senator or continue to be lieutenant governor,” said Jones. He added that when Perry endorses, “he goes all in.”
But just because Perry had to support Dewhurst doesn’t make the loss hurt any less. The fact is that Dewhurst had the backing of the biggest name in Texas GOP politics. If anyone could move votes, it would seem to be Perry, not outside figures like Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who joined conservative grassroots organizations in backing Cruz.
And Perry is a supposed to be a guy who speaks to the same grassroots conservatives that were so key to Cruz’s victory.
Still, Cruz backers weren’t faulting Perry for his involvement. The governor notably didn’t attack Cruz.
“I don’t know that it does (hurt Perry),” said Chris Chocola, president of the pro-Cruz Club for Growth. “There was an expectation that he would support Dewhurst.”
But there are also signs that Perry, whose national political image has already taken a huge hit, appears to be paying a price at home for his ill-fated presidential campaign.
There hasn't been much polling in Texas since Perry’s campaign came to an end, but the few polls that have come out showed his approval rating dropping significantly. And the result Tuesday seemed to back that up.
None of this is to say that Perry can’t recover and successfully seek another term in 2014. Despite his damaged brand, he would still be the favorite. And he’s won despite some middling approval ratings before.
“Gov. Perry is strong enough in the state that, if he ran, he would probably win and not be contested,” said Holm, who has worked for Perry but was neutral in the runoff.
What’s more, Dewhurst’s loss came during a primary season in which Perry’s political backing has done plenty for other Texas GOP candidates. The governor endorsed several winners in primaries or runoffs this summer, including state Railroad Commissioner Barry Smitherman, state Rep. James White (an African-American Republican facing another incumbent in a merged district) and state Rep. J.M. Lozano (a Hispanic who recently switched parties).
Even gifted and powerful politicians can endorse the wrong candidate or fall victim to circumstances back home. Sen Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) also backed a losing candidate against a tea party favorite in his state’s 2010 primary, and there are plenty of other examples from that year’s Senate races. Endorsements, as we’ve often said, can only do so much.
But that doesn’t mean that Dewhurst’s loss doesn’t hurt Perry. It does.