ST. LOUIS — Former Texas governor Rick Perry, who sought political redemption after a humiliating campaign for the White House four years ago, announced Friday that he was suspending his candidacy for the 2016 Republican nomination, becoming the first casualty in the combustible and crowded contest.
Perry served for 14 years as governor of the Lone Star State — longer than anyone else in history — and he governed during a time of robust job growth in Texas. He entered the 2016 race hoping that the country’s voters would give him a second chance. But he bowed out 101 days after announcing his second candidacy.
At a speech to the Eagle Forum on Friday in St. Louis, Perry called himself “a blessed man” who was leaving the playing field with “no regrets.”
“When I gave my life to Christ, I said: ‘Your ways are greater than my ways. Your will is superior to mine,’ ” Perry told the audience of several hundred. “Today, I submit to you His will remains a mystery, but some things have become clear to me. That is why today I am suspending my campaign for the presidency of the United States.”
Perry’s departure is likely to have little effect on the overall race for the nomination. Sixteen candidates remain, with Donald Trump the clear front-runner and Ben Carson running a strong second in a year that has turned out to be far more favorable to outsiders than to traditional politicians.
In his rehabilitation effort, Perry sought to correct the mistakes of his previous campaign and fulfill the expectations many had for him when he debuted on the stage in 2011. But his message this year on economic and national security issues, while praised by some in the party elite, never gained a following in a race that became dominated by Trump.
After his 2012 experience, Perry set about to remake the caricature of himself as a poorly prepared candidate. He undertook a rigorous course of study on domestic and international issues and became far more comfortable talking about them. He won plaudits for his rhetorical skills at party and conservative gatherings and for his talents as a retail politician in the early states.
Ultimately, however, he found that he could not overcome the impression he made in the 2012 contest, when a series of poor debate performances combined with physical ailments owing to back surgery caused his candidacy to crater in a matter of months. He was best remembered for failing at a debate to recall the three government agencies he was vowing to eliminate, saying “oops” as he stumbled through his answer.
Perry had made a positive impression at GOP cattle calls this year and campaigned frequently and aggressively in Iowa, where he hoped to spring a surprise in next year’s caucuses. Many of those who saw him said he was a better candidate than he had been in 2012. Nonetheless, the signs that his candidacy was on the brink of extinction were evident all summer.
Perry was unable to break out of low single digits in national polls. His failure to gain popular support cost him participation in the first Republican debate in Cleveland last month, a substantial blow to his hopes of reintroducing himself to the GOP electorate. Even in the undercard debate, he was overshadowed by businesswoman Carly Fiorina, which led to a retrenchment of his campaign.
Perry’s super PAC raised nearly $17 million during the first reporting session, although most of it came from just three donors. His campaign struggled to acquire the funds needed to mount a serious bid for the nomination, raising $1.14 million in the second quarter of the year.
Just days after the debate in Cleveland, it was revealed that he had stopped paying his national campaign staffers as well as his staffers in the early states. Perry vowed to keep running even if that meant living off the land.
Perry’s super PAC tried to step in to fill the gaps caused by weak campaign fundraising, with an effort to build a field operation and running ads in Iowa. But donor restrictions limited the super PAC’s ability to spend the money freely.
On Friday, the super PAC still had $13 million in the bank, according to Austin Barbour, who led it. Donors said they expect the money to be returned. For weeks, rival candidates have been circling Perry’s donors, eager to profit off his anticipated departure.
With Perry still at the event in St. Louis, donor Doug Deason said he received calls from fundraisers for former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. They were not the first to call Friday: Deason said he had heard that morning from a representative for Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.).
Perry’s downward spiral continued throughout August. His Iowa chairman quit and jumped to Trump’s campaign. He was forced this week to close the office he had been working out of in South Carolina. Eventually, the weight of it all brought him to Friday and the decision to quit the race.
Henry Barbour, a Perry adviser, said: “He needed patience, performance and money. Two out of three ain’t enough. He clearly didn’t raise as much money as he expected, and you can’t run this thing on thin air.”
Four years ago, as he prepared to enter the 2012 race, Perry was seen as a potential nominee who appeared to fit the Republican Party far better than did Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who was seen as a weak front-runner at the time. Perry’s Southern and evangelical roots, coupled with a strident anti-Washington, tea party message, caught the spirit of a party that had just won a major victory in the 2010 midterm elections.
Perry had not planned to run in 2012 but decided in August 2011 to jump in. By his own admission later, he was ill-prepared and “a bit arrogant” in thinking he could flip a switch and vie for the nomination. He entered the race with flashy bravado, blowing a kiss to Romney from the Iowa State Fair and rising almost immediately to the top of the polls.
Romney’s campaign advisers took him more seriously than anyone else in the race and through the fall prosecuted a case against him, starting with attacks on Perry for describing Social Security as an “illegal Ponzi scheme.”
That began Perry’s downward descent. The most significant blow came during a debate in September in Florida, when he found himself under attack for a Texas state law that allowed children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at state colleges.
By the time he uttered the word “oops” at a November debate in Michigan, his candidacy was all but cooked. He labored on but finished fifth in the Iowa caucuses. Days before the South Carolina primary, he dropped out.
“It was the weakest Republican field in history, and they kicked my butt,” Perry joked later that spring.
But Perry was already looking toward another campaign. “You would see a substantially different campaign and even a different candidate from the standpoint of preparation and strength of physical and mental capability,” he said in the spring of 2012.
As he undertook his preparations, Perry remarked that the United States was a “land of second chances.” He announced his second candidacy in June full of optimism and with renewed swagger. He predicted a “show me, don’t tell me” election, claiming he had a proven record as a leader. Surrounded by military veterans, he attacked President Obama and said he could turn the country around.
In August 2014, Perry suffered another blow. He was indicted on a charge of abusing his power as governor by vetoing funding to a county public integrity unit after the district attorney, who had pleaded guilty to drunken driving, refused Perry’s calls to resign. Perry’s attorneys sought to have the charges dismissed, but they are still pending.
If Perry was unprepared for the rigors of a presidential campaign in 2012, he could not have anticipated how drastically the political landscape would change with the entry of Trump just two weeks later and the arrival of politics as reality TV as never before.
As Trump rose in the polls, Perry went after him, calling him a “cancer on conservatism.” His hope was to raise his profile to qualify for the first debate, but it didn’t work.
Though it was evident that his campaign days were numbered, Perry nonetheless caught people by surprise Friday with his announcement. In St. Louis, he began with what seemed like a standard campaign speech. He talked about his days growing up in rural Texas, his service in the Air Force and sounded a muscular call for conservative governance.
Only after 30 minutes into his remarks did he arrive at his goodbye, and he noted that Republicans had a strong field of candidates from which to choose. Then he added a peroration:
“I give you this news with no regrets,” he said. “We have a house in the country. We have two beautiful children. Two absolutely adorable, beautiful, smart granddaughters, four dogs and the absolute best sunset you have ever seen from the back porch of that house.”
Choking up slightly as the audience applauded, he added: “Indeed, life is good. I am a blessed man.”
Rucker and Balz reported from Washington. David A. Fahrenthold in St. Louis contributed to this report.