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Rick Perry’s exit marks the end of an era — and a new frontier for Texas politics

Chief correspondent

Texas politics opened a new chapter Monday when Gov. Rick Perry (R), the longest-serving chief executive in state history, announced that he would not seek a fourth full term in 2014 amid widespread speculation that he might make another run for president in 2016.

For the past two decades, Perry and former president George W. Bush, who preceded him in the governor’s mansion, have dominated politics here. Bush cemented Republicans in power after a century of Democratic rule. Perry pushed the party and the state even further to the right during his decade-long tenure.

Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s National Editor, Political Editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent. View Archive

Mark McKinnon, who once worked as a Democratic strategist here and later served as Bush’s chief media adviser in two presidential campaigns, called Perry’s announcement the end of an era in Texas politics — one that he said has been far more partisan than it was under Bush.

“The question now is will the next era be even more strident, or will the party soften and become more diverse and tolerant?” McKinnon wrote in an e-mail message after Perry’s announcement. “Texas is a two-party state, but as yet, the Democrats aren’t one of them. The real battle at least for the next political cycle will be over the direction of the Republican Party, not so much the ascension of the Democrats.”

Perry’s announcement comes at a time when the state’s changing demographics — the growth of a Hispanic population that tilts Democratic and the aging of a white Anglo population that remains solidly Republican — have given Democrats hope that at some point in the future, they can make this state competitive again.

Veterans of President Obama’s reelection campaign have begun organizing in Texas with the long-term goal of turning the state back in the direction of the Democrats. But most analysts here say it could be a half-dozen years or more before that happens. They also say Perry’s decision not to run again makes the Democrats’ challenge in taking back the governor’s office that much more difficult in 2014.

Democrats have found a new star in state Sen. Wendy Davis, whose 11-hour filibuster helped block a restrictive abortion law in the legislature last month. She is now being talked about as a potential gubernatorial candidate next year, but would face long odds and potential financial disadvantage if she chose to run.

With Bush in political retirement and Perry exiting the governor’s office, a new generation of Republicans looking to put their stamp on the party in Texas will begin to assert their influence.

One of them is U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, who was elected just last year and has become a favorite of conservatives with his sharp-tongued pronouncements. Cruz has been mentioned as a potential 2016 presidential candidate, which could put him on a collision course with Perry and others for the support of the party’s most conservative wing.

Another Republican looking to rise is state Attorney General Greg Abbott, who had his eye on the governor’s office even before Perry announced he would not run again. He is now favored to become the GOP nominee and, in conservative Texas, would be likely to succeed Perry.

Still another newcomer could be George P. Bush, a grandson and nephew of former presidents and son of former Florida governor Jeb Bush. The younger Bush is beginning his political career by seeking the office of Texas land commissioner.

Cruz is every bit as conservative as Perry and has displayed a brand of partisanship even sharper than the outgoing governor’s. Abbott is similarly conservative, though some political analysts here said he does not exude the same Texas swagger that personified Perry as governor and George W. Bush as president.

Matthew Dowd, who advised Bush during his two presidential campaigns, said the changing of the guard in Texas provides “an opportunity for the Republican Party to sort of rebrand itself and reposition itself, as the demographics continue to change in the state.”

For the foreseeable future, the pressures to stay on the same conservative, partisan course will be strong. Whether that will be sufficient in the longer term is an open question. “In the short run, Cruz is the model, but there are forces afoot that could modify that going forward,” said Bruce Buchanan, a professor of government at the University of Texas.

Perry’s announcement Monday was not a surprise. Appearing at a heavy-equipment company in San Antonio, he said it was time “to pass on the mantle of leadership.”

Quoting both the Bible and former Texas Longhorns football coach Darrell Royal, he said he would continue actively as governor until his term expires. “Any future considerations I will announce in due time,” he added.

The announcement came as a special session of the legislature continued work in Austin on the abortion bill that was filibustered last month. It is expected to pass and will give Perry an additional calling card with social and religious conservatives, should he run again for president.

He used his setting Monday to review his record in office and to highlight what he regards as perhaps his most important achievement: the strength of the state’s economy. He said 30 percent of net new jobs created in the United States over the past decade have been in Texas and called his state “the envy of the nation.”

“Texas works because we have less government, less spending, fair regulations and lower taxes,” he said. “We have built a pathway to prosperity through innovation and ingenuity.”

Perry was lieutenant governor and ascended to the governorship in late 2000 when Bush became president. He has since been elected to the office three times and, in a career dating back to the 1980s, has never lost an election in his home state.

That string of victories was broken when he decided to seek the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. He entered the race late, not announcing his bid formally until August 2011, yet he quickly rose to the top of the polls. But his candidacy cratered after weak performances during a string of GOP debates that fall.

His most embarrassing moment came at a debate in Michigan when he faltered as he tried to remember the agencies of government that he had pledged to eliminate if elected. He named two, then stopped. “Oops,” he said apologetically when he finally acknowledged he couldn’t remember the third.

The “oops” moment came to define his candidacy, though his fate was sealed earlier at a debate in Florida when he said opponents of a Texas plan to grant in-state tuition to children of illegal immigrants were heartless. He never recovered from that episode, though he remained in the race for another two months.

Perry later joked that he had run against the weakest field of Republicans ever, “and they kicked my butt.” He also said in an interview that he had learned a valuable lesson from his first presidential campaign: the cost of waiting too long to get in the race. He vowed that, if he were to run again, he would be far better prepared.

Though Perry was silent Monday on the question of 2016, his advisers were peppered with questions from reporters after the event and did nothing to tamp down talk that he is already pointing toward another presidential campaign. If he tries again, he is likely to face a more formidable field of rivals.

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