Rick Perry’s Long Strange Trip

by | May 17, 2023 | 2024 Elections

In the run-up to the 1988 presidential election, future Texas Governor Rick Perry assessed the field of candidates and boldly threw his support behind the candidate he felt most closely matched his values.

Though he would later claim he voted for a fellow Texan, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, in the general election, in the heat of that ‘88 primary in the dying days of the Reagan ’80s, Perry went with an upstart candidate who, like Perry, was a veteran and running firmly in the middle lane of that year’s primary.

That the candidate in question was a US Senator from Tennessee named Al Gore remains one of the most fascinating historical factoids about Texas politics to me, but it is one of just many strange details in the political life of Rick Perry that has allowed him to defy expectations for nearly forty years of public life.

Back in the 1980s, when conservative Democrats still existed across the country, especially in Texas, Perry was one of them. That may seem like a mind-boggling detail with everything that we now know about the man who would become Guv Goodhair, but it’s an important piece of context in the wake of Perry’s recent comments that he’s considering jumping into the 2024 presidential primary, just weeks after telling veteran Texas journalist Jeremy Wallace that he had no such ambitions.

A third Perry presidential campaign may seem to be materializing out of thin air or left field, but it would be an oddly appropriate coda to the career of one of the most gifted politicians in Texas history.

Yes, I said that. Because, as much as I may hate it, it is the stone-cold truth. Operatives, lobbyists, and reporters alike all openly remark that the Rick Perry who served as governor of Texas was a vastly superior model to the current governor, Greg Abbott. 

That’s mostly because Perry’s very being overflows with the one thing Abbott seems to lack: a genuine personality. Nothing else could explain his ascent in a state populated with outsized personalities whose family money could only be eclipsed by the legend of their names. 

I’m not seriously suggesting that Perry has a snowball’s chance at the equator of actually winning the 2024 presidential primary, but it is strange how quickly we forget what an indelible footprint he left on the state of Texas and the highest executive office in it.

After switching parties in the fall of 1989, Perry decided it was time to leave the state house behind. First elected in 1984, the Perry that walked the halls of the Texas Legislature throughout the mid and late 1980s carved out a reputation as a budget hawk and was so well-liked by some of his colleagues, including progressives, that one of them would break with the Democratic Party to endorse Perry’s re-election campaign in 2006.

But Perry wasted little time unleashing his ambition on his new party, immediately jumping into the Republican race for Agriculture Commissioner in 1990. Perry tapped Karl Rove to serve as his campaign manager, and Rove raised millions of dollars to boost Perry’s profile with television ads and attack the longtime incumbent, Democratic icon Jim Hightower, over an ethics scandal involving some of his staffers.

It was the beginning of the Karl Rove slash-and-burn style of Republican campaigning, taking the dirtiest tricks and loudest tactics from Lee Atwater’s playbook and applying them with brutal efficiency. Perry barely beat Hightower while Ann Richards won the governor’s race.

It was the beginning of the end of divided government and ticket-splitting in Texas. Four years later, Perry would cruise to re-election while George W. Bush managed to overtake Richards in the governor’s race. While Texas Democrats won other key statewide races, including Bob Bullock as Lieutenant Governor, it was the end of an era, and Perry had a commanding position as one of the Republican Party’s most popular statewide figures.

Perry, never one to waste an opportunity to be in the right place at the right time, launched a campaign for Lieutenant Governor in the 1998 primaries. Bullock was retiring, and Democratic Comptroller John Sharp set his own sights on what is widely considered to be the most powerful position in the Texas government. 

That 1998 campaign was notable for a slew of reasons, not least among them the dissolution of Perry’s political partnership and friendship with Karl Rove. 

Back in 1990, Rove helped lead Perry out of the Democratic Party and into the Agriculture Commissioner’s office only after his efforts to lure George W. Bush into that year’s gubernatorial race busted out. Rove had been deeply involved in the Bush family’s political dynasty since the late 1970s when he worked for George H.W. Bush’s 1980 presidential campaign and advised W’s failed 1978 congressional bid. 

When Bush decided to make the governor’s race in 1994, there was no question Rove would be his strategic svengali. That was all well and good until Perry jumped into the Lite Guv race in 1998 against Sharp, who was a well-known and well-liked statewide elected, just like Perry.

The tension between the two supposedly came to a head when Perry’s team proposed running negative ads against Sharp. Rove stepped in to veto that decision, though the reasons why are still in dispute 25 years later.

Sources close to Perry told The Atlantic in 2011 that Rove’s focus was on re-electing Bush with the largest margin possible as he prepared to run for president in 2000. In order to do that, Rove wanted the Republican ticket to avoid negative ads that could alienate Democratic voters that they needed to cross over to Bush. According to Perry’s folks, Rove threatened to pull an ad with both W and George H.W. Bush endorsing Perry, which Perry badly needed as he trailed in his own polling by double digits. 

Rove himself contradicts that narrative and claims that he pushed the campaign to nix the negative ad to avoid it diminishing the value of the endorsement from the Bush family. Even after Perry narrowly defeated Sharp on election night, his bond with Rove never recovered, and only worsened throughout his time in the governor’s office.

The other notable historical fact about the 1998 race for Lieutenant Governor was how bitter and acrimonious the race actually was. Democrats throughout the state have openly recalled how Sharp, the Democratic Comptroller, would make passing references to the fact that he had photos of Rick Perry in a field of bluebonnets, shirtless with a male companion.

That disgusting bit of gay-baiting is largely lost to time now, but it would be the first time that uncorroborated rumors about Perry’s sexuality would surface in Texas and beyond. Those rumors became so persistent that by the time Perry launched his presidential campaign in 2011, a major national outlet had dispatched a reporter to find out if there were truth to the rumors.

For the record, no photos of Perry frolicking in a field of bluebonnets with a male companion have ever materialized. In 2011, nearly a decade after their bitter feud, Perry would appoint Sharp chancellor of Texas A&M, a post that Sharp still holds to this day. 

Once Perry took the gavel as Lieutenant Governor of Texas, there was little reason to believe he would be sticking around long in the role. Governor George W. Bush launched his presidential bid in 1999, and after the Supreme Court awarded him the 2000 election over former Perry pal Al Gore, Perry only had to kill a handful of days before he found himself behind the big desk as chief executive of the State of Texas.

No matter what you remember about Perry now, from his oops moment in the 2012 presidential primary to becoming a bagman for Donald Trump, it is beyond dispute that the man perfected the levers of power in the Texas government and transformed the governor’s office from figurehead to monolith. 

From the day he took office in 2011 until his retirement in January 2015, Perry was an absolute virtuoso at manipulating the contours of power in Texas, appointing loyalists to lead commissions and departments that effectively controlled every nook and cranny of the state.

And he did all while turning back one challenge or crisis after another. In 2002, Texas Democrats attempted a last stand with the Dream Team, a star-studded ticket of strong Democratic candidates at every level that was turned into minced meat by Perry’s political operation, establishing the governor as a formidable force. 

Perry spent much of the next couple of years paling around with Tom DeLay and pushing a radical plan to redraw political maps in Texas to benefit Republicans for a generation. When DeLay got swept up by the feds in a massive corruption probe, Perry barely flinched, but his electoral challenges remained.

In his 2006 re-election campaign, Perry barely won the strangest election in Texas history by securing 39 percent of the vote in a four-candidate field. Despite finishing 10 points ahead of former Houston Congressman Chris Bell, whose district was targeted by Perry and DeLay, 61 percent of Texans spread their vote between Bell, former Austin Mayor Carole Keaton Strayhorn, and country musician and comedian Kinky Friedman.

Nevertheless, Perry had cemented his reputation as a survivor. Nothing ever comes easy, and by the time the 2010 election cycle rolled around Perry was faced with his most dramatic and serious challenge, and Karl Rove was back to try to knock his former client off once and for all, having been deeply involved in recruiting the other Republican he swept to statewide victory with Perry in 1990 to take the incumbent governor out.

Then-Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson could rightfully lay claim to being the only politician to score bigger victories than Perry in the two decades that they had both occupied statewide office. While Perry worked his way from Agriculture Commissioner to Lieutenant Governor by 1998, Hutchinson had bounced from State Treasurer to the United States Senate by 1993. 

Hutchinson was as establishment a Republican as you could be in 2010, and that was essentially the extent of her problems. From the spring of 2009, until he won the primary, Perry led in virtually every public poll that came out en route to a nearly 20-point victory. As the Tea Party was overtaking local Republican parties across the country and electing a wave of ideologically extreme candidates, Perry didn’t sense peril. He smelled opportunity. 

That’s the simple truth about Rick Perry. For all his talent on the stump and his ability to connect with voters in decidedly human terms, the man is one of the most effective political opportunists in the history of Texas.

Dating back to the 1980s, Perry blazed a path focused almost solely on political expediency. His support for Al Gore? Primarily based on sucking up to then-House Speaker and Gore supporter Gib Lewis in the hopes of being rewarded with more powerful committee posts or even a chairmanship, according to legendary Texas reporter RG Ratcliffe in 2011. 

Abandoning the Democratic Party to run statewide as a Republican in the early days of Karl Rove’s systematic dismantling of Democratic power across the state? A textbook case of being on the train rather than under it when it leaves the station.

Grabbing on to the Lieutenant Governor’s post in 1998, knowing George W. Bush was already sizing up his presidential campaign? Taking the fastest possible route to the highest office in the state.

Time and time again, Perry proved himself to be a brilliant opportunist and a hard-nosed survivor. With the Tea Party sweeping increasingly dangerous ideologues into office across the country, Perry courted their support with shameless zeal.

Everything is bigger in Texas, including political pandering. Perry’s final term as governor was highlighted by turns of events that were alternatingly batshit crazy and brilliant. 

Before Ted Cruz ever dreamed of cooking bacon on the barrel of an AR-15 as he fired it, Perry was shooting wild boars with a machine gun from the confines of a helicopter. 

Before Texas Republicans began to push the most radical school choice agenda in history and authored bills to force every public classroom to display the ten commandments, Perry prepared to jump into the 2012 presidential primary by appearing at a massive rally to publicly lead thousands in a “prayer for America.”

As the Republican field jockeyed for position throughout 2011, no one was truly grabbing the bull by the horns and blowing away the opposition to claim the nomination and face President Barack Obama. Eventual nominee Mitt Romney was viewed as too moderate, and an awkward constellation of also-rans that stretched the gamut from Michelle Bachman to Newt Gingrich was failing to gain a foothold.

Perry’s campaign is and always will be remembered most for its worst moment, but the simple truth is that his entrance into the race was like a sonic boom in September 2011. He immediately showed up in Iowa and wowed the crowd with a stump speech that was as amiable as it was evangelical, blowing Bachman out of the water, never to recover. 

He was rising in polls and racking up endorsements, all while struggling to recover from a painful back condition and difficult surgery meant to correct it. While Perry would eventually sink his own campaign by failing to recall each of the three federal departments he would eliminate, he did so while struggling to stand up straight without screaming in pain.

I’m no Perry apologist, but if I stub my toe I’m out of commission for longer than I care to admit. His campaign’s implosion sent him home to Texas, where he would try on being a petty tyrant for size in the waning days of his administration. 

Perry is almost single-handedly responsible for kicking off the war on local control that Texas Republicans have been delighting in for the past decade. In 2013, rumors were circulating that Perry and other members of his administration were being investigated by a public integrity unit under the auspices of Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg. 

Lehmberg was essentially a lifer in the District Attorney’s office and had amassed an impressive resume that included helping to found what is now known as the Center for Child Protection. She became the first woman to hold the office of District Attorney in 2009, replacing the legendary DA and Perry rival Ronnie Earle. 

Lehmberg was a fine prosecutor and ran a strong office. Public corruption cases were taken incredibly seriously in Travis County, and Lehmberg was widely viewed as a prosecutor you didn’t want to tangle with if your name landed on her desk.

Ever the opportunist, Perry was eventually handed a powerful brick to throw in the direction of Lehmberg when the District Attorney was arrested for driving while intoxicated in the spring of 2013, posting a blood alcohol level nearly three times the legal limit and acting aggressively with officers during her arrest. A rumor circulated that Lehmberg had spit on one of the officers arresting her, which the officers denied.

At any rate, Perry had a golden opportunity to muddy up the works at the DA’s office and demanded that Lehmberg resign while threatening to veto $7.5 million in funding for the public corruption unit. Travis County officials did their best to negotiate with Perry’s office, and while tentative agreements were nearly reached, Lehmberg ultimately refused what Perry demanded and he vetoed the funding.

That led to Travis County working to figure out how to cover the costs of the unit, which they were only able to do after a round of layoffs. An ethics complaint was filed against Perry, which led to his eventual indictment for attempting to illegally coerce a public official to resign in the summer of 2014. 

Undeterred by the indictment, Perry made his second attempt for the Republican nomination official in 2015 but struggled to gain traction in a field that was being eaten alive by disgraced former President Donald Trump and one that also included Texas Senator Ted Cruz. 

The Rick Perry that ran in 2016 never caught on. Despite being one of many candidates to make their opposition to Trump a vocal part of their candidacy, Perry was largely relegated to the JV debate stages and his candidacy washed out fairly quietly. 

For a moment, it seemed like Perry would head to the barn for a peaceful retirement. After all, he had torn into Trump repeatedly in the 2016 primaries only to see him somehow win the electoral college and occupy the White House. It seemed unlikely that Perry would be an important part of Trump’s orbit, but Perry’s long strange trip hadn’t quite ended yet.

In a twist lost on no one, Trump appointed Perry to lead the Department of Energy, the same cabinet-level position Perry struggled to remember wanting to eliminate in the 2012 primary. 

Throughout his time at the Department of Energy, Perry was widely seen as a happy warrior for the Trump agenda, nearly finding himself in hot water or under investigation for supposedly pressuring the Ukrainian government to reveal damaging information about the Biden family that doesn’t seem to exist in actual fact.

Perry served just over two years in the post before stepping down in late 2019. In the years since leaving Washington, Perry has largely kicked around Texas while serving on the boards of a few companies and indulging in passion projects.

While Guv Goodhair did once grace the stage of Dancing with the Stars and text messages he denies sending made a cameo appearance in the January 6 insurrection, few could have predicted that he would spend a significant part of his political twilight advocating for the legalization of psychedelic drugs to treat veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress and mental health issues. 

But could Rick Perry really launch a credible presidential bid in the year of our lord 2024? Probably not. There’s a lot of water under the dam in Perry’s past and it remains unclear if there is any room in the Republican primary for someone not named Trump or DeSantis.

But if the old Rick Perry were to make a comeback, that dynamic could shift. Few governors in history have amassed the number of conservative wins that Perry has, few potential Republican candidates have deeper ties to evangelical leaders throughout the country, and even in his pseudo-retirement, Perry is as approachable as ever. 

Could Perry effectively distance himself from Trump and run as a conservative that grew a conscience? Perhaps. But to pull off that political evolution, the greatest political opportunist Texas has ever known would have to convince skeptical voters that a conscience can grow in the mind of Rick Perry.

Senior Advisor | + posts

Joe brings over a decade of experience as a political operative and creative strategist to Texas Signal, where he serves as our Senior Advisor and does everything from writing a regular column, Musings, to mentoring our staff and freelancers. Joe was campaign manager for Lina Hidalgo's historic 2018 victory for Harris County Judge and is a passionate sneakerhead.

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