Perry’s decisive victory over a sitting United States Senator is going to propel him into national prominence. Republican power brokers will have to take notice of him as a potential presidential candidate, if they haven’t already done so. Who on the Republican side would make a better candidate? Mitt Romney is probably the best the R’s have from the standpoint of intellectual firepower, but he can’t inspire people. Everybody mentions his religion, but the greater problem is that he doesn’t come across as a regular guy that you would want to go hunting with. There is a group of governors–Pawlenty of Minnesota, Daniels of Indiana, Barbour of Mississippi, Jindal of Louisiana–who will explore their possibilities. And, of course, there is Palin. She has the inspirational qualities to be president but not the intellectual qualities. And she’s just too polarizing to win a general election. If you really analyze the situation, Perry has the best combination of personality and message of anyone on the Republican wannabe train. The Hutchison race was the perfect test for him. He was like the boxer who gets to fight a contender with a big reputation and a good record but who actually has a glass jaw and can be put away early in the fight.
Anyone who doesn’t recognize Perry’s political talent by this time has to be deaf, dumb, and blind. He has assembled an electoral juggernaut that is brutally efficient. The Perry team knew in 2008 the strategy they were going to use against Hutchison in 2010. I was working on a story about the race for the February 09 issue, and they told me what it was – that Hutchison was a spender, an appropriator, and they were going to shove Washington and all its sins into her lap. They didn’t care whether Hutchison knew it. That’s how confident they were about this race. Perry lives, eats, and breathes politics 24/7. That’s his strength, and also his weakness. But he is far better at it than anybody Texas has produced–better than Bush, better than Richards. The only Texan I can think of who had a similar focus on nothing but politics was Lyndon Johnson. Or, I should say, LBJ as portrayed by Robert Caro.
What Perry did in this race was expand the base of the Republican party. He and his team learned the power of the social media from Obama’s use of them in 2008 and put it into practice here. One of the most striking facts about the Perry campaign is that he never deployed a yard sign, never knocked on a door. He relied on personal appearances and voter contact through the electronic media. He and his team have built a political machine that is brutally efficient. The social media have allowed him to develop a following that is personally loyal to him. Hutchison was light years behind.
The only unanswered question about the race is whether Hutchison ever had a chance. In retrospect, the race was over when Perry defined her as the candidate of Washington. He locked that in early. The very thing she was best at–getting our money back from Washington–he turned against her. Where was the anger in this campaign? Aimed at her, directed by Perry. Her one and only opportunity came and went early in the race, in the first quarter of 09. She had the money to go up on television, run positive ads, and provide voters with a credible rationale for why she left the Senate to challenge the governor of her party. She had the field to herself and didn’t take advantage of it. Indeed, she attacked Perry, and in three months a lead that started at 26 points shriveled to six. The Hutchison campaign had plenty of negative messages, but it had few positive ones. Then she embarked upon strategies that were self-defeating. She needed to entice moderate Republicans to vote in the primary, but she made arch-conservatives Dick Cheney and Dick Armey her ambassadors to the electorate. She needed to expand the primary, but she attacked Perry over and over, on HPV, on Trans-Texas Corridor, on cronyism, despite the time-honored rule that a negative campaign depresses turnout, and she needed to expand turnout. She was determined to prove that she was more conservative than Perry, which was impossible for anyone not named Debra Medina, and certainly impossible for someone who is pro-choice.
From Perry’s very first ad in the fall (“Washington is broken”), his campaign tied her to D.C. She never responded. There is a good response to having voted for the bailout–that the Republican president of the United States asked her to vote for it to keep the nation’s financial system from going into the ditch…she knew it would be unpopular, but she had to do the right thing. Just look into the camera and be sincere. She never did anything to counteract it. She brought in mediocrities to run her campaign, people who had no idea about Texas and just applied their formulas that didn’t work. I knew the campaign was headed for disaster when I asked if they had a plan to identify moderate voters and Terry Sullivan told me that their strategy was to contest Perry for the conservative vote. What he said was that the GOP primary voters had been voting for Perry and Hutchison all along, so they had just as good a chance to win them as Perry did. That’s what comes of hiring folks who know nothing about Texas. They, and she, had no clue that Perry had pushed the Republican party far to the right, no clue about the electorate that they were dealing with. Worst of all was her public handwringing over whether and when to give up her Senate seat. The campaign even turned it into an ad, quite possibly the worst ad ever run in a major Texas race. (The competition is Bob Krueger’s “Terminator” ad.) The ballots have been counted, but the handwringing is still going on.
Now it is the Democrats’ turn to take on Perry. Here is my advice to Bill White: DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE RICK PERRY. You’re smarter than he is. In every other aspect of politics, he is better than you are. He has more experience, he is more personable, he has more discipline, he knows the state better, he has a bigger following, he has the better organized political party, he has the bigger fundraising base, he is hungrier, he is meaner. You are going to have to raise the level of your game. And then you are going to have to raise it again. Your natural impulse will be to react to Perry as Ann Richards did to Bush, only moreso: underestimate him, underrate him, regard him as dumb, treat him as a lightweight. If you do this, and I’m not sure you can help yourself – Richards couldn’t, Hutchison couldn’t – you will lose by fifteen points and be like all the other corpses in the political graveyard who can’t believe they lost to … Rick Perry? Perry is many things you and I don’t admire, but he is not a lightweight. One reason that he beat Hutchison like a drum is that he has an unerring sense of who his constituency is and what they want. He also has a first-rate political team that has been together for years. Here is what the Democrats must not forget: Rick Perry was a ten-year incumbent running for reelection in a year when incumbency was the mark of Cain in the Republican party. He should have been the target of the Tea Parties, but he has such finely tuned political instincts that he knew he had to get out in front of the movement and co-opt it. You’re an amateur up against a pro. That’s the way to think of it. Laugh about his hair and he’ll destroy you the way he did Hutchison.