The Great Campaigner

Before setting his sights on the White House, Rick Perry won ten straight contested elections, defeating, among others, a chicken farmer, several multimillionaires, and a sitting United States senator. How does he keep winning? We asked his past opponents what it’s like to run against . . .
Illustration by Tyler Jacobson

Forget about death and taxes. Today, there are only two sure things in life: Every few years Rick Perry will run for office, and every few years Rick Perry will grind his opponents into dust. Since 1984, the man once derided as “Governor Good Hair” has participated in ten contested elections *  and won all of them. A few were against relatively weak opposition, but many were against prominent figures who were expected to give Perry a run for his money. Jim Hightower, John Sharp, Tony Sanchez, Chris Bell, Carole Keeton Strayhorn, Kay Bailey Hutchison, Bill White—you could competently govern a medium-sized republic with political talent like that. But all of them fell to Perry’s deep coffers, disciplined campaign style, occasional refusal to debate, and (semi-) popularity among Texans. What is it like to run against the man who may well be the most successful state politician in Texas history? To find out, we spoke to eleven people with intimate knowledge of what is, after dying and paying taxes, the most unpleasant experience a politician can endure. Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann, Barack Obama: Read closely.

Race

1984 Democratic primary for state representative (District 64)

Opponent

Kenneth Neighbours (D), lost with 22 percent *

Perry won his first race handily, and in District 64 in the mid-eighties, winning the Democratic primary was equivalent to winning the general election. Neighbours, a rancher and longtime history professor at Midwestern State University, in Wichita Falls, died in 2002. During his life, he kept regular journals, which are now held at the University of Texas at Arlington. Several of the entries from 1984 address his campaign against Perry.

May 1: Forum at Granbury. Wrote speeches for tonight. Went for haircut. Minor local candidates spoke first. Then leg. cand. Rick Perry had county remote official stand in for him. Said he was socked in by weather in Mi Wells. I read my paper last.

May 5: Primary election 7 a.m.–7 p.m. Went to Winn Dixie. Young man sacking groceries invited me inside where it’s cool . . . middle-aged woman asked whether I knew Rick Perry. I said, “Yes, he’s cute.” She turned red and accused me of breeding, training, and selling race horses for amateur betting. First malicious and false rumor I’ve heard. Shriner man laughed heartily at my calling Rick cute . . . Left Winn Dixie at 6:45. Ate at cafe next to Holiday Hills . . . drove my pickup home. Bill used portable radio and phone to get results. Rick Perry won.

Race

1986 Democratic primary for state representative (District 64)

Opponent

W. R. “Bob” Hailey (D), lost with 24 percent *

Perry’s second race was not much more challenging than his first. Hailey, a Fort Worth public school teacher and principal, as well as a World War II veteran (he is said to have shot at Erwin Rommel’s car), died this past June. His daughter Celeste Sainte-Marie recalls that he refused to take money for the race so as not to become indebted to anyone. “He was always more concerned about the little man who can’t take up for himself,” she says. “The average taxpayer.”

Race

1990 general election for agriculture commissioner

Opponent

Jim Hightower (D, incumbent), lost with 48 percent

By 1990, Perry had switched parties to run against Hightower, the incumbent ag commissioner. Best known today as a radio host and author, Hightower at the time had a national profile as Texas’s most liberal and populist statewide official. That wasn’t enough to help him hold on to his job, though he came as close to defeating Perry as anyone else has, falling short by a little more than one percent.

Hightower: The Republicans were pissed at me, because I had gone after Bill Clements when he was running against [Governor] Mark White. And the chemical lobby despised me, and the Farm Bureau hated me too. They were pushing two pieces of legislation, one to remove my authority for pesticide regulation and the other to make the office appointed [by the governor]. That was unsuccessful, but it led to this committee hearing, and Perry was the chair of that committee. I suppose Karl Rove looked at him and thought, “Here’s a guy who’d look good in chaps and who is an empty slate and we can make him an offer that he’ll grab because he’s a political opportunist.”

I guess I’d call Perry’s campaign ghostly, because he was not the main character. Rove, who recruited him to switch parties and run against me, directed the effort. Perry was not any good at campaigning; he had no idea how to deal with Houston and Dallas and San Antonio and South Texas and all that, though I don’t know of any inappropriate comments that he made, because he wasn’t really getting any media. Rove got frustrated with him and sent him out to West Texas to attend Farm Bureau county meetings while Rove raised, I think it was about $3 million, and threw it into TV ads against me. They ran ads of me endorsing Jesse Jackson—ran that in East Texas. One ad showed a hippie setting a flag on fire and throwing it on the ground, and my picture came up out of the flames. So I had supporters in Dallas and Houston and East Texas who said, “Well, I liked ol’ Hightower but I didn’t know he burned flags.”

There was a debate on Channel 13 in Dallas. Just the usual stuff. He tried to use some of the Rove negative things, including the flag-burning stuff, I think. Off the cuff, he was nondescript. He hadn’t really developed any political chops at the time. Obviously he has since. I think he’s a good campaigner. I think that’s the one thing he actually does well, as opposed to actually governing or having actual ideas or principles.

Race

1994 general election for agriculture commissioner

Opponent

Marvin Gregory (D), lost with 36 percent

Gregory, a 72-year-old chicken farmer from Sulphur Springs, served on the Texas Agricultural Finance Authority with Perry

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