One year ago, I wrote a story about the upcoming Republican gubernatorial primary between Governor Rick Perry and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. At the time, Hutchison had recently announced her intention to form a committee to explore a race for governor, and her campaign had released a poll showing her 24 points ahead of Perry, 55 percent to 31 percent. The governor’s political career appeared to be in deep trouble. Among Hutchison supporters, 58 percent had a “very favorable” opinion of her. Only 30 percent of Perry supporters felt the same way about him. She led him in every geographical section of the state.
What a difference a year makes. Since then, their fortunes have gone in opposite directions. Perry has held a lead, typically in the low double digits, in almost every poll taken since early summer, and now it is Hutchison’s political career that is in peril: Her Senate term expires on January 1, 2013, and she has said she will not seek reelection. Meanwhile, Perry’s prospects have never been rosier. Just a year after it appeared that he was on the brink of his last race, he is poised to become one of the leaders of his party. His travel schedule, speaking engagements, and television appearances in recent months give every indication that he and his team of advisers are looking beyond Texas to national politics. If Perry defeats Hutchison in the March 2 Republican primary and goes on to win a third full term in November, he will immediately join the crowd of potential presidential aspirants in 2012—if he hasn’t done so already.
Throughout his career, Perry has always benefited from an uncanny knack for being in the right place at the right time, and once again, his luck seems to be working. The Republican field for 2012 is not deep. Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee are the leftovers, Mark Sanford self-destructed, Sarah Palin is too polarizing, Newt Gingrich is old news, and that leaves … well, why not Rick Perry? Who among the contenders has a better conservative record? Who better expresses the anger of the average Republican voter? Who has a more robust fundraising base? Of the governors commonly mentioned—Tim Pawlenty, of Minnesota; Haley Barbour, of Mississippi; Bobby Jindal, of Louisiana; Mitch Daniels, of Indiana—whose state has weathered the recession more successfully?
Most people who follow Texas politics know by now the conventional wisdom about Perry: that he is an accidental governor who inherited the job when George W. Bush became president; that he is “Governor Goodhair” or “Governor 39 Percent” or some similar appellation of mild disrespect accompanied by a twist of humor; that he doesn’t really do anything well except win elections, which he has done with regularity. There is truth in the conventional wisdom, but there is also blindness. Perry has been so often viewed as a caricature that many Texans have failed to recognize his talent. The fact is that no Republican has so ably surfed the wave of populist anger that has swept through the party in the past year.
That Perry has both the potential and the plan to aim higher than the Governor’s Mansion is underscored by the contrast between his campaign and Hutchison’s. Last fall, I attended events at which each candidate appeared. In October, I watched Perry address the Texas Association of Realtors in a banquet room on the second floor of the Hyatt Regency Hotel in central Austin. TAR is one of the largest and most politically active trade associations in the Austin lobby and one of the biggest financial contributors. Its members are exactly the kind of folks a Republican candidate for governor would want in his corner—individual entrepreneurs and hustlers offering the good life in the suburbs to those who seek it, for a 6 percent commission. And Rick Perry has them in his corner.
As I watched him speak I could appreciate the skills that he has acquired during what is now nine years in office, foremost among which is his ability to connect with his constituency. Early in his remarks, he began an anecdote by saying, “I don’t know how many of you watch Fox News,” before adding, in a knowing tone, “but I suppose most of you do.” Later in the speech, he interrupted himself to urge the people in the audience to take out their cell phones. In an instant he transformed himself into the Aggie yell leader he once was. “Put in that you’re fed up,” he prodded them. “No, put in that you’re fired up. Then text it to 956-13. It comes directly to me.” And, of course, there was the inevitable jab at Washington: “It’s frustrating to deal with the federal government. They are supposed to provide a strong military, secure our borders, and deliver the mail.” He paused for effect. “Well, one out of three ain’t bad.”
Several weeks later, I drove to San Antonio, where Hutchison was making an appearance at the Young Women’s Leadership Academy to talk about education, following an earlier stop in Houston, where she spoke on the same subject. The academy is part of a promising but controversial educational experiment—single-sex public schools for girls—that some women’s and educational advocacy groups have condemned as discriminatory. The person who made schools like this possible was Hutchison herself, through an amendment to the No Child Left Behind Act, in 2001.
The event took place in the library. Hutchison spoke from a lectern on the floor, surrounded by girls from the school. Most of them were black or Hispanic. They wore uniforms of white blouses, pleated plaid skirts, and blue cardigans. The rest of the people in attendance were from the school and the school district. No Hutchison supporters were in evidence; no refreshments were provided. This was not a rally; it was a media event, the object of which was to get free airtime in the state’s third-largest TV market. The most important people in the room were not the school officials