Texas Gov. Rick Perry finds himself at a fork in the road as he ponders his electoral future — and he may have to find his way without the full gang of political knife
fighters who have had his back for over a decade.
Perry, the longest-serving governor in Texas history, has been renowned for the loyalty and ruthlessness of his inner circle — a team regarded as one of the nation’s most feared campaign operations. Steering the governor through a four-way reelection fight in 2006 and then a savage 2010 GOP primary campaign, the Perry gang became known as perhaps the most ferocious state-level political team in America.
Now, in the aftermath of Perry’s calamitous and dissension-riddled 2012 presidential bid, much of that gang has dispersed. As the governor weighs whether to run for an unprecedented fourth full term, Texas politicos say it’s largely unclear who would steer another reelection campaign — or a second Perry attempt at the White House.
Perry’s longtime political maestro, Dave Carney, exited after the presidential campaign and is not expected to return. In fact, Carney has met with aides to Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott — a possible Perry successor or primary challenger — about the 2014 cycle. The governor remains in contact with a handful of other veteran advisers, such as former chiefs of staff Deirdre Delisi and Ray Sullivan, but they are no longer on his payroll.
Part of the winding-down of Perry’s campaign apparatus is a function of where he is in the Texas political cycle: The first order of business for the governor is the current session of the state Legislature, which meets only once every two years. He feels little pressure, aides say, to focus on electoral politics right now.
But interviews with more than a dozen past and present Perry advisers revealed that the wounds of the 2012 cycle have not fully healed in Perry world. Some relationships ruptured when Perry brought in national consultants to layer over his Texas-based personnel. Other aides simply reacted to the crushing defeat — an effort criticized as historically inept — by turning over a new leaf professionally. Just as Perry’s profile as a crusading conservative governor has shrunk, so has the circle of political strategists around him.
As Perry mulls his political future — and the prospect of extending the Perry era in Texas to 18 years — Republicans say the governor is
keeping his thought bubble almost entirely to himself.
“I don’t know who or what, or what the team is, that’s driving the train now,” said Carney, who called it a natural “maturing process” for Perry’s close aides to move on to other work eventually. “Perry was able to attract really great people — really smart, hardworking, creative folks, myself aside. And they’ve gone on to have really successful careers. I mean, there’s nobody in the Perry team that’s out panhandling.”
Carney, who had advised Perry since his 1998 run for lieutenant governor, acknowledged: “There’s been a lot of turnover. But it’s been 14 years, so of course you have a lot of turnover. And obviously, the presidential campaign was, I guess, a spectacularly public disaster.”
“There is no experienced political strategist involved at this point,” said one Republican close to Perry’s operation,
who pointed to the trauma of the presidential campaign as an explanation: “It was a tightly knit and disciplined [team] with very few leaks. You can see that the whole team had kind of been torn asunder.”
The New Hampshire-based Carney said his plans for 2014 are up in the air; while his contact with Perry has been “infrequent,” he said, he hasn’t actually signed up with a potential competitor like Abbott just yet.
But if Carney and others have drifted out of Perry’s immediate orbit, it doesn’t seem that anyone else has stepped into the role of big-picture political architect. Joe Allbaugh, the former George W. Bush campaign manager who took the helm of Perry’s presidential campaign late in 2011, said he is now “first and foremost just a family friend” to the Perrys.
“Just helping out where and when I can, as a volunteer, for whatever he and [Anita Perry] might need. Nothing special,” Allbaugh wrote
in an email.
“There are new people involved in the state office. They have a different way of managing. That doesn’t mean they’re not reaching out,” said one Perry alum, who added: “Keep in mind, the presidential [campaign] was incredibly — I think it would be an understatement to say ‘difficult’ situation.”
Perry’s political committee is now managed by one of the longest-tenured Perry allies of all: Teresa Spears, who has been with Perry for nearly a quarter-century and retired in 2012 from a state position as Perry’s director of appointments. His new chief of staff, Brandy Marty, was a top policy aide on the presidential campaign — but her role now is principally focused on the legislative session and managing government.
Other former Perry aides, such as former communications chief Mark Miner and 2006 campaign manager Luis Saenz, said they’d be supportive of Perry in any future campaign, though
it remains to be seen how that support would manifest itself.
After all, the former staffers and political aides who have drifted from the center of Perry’s orbit, have gone on to lucrative jobs in the private sector: Former campaign manager Rob Johnson now has his own consulting shop, while Sullivan and Delisi are in the lucrative world of Austin lobbying. There’s a difference between helping the governor from outside and being willing to drop everything and ride to the sound of the guns, as several Perry aides-turned-lobbyists did in the 2012 cycle.
Miner, now based at the law and consulting firm McGuireWoods, said it’s “premature to talk about 2014” and the plans of both Perry and his sometime advisers.
“The focus right now is on a legislative session. Yes, some of the Perry team has moved on to the private sector, but there is a loyal group of people who will be there for whatever the
governor wants to run for. Any speculation of what that would be, right now would be premature,” Miner said.
“A lot of the same folks are still around in different capacities. … I think if he were to decide to do something, there’s a lot of folks that would be there to help him,” said Saenz. “I’m sure there are some people burned out of politics, maybe not involved with him anymore or involved with anybody, who did what they did at the time and then moved onto other things in life.”
When Perry veterans speak in vague terms about him doing “something” else in the realm of electoral politics, it’s because the governor hasn’t shut the door on any future options — either running for yet another term, or seeking the presidency again in 2016, hopefully with better results.
Republicans say he has spoken privately about wanting to improve upon his 2012 performance as a national candidate. Advisers differ
on whether the best way to achieve that would be running for reelection or hanging up his hat in Texas and focusing full-time on the White House.
For now, Perry has said only that he’ll decide in June whether to run for a fourth term. Should he choose to go in that direction, his allies expect he’ll pull his increasingly diffuse team of his political advisers much closer to the center of the action.
While Perry could theoretically face a daunting intraparty challenge from Abbott — the attorney general has stockpiled $18 million in his campaign account, versus $6 million for Perry — current and former aides say they expect 14 years’ worth of power and political relationships would trump any competitor.
“The governor’s been the longest-serving governor in the state. You’ve got a lot of people who are close to him who are political consultants or advisers, who come in and out as needed,” Spears said.
“Because he’s in this unique situation of having been in that position for so long … folks go and do what they need to do and then come back.”
Sullivan said he thinks Perry “does not need to make political decisions until the summer at earliest.”
“He still has a loyal following in the grass-roots and fundraising communities, and a core group of friends and former staff and former advisers would help at the drop of a hat,” said the former chief of staff.