Can Perry Rebound? He's Done It Before

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John Willingham is a featured contributor to HNN.  He has an MA in American social/intellectual history from the University of Texas at Austin.  He is the author of The Edge of Freedom, A Fact-Based Novel of the Texas Revolution.

The Resurgence of Rick Perry, 2006-2010: A History    

In November 2006, Rick Perry had just been reelected governor of Texas but his political star, never too bright statewide, was fading.  In a three-way race he had received 39 percent of the vote.  After this underwhelming victory, the media and pundits added a new nickname to the “Governor Goodhair” title that the late Molly Ivins had bestowed upon Perry, as frequent a target for her barbs as George W. Bush, whom she had called “Shrub.”

The new nickname was “Thirty-nine percent Rick.”  Perry was far from being esteemed as a master politician in the state at the time.  Often, he was not taken seriously, or even given full credit for never having lost an election. 

So exactly how did Thirty-nine percent Rick achieve a stunning victory over Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in the 2010 Republican gubernatorial primary and leave his detractors looking foolish for underestimating him so badly?

The answer is Dave Carney.  In 2006, during the tough reelection campaign, it was Carney who invited a group of professors, now referred to as “the eggheads,” from Yale, UT-Austin, and the University of Maryland into the campaign.  Their work has been the subject of articles by the New York Times.

The idea was to use Perry’s 2006 reelection campaign as a laboratory to find out what really worked and what did not, in order to use funds more wisely in the next election.  The eggheads found that high-dollar ads and expensive direct mail efforts are not as effective as candidate appearances and social media when it comes to generating votes.  The payoff for their research came in the 2010 Republican primary in Texas.

Who Are the Eggheads?

The scholars were Professors Alan Gerber and Donald Green, both specialists in “randomized” political science.  In 2006, they collected random data from different parts of the state to assess the effectiveness of various campaign tactics.  Associate Professor Daron Shaw of the University of Texas at Austin serves on the editorial board of American Research and is on the “decision team” for Fox News.  James Gimpel is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Maryland.  He is an expert on the application of geographical analysis software to the study of political behavior and policy.

They were not, however, the only scholars whose work (if not their political leanings) contributed to Perry’s success. 

Based on his appearance and manner, the burly, gruff, and profane Carney would be a sure winner in the “unlikeliest scholar in America” contest.  Yet that would be misleading, for Carney was way ahead in 2006 on another issue that gave Perry the early impetus he needed to shed the nicknames that he carried around after his win that year: earmarks.

The “Earmarks” Background

When the Washington congressional battle over earmarks took off in early 2006, Carney was quick to see its value for Perry in Texas.  And then or soon thereafter, he investigated the best scholarship on the issue.

Shortly before Perry’s primary victory over Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in March 2010, Carney sent an optimistic email to a colleague in which he mentioned the scholars whose work in 2006 pointed the way toward using more personal appearances and social media in what turned out to be a stunning victory over the senator.  (A year before the primary, Hutchison had led Perry 55 to 31 percent, a huge 24-point advantage.)

In the email, Carney also mentioned political scientist “Bob Stein” of Rice University.

“Dr. Bob Stein,” Carney wrote, “the world’s leading researcher on the effects of earmarks…[suggests that] earmarks do not enhance an incumbent’s electoral standing …. Using his theories we built our campaign against earmarks prior to the 2009 explosion of the center-right voters on the federal fiscal issues (tea party, etc.) which just enhanced the effectiveness of our efforts.” [Emphasis added.]

Prof. Robert M. Stein of Rice, described as a liberal, had been writing about earmarks since the early 1990s.   In “Congressional Elections and the Pork Barrel” (l993), he was way ahead of the curve when he wrote that only constituents “who are politically attentive members or interest groups are most likely to be aware of new awards [earmarks] to the district and to more favorably evaluate the incumbent as a result. Most members of the general public remain indifferent to alterations in the flow of new awards.” [Emphasis added.]

What follows is a chronology showing how Carney gained conservative traction for Perry, beginning with the earmarks issue, as far back as June 2006, before going on to win a stunning election victory in 2010, seize the Tea Party banner, and become a presidential candidate.  The chronological format is the best way to demonstrate that Perry’s resurgence had less to do with the “luck” so condescendingly attributed to him, and much to do with planning, timing, and shrewd opportunism.

June 21, 2006:  A Toe in the Water

Gov. Rick Perry issues a press release calling for Congress to give President Bush line-item veto authority so he can cut “earmarks” and “pork projects” from otherwise useful legislation.  The release is Perry’s initial attempt to catch hold of the issue that has been boiling in Washington since February 2006.

2006 Texas Governor’s Race:  The Eggheads Arrive

Dave Carney asks the “eggheads” to come along for the ride.  They develop data that will support the value of personal appearances and the use of social media versus expensive ads and direct mail. 

Sasha Issenberg, author of The Victory Lab, now writes that Carney thought Perry would accept the eggheads in the campaign because he knew the governor was “a cheap bastard” who would want to know where he was wasting campaign money.  The eggheads would tell him.  No one else, it seems, was listening to them.

June 15, 2007:  Earmarks?

In an address about the state’s budget, Perry uses the term “earmarks” three times and the word “pork” three more times.  The expenditures he opposes are not “earmarks” in the traditional sense; rather, they are funds that can be used by universities with some discretion without being subject to the governor’s veto.  The hot-button terms, while not exactly forced, are a bit out of place.  The linkage to the national issue is clear, even if the usage is not. Perry’s actions are clearer still.  The same day, he vetoes $35.8 million dollars of the “earmarks.”

July 1, 2007:  One Way to Get the Pork

U.S. Rep. Ron Paul suddenly finds himself in the hot seat over … earmarks. In a creative application of his anti-government ideology, Paul tells the Houston Chronicle that “I don’t think [the federal government] should take our money in the first place.  But if they take it, I think we should ask for it back.”  Of greater importance, however, is that the man who will become the intellectual godfather of the Tea Party has not seen the importance of the earmarks issue.  He is not the only one.

August 30—September 2, 2007:  Credit for the Pork

Prof. Robert Stein and three colleagues present a paper at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association in Chicago.  The name of the paper is “The Electoral Effect of Credit Claiming for Pork Barrel Projects in Congress.”  Ron Paul and Kay Bailey Hutchison probably never heard of this paper.  Dave Carney?  Don’t bet against him.

The paper is more conclusive than Stein’s previous work.  “We find that credit claiming did not unconditionally endear members to their constituents. The effects of pork on voters’ support for the incumbent were frequently negative and mediated by both the voter’s and the candidate’s party.” 

December 6, 2007:  The Guy is from New York?

The Perry message against earmarks moves to the national stage as he announces his support for Rudy Giuliani for president.  In a brilliant move of going against type to gain more attention, Perry does not endorse Mike Huckabee, a fellow Southerner, pro-lifer, and social conservative.   Perry’s endorsement of Giuliani is misunderstood by some as a goofy aberration: Giuliani is from New York and he is pro-choice.

But the endorsement guarantees publicity for Perry, and because it is support for Giuliani from an unexpected quarter, it earns Perry a place on stage with Giuliani in the presidential primary states of Iowa and South Carolina.  Some Texas journalists are fooled.  One jokes that the “39 percent” governor might decide to remain in Texas only 39 percent of the time now.

In Iowa, some reports say Perry “blurted” out that President George W. Bush has “never, ever been a fiscal conservative.”  Again, the image of Perry as Governor Goodhair obscures the political craft at work.  Listening to the recording, one can hear that Perry could not have been more emphatic, repeating the statement and then damning Bush with faint praise for his accomplishments. 

December 2008:  “Exploding Earmarks”

In the wake of the presidential victory by Barack Obama, Perry sends a fundraising email to his supporters.  Reflecting on his travels with Giuliani, Perry says that “we cannot allow the true party of big government and spending deficits—the Democrat Party—to cling to the mantle of fiscal responsibility simply because Washington Republicans blew it with twelve years of exploding earmarks and spending sprees."

No longer firing shots across the bow of President Bush’s damaged and departed ship, Perry now wants to add a new target to the list of Democrats, big spenders, and earmarks:  Kay Bailey Hutchison, who has been in Washington all twelve of those years and then some.

December 2, 2008:  Taking No Pleasure?

Perry and Mark Sanford of South Carolina (before his adventures in Argentina) co-author an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.  They decry the “bailout mentality” which they associate with the loans to the Big Three auto companies.  “And as fiscally conservative Republicans,” they say, “we take no pleasure in pointing out that many in our own party have been just as complicit in running up the tab as those on the political left.” 

February 18, 2009:  Okay, We’ll Take the Big Money

Despite what they wrote in the op-ed, both Perry and Sanford decide to accept stimulus funds.  Perry channels Ron Paul in a letter to the president.  “As I have said during the debate…,” Perry writes, “should Congress pass stimulus legislation using Texas tax dollars, I would work to ensure that our citizens receive their fair share.”  He adds, however, that Texas will refuse any portion of the $16.8 billion that would create a “burden to the state” to provide continuing support after the stimulus money was gone.

March 12, 2009:  But We’ll Turn Down This Little Dab

Perry dramatically refuses $555 million in federal aid for the unemployed in Texas.  The reasons he gives are (1) it would help unemployed part-timers, adding too many people to the rolls and (2) it would require an extension of benefits to a broader range of low-income people, with a requirement that Texas change some of its unemployment regulations.  An unstated reason is that $555 million is only 3.3 percent of $16.8 billion.  Not a bad deal, and Perry doesn’t catch much flak over the large bounty he does grab for the state.

Up to this point, earmarks, faithless Republicans, and irredeemable Democrats have dominated the narrative.  They will remain a part of the story, but now the pace increases as Dave Carney takes his candidate to an even bigger political sweet spot—to that “2009 explosion of the center-right voters on the federal fiscal issues (tea party, etc.).”

April 9, 2009:  A Bouquet for the Tea Party

Perry joins ultra-conservative state House members in support of a resolution affirming that “Texas claims sovereignty under the Tenth Amendment over all powers not otherwise granted to the federal government.”  The resolution also calls for an end “to compulsory federal legislation that requires states to comply under threat of civil or criminal penalties, or that requires states to pass legislation or lose federal funding…”

The event is a stunt, but the timing is important.  Six days later, Perry joins in a major Tea Party rally in Austin and other Texas cities.  But the immediate results matter even more.

April 14, 2009:  A Big Shout Out from Mr. Drudge

This is the day when all the anti-Washington rhetoric of the past three years and the opportunistic endorsement of the Tenth Amendment resolution bear so much fruit that the Perry campaign continues to gather it to this day. 

At 08:44:54 Eastern Time, the Drudge Report runs this headline: “WAKE UP CALL: TEXAS GOV. BACKS RESOLUTION AFFIRMING SOVEREIGNTY.”  The story goes viral, and gives Perry the best possible intro for his appearance in Austin the next day.  Some conservative groups take this as a nod to secession.  Luck?

April 15, 2009:  The “S” Word from the Tea Party Faithful

Never mind that some in the crowd in Austin are waving American flags that day, many of them still yell “Secede!”  as Perry makes a stop at one of the three Tea Party rallies in the state he will attend on April 15.  Given all that has led up to this day for Perry, it is possible to view his remarks as logical, if by logical we mean an unsurprising step in a sequence.

“There’s a lot of different scenarios,” Perry said.  “But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that.  But Texas is a very unique place, and we're a pretty independent lot to boot."

He then informs the media that when Texas came into the Union (officially in 1846), the agreement gave the state the authority to secede later if it chose to do so.  (This is not correct, though the agreement does indicate that Texas could separate into four states later on.)

May 29, 2009: God Bless Rush Limbaugh

Almost two months earlier, on March 30, Rush Limbaugh has high taxes and government interference on his mind—and in his mouth.  Whipping himself into a sort of frenzy, he announces that he’s leaving New York City:

“I'm going to look for an alternative studio somewhere outside New York, perhaps Texas -- another no-income-tax state -- and I'm going to get the hell over there…”

And get the hell over there he does, at the invitation of Rick Perry.  The governor makes Limbaugh an honorary Texan and tells the world, “God Bless Rush Limbaugh.”  The blessings come, in the form of Limbaugh’s frequent and favorable mentions of Governor Rick Perry.

June 2009: How ‘bout Them Polls?

Recall that in February 2009, the polls showed Perry down 31 to 55 in his race against Kay Bailey Hutchison.  Polls in late 2009: Perry is ahead by 12 percent, a 36-point turnaround.  What a lucky guy he is.

October 9, 2009: The “Queen of Earmarks”

The San Antonio Express-News runs a story that gives Sen. Hutchison the title she must have hated.  Dubbed the “Queen of Earmarks” for the $10 billion she has dutifully brought home to Texas, the senator finds herself the subject a joke merely because she chose the wrong burger joint:  “As Sen. Hutchison continues to travel the state promoting her independence from Texas voters,” said Perry spokesman Mark Miner, “it’s ironic that the queen of earmarks would visit Dairy Queen.”

An ex-contestant on American Idol sings a Perry campaign ditty about Hutchison, to the tune of Abba’s “Dancing Queen”: 

“You have become the Quee-een
Every Texan wonders why-aiiy
The things you say turn into lies
Voting for the bailout why oh whyyy?”

March 2, 2010: God Bless Texas!

It’s Texas Independence Day.  It’s also the day that Rick Perry clobbers Kay Bailey Hutchison by a 21 percent margin and avoids a runoff despite the presence of a third candidate.  With 51 percent of the vote, “39 percent Rick” is farther away than Lubbock in the governor’s rearview mirror. 

April 24, 2010: An Ornery Honorary Texan

Glenn Beck, still riding high at the time, gallops into Tyler, in the heart of conservative East Texas.   Perry shows up, full of buoyant cheerleader gestures, and even gives an Aggie gig ’em thumbs up to the crowd.  He presents Beck with a framed proclamation declaring that Glenn Beck is, by God, an honorary Texan.  Beck takes the proclamation, glances at it, then hands it back to Perry, who awkwardly leaves the stage, an eager suitor relegated to the wings.

November 2, 2010: Another Win

Rick Perry defeats the Harvard-educated former mayor of Houston, Bill White, 55 to 42 percent.  White has been popular in the state’s largest city, and is smart and canny.  But the state’s political climate has become so anti-Washington (and anti-Obama) that White avoids the president when he comes to the state.

December 26, 2010: Merry Christmas from the Dallas Morning News

One of the state’s top three newspapers names Perry “Texan of the Year” even though Perry cavalierly declined all newspaper editors’ traditional meetings with candidates.  The paper had supported Kay Bailey Hutchison for governor in the primary, along with state big shots ranging from the Bush clan to Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan.  The News even supported Democrat White in the general election.

The paper is right on the mark, however, in its analysis.  “Before the year began,” the editors write, “many political pros thought [Perry] was hobbling far behind in his re-election bid.  Hutchison was a vote-getting machine, and it appeared Perry might have turned himself into a caricature with loose talk about secession.”

“But Perry was actually sprinting several steps ahead. He had co-opted the ‘Washington is broken’ mantra that would take hold nationally in 2010,” the paper concludes.

And Glenn Beck…

Well, darn the luck.  He lost his place at Fox News this spring.  He has mentioned that he might want to relocate to Texas.  Bad luck for him if he can’t find that proclamation.

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