AUSTIN, Texas - Governor Rick Perry of Texas was back in town Friday, the day after announcing in South Carolina that he was pulling out of the Republican presidential race.
His timing was just about perfect. If there is a moment when a Texas governor should return to the state after mounting an unsuccessful campaign for president, late January is it. Nearly 40 positions on the state’s numerous boards and commissions expire Feb. 1, meaning Perry will have ample opportunity to exert his influence in the coming weeks by making appointments and reappointments, a fact that has not gone unnoticed in Austin.
To many Americans outside Texas, Perry suffered a humiliating defeat in his failed bid to win the Republican nomination, making gaffes and missteps that became punch lines of nationwide jokes and fodder for YouTube. But to many Texans, particularly those involved in politics, Perry’s return to the state is a far more nuanced and complicated matter.
Several Republican and Democratic political veterans, former and current lawmakers, lobbyists and lawyers said that although Perry appeared to have momentarily damaged his reputation in the state, the effect on his ability to govern would most likely be fleeting. In fact, a few county and state elected officials declined to comment about the governor’s political potency in Texas, in large part because they did not want to appear to be critical of him.
“I’ve heard speculation that he will have lost some of his clout, but I’m not sure that’s the truth,’’ said Bill Ratliff, who served alongside Perry as lieutenant governor from late 2000 to early 2003 and is now a lobbyist for public education. “He still has virtually every board and commission in the state loyal to him. I don’t know how much money he’ll have left over from the national campaign, but it will be substantial, to help his friends and contribute against his foes. He still enjoys the strong support of the right wing in Texas. I’m not sure he loses any stroke.’’
And yet, here and elsewhere in Texas, Perry’s poor performance appears to have had a more intangible effect, bruising the outsized ego of a state that has been as proud of its sports teams as it has of its politicians who rise to national fame. Several Republicans and Democrats said they felt varying degrees of embarrassment for Texas as they watched its longest-serving governor and most prominent politician stumble so badly, as when he uttered “Oops’’ during a debate after failing to recall the name of one of the three federal agencies he would have eliminated if elected president.
“I am concerned that the unfortunate results of Perry’s performance on the national stage may confirm the stereotype that much of the rest of the country has about Texas - the impression that Texas is a bunch of yahoos and people of low intelligence,’’ said Scott Caven, a Houston Republican who was Perry’s state finance chairman in his first two campaigns for governor. “A lot of us just want to throw up our hands and say, ‘We’ve been a very successful state.’ It’s been a successful story down here, and I’m afraid we’ve taken one step forward and three steps back.’’
Perry’s down-home style and clear knack for retail politics - dealing with small groups of 100 or so and being able to greet some in those gatherings by name - have helped make him one of the most successful politicians in Texas history. And during his dozen years in office, he has masterfully used the power of incumbency and largely avoided debating his opponents. But what proved to be winning strategies in Texas did not work for him on the larger national stage.
Perry has returned to a state that has been reeling from a series of crises, both natural and man-made. A redistricting dispute between the state, minority groups, and the Justice Department has left Texas without any usable electoral maps for congressional and state House and Senate districts, creating uncertainty about the primary elections that were pushed back to April, as well as the Republican and Democratic state political conventions scheduled in June. A record-breaking drought continues to strain public water systems and cost farmers and ranchers, including the state’s cotton and cattle industries, billions of dollars in lost income and additional production expenses.