AUSTIN, Texas—The Lone Star State this summer has been scorched by record heat and drought and seared by horrific wildfires. The National Weather Service recently reported that Texas in 2011 recorded the hottest summer for any state in the history of federal records. Hand-lettered signs tacked to utility poles read simply: pray for rain.
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This extreme weather has disrupted almost every aspect of Texas life. But one thing it hasn’t done is prompt sustained discussion about whether the state could be suffering from the effects of global climate change—a theory that Republican Gov. Rick Perry dismisses as unproven and partly the invention of scientists scheming for research grants.
That resounding silence is a reminder that Perry presides over a state that has tilted so solidly Republican for 15 years that he has not faced significant political opposition from Democrats, or the groups usually allied with them, at almost any point in his governorship. Perry’s approach to political leadership—from his unbending positions on most issues to his frequently barbed rhetoric—carries the unmistakable stamp of his experience as the leader of the dominant faction in a one-party state. He is the Republican equivalent of a San Francisco Democrat, a politician molded by unshielded exposure to his party’s brightest flame. That pedigree helps explain some of his greatest strengths—and potential vulnerabilities—in the 2012 presidential race.
It’s difficult to overstate how thoroughly Republicans now dominate Texas politics. From the Civil War through the late 1970s, Democrats controlled the state without challenge; from then until the early 1990s, the two parties battled on nearly equal footing. But George W. Bush’s defeat of popular Democratic Gov. Ann Richards in 1994 marked a tipping point. Democrats have not won any statewide office since then, and in 2010, no Democratic statewide candidate garnered more than the 42.3 percent of the vote that Bill White captured against Perry. Democrats held at least one chamber in the Texas Legislature through 2002, but the GOP has controlled both the House and Senate since; the party’s House ratio now stands at 2-to-1. In 2005, a ballot initiative to ban gay marriage passed in all of the state’s 254 counties except the one that includes liberal Austin. Exit polls show that Republicans now frequently attract the votes of more than two-thirds of the state’s whites.
Perry, who began his career as a Democratic state legislator, won a tough statewide campaign for Agriculture commissioner in 1990 as a Republican, at a time when Democrats remained competitive. But mostly he has ascended—first as lieutenant governor in 1998, and then as governor after Bush’s election as president in 2000—with the tailwind of GOP dominance. Unlike Bush, Perry as governor hasn’t usually needed to negotiate with legislative Democrats to pass his priorities. He also hasn’t had to attract many truly moderate swing voters to capture elections: In Texas, consolidating conservatives is almost always enough to win.
Perry has quickly demonstrated on the national stage that he has emerged from these experiences as a politician innately attuned to the Republican base. Both in his language (calling evolution a theory with “some gaps in it,” for example, or denouncing Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme”) and his positions (as when he dictated huge cuts in state education aid rather than raising taxes to close Texas’s gaping budget shortfall this year), Perry often seems to channel the unmediated conservative id.
The governor’s camp believes that his forceful, unapologetic style represents one of Perry’s greatest assets against his principal rival for the GOP nomination, Mitt Romney. “Perry is a very straight shooter,” says Ray Sullivan, the campaign’s communications director. “Romney speaks and acts like someone who is afraid of taking a strong position and offending anyone … and voters on our side of the aisle are looking for stronger, bolder candidates.”
The flip side is that Perry has never needed to systematically persuade voters who aren’t inclined to agree with him, nor has he had to defend his agenda against formidable opposition. It’s not just that Democrats have lacked any effective platform to challenge him since 2002; liberal groups in the state are weak, and the once-vibrant capital press corps has withered under cutbacks. “He’s never had to face a cohesive, well-funded, talented opposition,” said Democratic consultant Jason Stanford. “He’s occasionally faced some of those things, but never all at once.”
That doesn’t mean that Perry is a weak politician; Stanford, who managed the 2006 Democratic gubernatorial race against him, says, “One of his greatest strengths is how much we underestimate him.” But it does mean that Perry’s first instinct usually is to rouse his base rather than reach beyond it.
That has worked fine for him in Texas, but as the GOP presidential nominee Perry might find that approach considerably less effective in more-moderate states. What Sullivan considers Romney’s equivocation partly reflects the very different communication habits he acquired pursuing swing voters as the red governor of blue-leaning Massachusetts. That contrast underscores the toughest question Perry presents for GOP voters: In a general election, would his big-as-Texas conservatism sell beyond the Republican heartland? That’s one critical question for which Perry’s success in a one-party state offers no answer.
This article appears in the Sep. 24, 2011, edition of National Journal.