It’s an intriguing and personal subplot in the Republican presidential contest: the feud between current front-runner Rick Perry and strategic mastermind Karl Rove. As the Texas governor has surged to the top of the GOP field, the tension between him and the man who helped bring him into the Republican Party more than 20 years ago has spilled into public view.
The Perry-Rove square-off isn’t merely a soap-opera distraction. The way Perry and his team handle it could have real implications for his candidacy as he seeks to cement his status as the favorite to win the party’s nomination. Rove defines the GOP political establishment for many conservative activists, and he drew their ire last year when he offered unbridled criticism of Delaware Senate nominee Christine O’Donnell. Using him as a foil could cement Perry’s standing among conservatives, like members of the tea party, who are distrustful of the party’s establishment and are poised to play an important role in next year’s primary.
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People on both sides of the Perry-Rove dispute describe a complicated relationship that, although strained in the past by personal enmity and hard-nosed politics, could be headed for a détente as Perry’s presidential campaign gains traction. That would benefit both men because their rift has potentially serious political implications, pitting a front-runner for the Republican nomination against the cofounder of an independent expenditure group that's expected to provide critical financial muscle for the 2012 campaign. Rove's role in American Crossroads, expected to raise more than $100 million in the campaign cycle, makes him an influential gateway to the donor community Perry must tap as he tries to expand his fundraising base.
From his perch as a Fox News pundit, Rove has rapped Perry’s knuckles on everything from his controversial criticism of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, which he called “unpresidential,” to Perry’s view of Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme.” Rove called Perry's remarks politically “toxic.” His message seemed clear: The man who sent one Texas governor to the White House doubts that governor's successor can repeat the feat.
Other candidates might ignore the criticism, but not Perry. During his first presidential debate, when Rove’s name was mentioned, Perry jumped at the chance to hit back. “You know, Karl has been over the top for a long time in some of his remarks,” he said. “So I'm not responsible for Karl anymore.”
The genesis of Rove and Perry’s rivalry is a well-known story, although the details are still disputed. Rove can lay claim to launching Perry’s career: He and a cadre of others, including Perry’s longtime media consultant David Weeks, persuaded the then-Democratic state lawmaker to run as a Republican for agriculture commissioner in 1990. Rove even helped manage Perry’s campaign.
The two men remained on mostly good terms until Perry ran for lieutenant governor in 1998, the same year that Bush was seeking reelection as governor. According to most accounts, the fallout began here. People with knowledge of the events spoke on condition of anonymity, concerned about getting on the wrong side of either man.
Rove wanted Bush not only to win reelection, but to amass an overwhelming margin of victory as he prepared to run for president. His strategy depended in part on the Republican ticket, including the lieutenant governor, avoiding negative ads that could sour Democrats on Bush. But that decision, people close to Perry say, ignored the peril Perry faced in his matchup with popular Democrat John Sharp, who was running nearly even with Perry in the polls.
When Perry and his strategists proposed running negative ads against Sharp, Rove, now working only for the governor, nixed the idea, threatening to retaliate by pulling an ad of Bush and his father, former President George H.W. Bush, endorsing Perry. Perry's team was furious. One source confirmed reports that Dave Carney, recruited by Rove to help Perry in 1998 and now the chief strategist of the Texas governor's presidential campaign, punched a hole through a campaign office wall in anger at Rove’s decision.
But a source close to Rove offers a different account, saying that Rove counseled Perry against running a negative ad that could undercut the Bush endorsement spot, which Rove saw as a key to Perry's victory. The election results proved Rove right, this source added. Perry won even though his own campaign's polling had him down by as much as 14 points just before Election Day.
But Perry's victory was a narrow one. He captured just 50 percent of the vote. David Beckwith, a longtime GOP political hand in Texas who was unofficially working with Bush at the time, said that while Bush campaign officials celebrated on election night, Perry’s people were nervously awaiting returns well into the night. When the television cameras arrived at 10 p.m., Beckwith says, Perry wasn’t able to greet them.
“Perry couldn’t even get out there because he couldn’t report anything yet,” he said. Carney denies the account.
Perry emerged as a political force in the Lone Star state in his own right that night—and a feud was born.
“That was the beginning of the ill will,” said Bill Miller, a longtime lobbyist in Austin. “Perry thought he was being played second-fiddle to Bush by Karl.”
The relationship between the two men only deteriorated afterward. Perry’s power rose steadily in Texas. He transformed a relatively weak governorship into a potent force after 10 years. In 2007, as Bush’s poll numbers dove, Perry said the president had never been a true fiscal conservative, irking Rove and others in Bush's circle.
The animosity culminated in 2010, when Rove, along with a number of other members of the former president's inner circle, backed Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s unsuccessful challenge to Perry in the GOP gubernatorial primary. By that point, Perry probably didn’t need another reason to dislike Rove. Many describe the governor as inclined to hold a grudge, even one that extends decades.
For Rove, watching Perry enter the national stage so successfully may be hard for a man who once ruled Texas Republican politics with an iron fist.
“Karl has sat on top of Texas politicians forever, pretty much since he got here,” Miller said. “Right now, it’s the first time ever, you have one who kind of eclipsed his reach. It’s different for him.”
Perry is also a favorite of tea party activists across the country, a group that views Rove with suspicion. Rove is a “company man,” said Tamara Colbert, co-founder of the conservative group TeaPAC, adding that she liked Perry’s willingness to take him on.
“Speaking from the tea party perspective, we want somebody who is not beholden to having to do things the old way,” she said.
For its part, Perry’s team emphasizes that any feud with Rove is little more than media hype. Or, as Carney put it in an interview, it’s an “unbelievably manufactured” story.
“My memory is completely different,” he said. “I don’t where this talk comes from.”
Several who know Rove suggest he might also be trying to downplay the rivalry. Reggie Bashur, a Republican strategist in Texas, said Rove’s criticism was offered only because he’s a pundit, one who will criticize all of the candidates.
“I had breakfast with Karl six weeks ago, and he was anything but critical,” said Bashur. “He overall supports the governor and wishes him well. He wants the Republicans to win.”
A détente could serve Perry well. Even as the architect of the last White House, Rove is relatively unknown to the average voter. Engaging in a fight with an ex-White House staffer could make a presidential candidate look small, petty and distracted from what the real focus of any campaign should be: the economy.
“I think the danger for the Perry campaign is allowing that issue to become a sideshow. They don’t need to use Karl Rove as a foil,” said Keith Appell, a Republican strategist. He added, “The environment already lends itself to Perry’s strengths. There’s a bad economy, people are out of work. He’s been a successful governor where new jobs have been created in abundance. That is so much bigger to people than some of these internal political side-shows.”
Rebecca Kaplan contributed. contributed to this article.
This article appears in the September 20, 2011 edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.