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Politics / POLITICS

With Dewhurst Loss, Perry Weakened Back Home

Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks during the Texas Republican Convention in Fort Worth.(AP Photo/LM Otero)

photo of Kevin Brennan
July 31, 2012

With his dreams of ending his accomplished political career in the U.S. Senate unraveling, Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst turned to a familiar face. In the final television ad Dewhurst's campaign released before Tuesday's loss to Ted Cruz, Gov. Rick Perry pleaded with Republican voters to join him in supporting Dewhurst, once considered an overwhelming favorite, in the runoff for the GOP nomination in Texas's Senate race.
 
The image of Perry touting Dewhurst's conservative credentials had become a familiar one to anyone following the race. With Cruz attracting visits from an array of national conservative stars -- from Sarah Palin to Rick Santorum to Jim DeMint -- Dewhurst played up his support from Lone Star State conservatives. Perry represented his best argument, and the governor took on an increasingly visible role in the final weeks of the campaign.
 
But Perry's help -- and that of several longtime Perry aides working for Dewhurst -- proved insufficient to stem the tide of anti-establishment momentum enveloping Dewhurst's campaign. Despite spending upwards of $20 million of his own money and a decade spent in the public eye, Dewhurst fell to a political novice who emerged from relative obscurity to stamp his ticket to Washington on Tuesday. In the process, Perry's political image suffered another embarrassing setback in a year filled with them.
 
"Certainly the view of him as this invincible electoral and political juggernaut is gone," said Rice University political scientist Mark Jones.
 
Following the breakup of Perry's presidential campaign, several of his key advisers went to work helping Dewhurst win the Senate race. Longtime Perry consultant Dave Carney joined the campaign as senior adviser, while Perry campaign manager Rob Johnson shepherded the Texas Conservatives Fund, a pro-Dewhurst super PAC that unleashed blistering attack ads on Cruz. Perry spokesman Mark Miner also eventually joined Dewhurst's communications staff.
 
Dewhurst entered the race as a heavy favorite, thanks to high name identification and a willingness to spend millions of his own fortune amassed from his previous career in the energy industry. A variety of factors -- from a crowded Republican field to a primary delayed by lawsuits challenging the state's redistricting maps -- kept him from reaching the 50 percent mark, landing him in a runoff despite outpacing Cruz by 11 points in the primary.
 
The dynamics of the runoff evened the playing field for Cruz. With two months of heightened media attention and another round of television spots, Cruz erased Dewhurst's name ID advantage. The Club for Growth and other conservative groups spent millions on ad campaigns to forward Cruz's momentum and combat the front-runner’s spending advantage.
 
As the race tightened, Perry's role in Dewhurst's campaign grew. Problems for the governor soon followed. When he addressed the state GOP convention in June, Perry voiced his support for Dewhurst and received a loud, long chorus of boos in return from the party faithful. Perry later joked that he thought the crowd was saying "Dew."
 
The scene at the convention would have been hard to imagine a year earlier, when Perry was riding high following his defeat of Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in the 2010 gubernatorial primary. One of the secrets to Perry's success -- and an attribute that made him such an appealing presidential contender on paper -- was his ability to bridge the gap between the party establishment and grassroots conservatives. In his 2010 race, the three-term governor managed to play the role of outsider by emphasizing Hutchison's time in Washington.
 
Finding himself on the opposite side of Cruz, who has captured the hearts of Texas' movement conservatives, left Perry in an unfamiliar and potentially troubling position.
 
"Perry's support for Dewhurst has alienated many of his grassroots conservative supporters, and it's going to be very difficult to bring them back," Jones said.
 
While the convention incident might have caused a more cautious politician to pull back a bit from the Senate campaign, Perry only became more visible as the runoff approached, making campaign stops with Dewhurst and batting back attacks from Cruz.
 
"He's an all-in kind of guy," Carney said.
 
Sarah Palin's visit to Texas last week provided another example of Perry's increasingly strained relationship with the conservative grassroots. Headlining a rally for Cruz, the 2008 vice presidential nominee appeared on stage wearing a pair of black cowboy boots.
 
"You know who gave me these boots?" Palin playfully asked the crowd, according to The Dallas Morning News. "Your governor. At least in that case he made a good decision."
 
Perry's choice to take on such a high-profile role as a Dewhurst surrogate, even as it appeared increasingly likely that Cruz would win the nomination, has left political observers in Texas scratching their heads. Perry has dropped hints that he plans to run for reelection in 2014, but he seems to have, at least temporarily, damaged his standing with some conservatives in the state. His opposition to Cruz, who is a hit with the national tea party movement, also can't help any future presidential ambitions, which were already significantly hurt by his performance in the 2012 GOP primaries.
 
But the calculus behind Perry's outspoken support for Dewhurst may have had more to do with next year's state legislative session. If Perry plans to pass another ambitious conservative agenda, he'll rely on the cooperation of the lieutenant governor, who presides over the state Senate. Had Perry been less helpful during Dewhurst's bid, it might have hampered his ability to accomplish his legislative goals next year.
 
Of course, Perry may seek to mitigate any damage done during the Senate campaign by enthusiastically throwing his support behind Cruz now that he has won the nomination. A post-primary endorsement won't heal all the wounds the governor has suffered over the last year, but it could engender good will from some of Cruz's hard-core supporters.
 
"For Perry, it's pretty easy to pivot and be seen as the vehicle for reconciliation," said James Henson, the director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas. "Perry has shown nothing if not an ability to adapt to political circumstances."

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