In April, Rick Perry traveled to North Texas for a taping of televangelist James Robison’s TV show, Life Today. For six months, starting as soon as he was re-elected Texas governor in November 2010, Perry had been crisscrossing the country to promote his second book, Fed Up!, while testing the presidential waters with potential donors and conservative activists. His visit with Robison, a hellfire-breathing pastor known as “God’s hit man” (for “giving ’em so much hell nobody will ever want to go there”), had the potential to pay serious dividends. Robison had led the Christian-right campaign that helped lift Ronald Reagan to the White House in 1980, and he was re-emerging as the chief instigator of a national effort to mobilize evangelicals to defeat Barack Obama in 2012. With former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee—who left divinity school in 1976 to work for Robison—having forgone the race, the pastor was searching for a candidate the resurgent evangelical right could anoint.
Perry, who has spent more time evangelizing about his faith than any governor in the history of Texas, was ready for his audition. Beaming, he gazed up into the studio lights. “I think we’re in a time of great revivalness in this world,” he declared.
“I think it’s an awakening,” Robison agreed.
“I know there’s a lot of concern,” Perry said. “I think in America, that from time to time, we have to go through some difficult times, and I think we’re going through those difficult economic times for a purpose—and that’s to bring us back to those biblical principles … not spending all of our money, not asking for Pharaoh to give everything to everybody and to take care of folks, because at the end of the day, it’s slavery. And we become slaves to government.”
The idea that the recession was a blessed opportunity to turn Americans against government and toward “biblical principles” was already a familiar one for Robison’s followers. It was a message that Perry was poised to carry into the mainstream. Robison had been looking for a prominent public official to convene a large-scale prayer and fasting rally to spread the word. Perry took up the call. He would soon be inviting Christians and political leaders to a Houston stadium rally, The Response, explaining that while the country was facing grim economic times, “There is hope for America. It lies in heaven, and we will find it on our knees.”
Only God, not government, could heal the broken economy. It was a theme that knit together all three of Perry’s core constituencies: right-wing evangelicals, who had mobilized behind Perry’s 2006 re-election; anti-tax Tea Partiers, who had helped him to a third term as governor in 2010; and corporate conservatives, who have bankrolled his rise from the beginning. Perry’s message was a natural outgrowth of the resurgence in recent years of “biblical capitalism,” an idea that first sprung up in the early 20th century as a counterweight to the social gospel, which used scripture to support labor reforms and progressive taxation. In recent years, the tenets of biblical capitalism have been spread most famously by David Barton, former vice chairman of the Texas GOP and the religious right’s favorite historian. Barton, a longtime Perry ally whom Glenn Beck calls “the most important man in America,” has been touring the country for years, not only preaching that the United States was founded by and for Christians but also cherry-picking scripture to assert that the Bible opposes capital--gains and estate taxes, unions and minimum-wage laws.
For Robison and Barton, the recession offered the ideal opportunity to spread that word and argue that big government had caused the economic calamity because it was “against God.” “Depending on the federal government is idolatry,” as Robison put it in June. “We must control it, or it will control us. Stop the madness! Hitler believed that Germany needed a government over the people, not of the people. God deliver us from that kind of insanity.” Getting more specific, Robison inveighed against “intrusive regulation,” while calling for the tax code to be revised “so we can rejoice together because it would stimulate economic growth.”
In May, meeting with Robison, Barton, and a large group of evangelical leaders to organize The Response, Perry echoed the message. Americans’ “pursuit of happiness” was “in jeopardy,” he said. “It’s in jeopardy because of taxes. It’s in jeopardy because of regulation. It’s in jeopardy because of a legal system that’s run amok. And I think it’s time for us to just hand it over to God and say, ‘God, you’re going to have to fix this.’”
While Perry insisted that The Response was an “apolitical” event, its organizers were dozens of evangelical heavyweights whom Robison brought together, in the spring and summer, for a series of meetings to mobilize for 2012. Publicly, they claimed to be strategizing to defeat Obama—to use the political moment to “help inspire … a restoration of freedom’s foundation,” as Robison explained. “I don’t think we’re ever going to solve the economic crisis without having a kingdom mentality.”
As Perry moved toward announcing his candidacy, the evangelical leaders decided that he had the “kingdom mentality” they were looking for—and, unlike Michele Bachmann, a chance to win. It wasn’t just that Perry was the only major politician in America audacious and faithful enough to convene his own mega-prayer rally. It wasn’t just that he claimed to be “called” by God to run. It wasn’t just that he slashed budgets and stripped regulations. It wasn’t just that he had promoted abstinence-only sex education, campaigned successfully for a gay-marriage ban, defunded Planned Parenthood, and signed some of the country’s most restrictive abortion laws. It was that he did all this while he called for “restoring America to its Christian principles.”
The Response drew 30,000 people to Houston’s Reliant Stadium on the first Saturday in August. Perry sermonized along with John Hagee, the Christian Zionist megapastor who blamed gays for Hurricane Katrina and once called Catholicism a “godless theology.” While Perry’s message mostly consisted of long passages of scripture, his closing prayer reinforced the idea that only God, not government, could solve the nation’s woes: “Lord, you are the source of every good thing. You are our only hope. … Father, our heart breaks for America. We see discord at home. We see fear in the marketplace. We see anger in the halls of government. As a nation, we have forgotten who made us, who protects us, who blesses us. And for that, we cry out for your forgiveness.”
Ten days later, Perry announced his presidential bid in South Carolina, promising to “make Washington, D.C., as inconsequential in your life as I can.” Almost overnight, he emerged as the Republican right’s leading alternative to former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. Just as quickly, he became the most misunderstood contender for the White House.
In late September, as delegates streamed out of the Orlando Convention Center following the Florida straw poll, an elderly Republican spotted a Perry for President sign and cried out: “You guys are the problem! That RINO stuff is killing us.”
Rick Perry, Republican in Name Only? The notion seemed laughable. Here was the governor who manufactured a budget crisis by lowering property taxes—then used the opportunity to gut state programs with massive cuts. Here was the governor who led the nation in “tort reform,” making lawsuits against corporations a nearly impossible proposition for most Texans. Here was the nation’s loudest opponent of “socialist” stimulus spending and bailouts and health-care reform. Here was the governor who calls climate change “a contrived phony mess.” Here was the governor who suggested that his state might secede from the union if Washington didn’t end its “assault” on states’ rights.
Now, as his early momentum began to fade, here was that same governor being viewed as a traitor to the conservative cause—and, perhaps even worse, as just another political opportunist who believes in nothing but winning.
In early debates—including his disastrous performance in Orlando that led to a second-place finish well behind Herman Cain in the straw poll—Perry’s opponents took aim at his few conservative heresies, most notably signing a bill to allow in-state college tuition for some undocumented students. Perry’s fumbling retort—accusing those who disagreed with his position of not having “a heart”—made matters worse. As national reporters rushed to knock out profiles of the meteor rising on the Republican right, a narrative was emerging: Perry was painted as a say-anything sort who had shifted with the political winds to win eight elections in Texas without suffering a defeat. The new meme was summed up by a Politico headline: “Rick Perry’s non-ideology.”
It is an easy but misleading story to tell. Perry was first elected to the Texas House in 1984 as a Democrat. He switched parties in 1989, as Republicans began to chip away at Democrats’ century-old domination of Texas politics, in order to run against liberal populist Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower. Handpicked by Karl Rove, Perry rode Governor George W. Bush’s coattails to become lieutenant governor in 1998, succeeding to the governor’s office when Bush left for Washington in December 2000. When Bush and Rove manufactured a revival of evangelical politics, Perry became a “faith-based” politician when he ran for governor in 2002 and 2006. Then, facing a tough re-election challenge in 2010 from Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, he embraced the Tea Party.
This narrative makes a good yarn—yet another story of yet another politician who pretends to stand for something but only cares about winning elections. But it misses the heart, and the threat, of Perry’s politics. While it’s true that he has calibrated his campaigns to fit the moment, Perry is an ideologue. Indeed, he is the boldest champion of a new conservatism that draws its power from blending the most radical wings of the GOP: those who believe that Christians are America’s chosen leaders, that corporations should be unfettered, and that the federal government should shrink and cede power back to the states. His politics have indeed evolved—in concert with that of the Republican right, as it’s hardened from a movement that saw government as “the problem,” in Reagan’s words, to one that views government as the enemy. Perry, far from being a follower in that shift to the hard right, has long been one of its prime instigators.
When Perry first materialized in Austin in the mid-’80s, he immediately established what kind of politician he was. The swaggering, glad-handing tenant farmer’s son from West Texas became part of a budget-cutting gang on the Appropriations Committee, deemed the “Pit Bulls” because they sat on the lower dais in the hearing room as they pushed for austerity in Texas’s state government. “Then and there,” says longtime Democratic state Senator Eliot Shapleigh, “he and his band of Pit Bulls put Texas on a path toward his legacy project of cutting taxes for the wealthy and making government work only for a select few.”
It’s often noted that Perry endorsed Al Gore for president in 1988 but less often remembered that the future vice president was running that year as the moderate, hawkish Southern alternative to liberals Michael Dukakis and Jesse Jackson. (Asked about Gore in later years, Perry said, “I think he’s gone to hell.”) Perry’s party switch in 1989 enabled him to run against Hightower, the state’s most prominent liberal. “I intend to vote the same convictions,” Perry said as he announced his new affiliation. “The only difference is there will be an ‘R’ beside my name.”
As agriculture commissioner, Perry’s main accomplishment was in line with Reagan Republicanism—fighting and gutting regulations on farms and agribusiness. In the months after he became governor, Perry behaved in some respects like his predecessor, who was known for working cordially with Texas Democrats and for courting the state’s rising Latino vote. Perry signed the now-controversial tuition bill. But at the end of the 2001 legislative session, he threw down a gauntlet; in one day in June, in what became known as “the Father’s Day Massacre,” he vetoed 78 bills, including a ban on executing the mentally retarded and a number of noncontroversial appropriations. It was a loud and startling rebuke, and it set a pattern. Perry’s goal as governor would be to do what he now says he’d do as president: make government “inconsequential.”
In late August, two weeks after he launched his presidential campaign, Perry was back in Texas, 70 miles west of Austin on a ranch owned by San Antonio tycoon James Leininger. Known in Texas as Perry’s Svengali, Leininger made a fortune selling hospital beds. Their relationship dates back at least to the 1990s, when Leininger helped Perry buy his first campaign plane. In 1998, Perry ran for lieutenant governor against popular Democratic state comptroller John Sharp; Perry looked like a likely loser in a tight race—until Leininger stepped up and helped guarantee a $1.1 million loan that funded a last-minute media blitz for the campaign. “I congratulate Leininger,” Sharp said after Perry edged him out with 50.04 percent of the vote. “He wanted to buy the reins of state government, and by God, he got them.”
An evangelical Christian, Leininger was then the largest single donor to conservative Republicans in Texas and a major contributor to the national party. He embodied a new kind of Republican establishment figure. Like Domino’s Pizza founder Tom Monaghan and Home Depot founder Bernie Marcus, Leininger gives huge sums to candidates not just in exchange for favors but also to advance right-wing social and economic policies. Leininger was the Koch brothers before the Koch brothers. In Perry’s three gubernatorial races, Leininger has donated nearly $250,000. In 2004, he subsidized a trip to the Bahamas that brought Perry together with his other great political influence, anti-government crusader Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform.
In a pattern that has characterized his political career, Perry has more than repaid Leininger’s generosity. Two “economic development” funds controlled by Perry have given nearly $6 million to two biotechnology firms in which Leininger holds a significant share. Perry has successfully pushed one of Leininger’s pet projects, tort reform—an interest spurred by a spate of lawsuits brought against his company, which has been repeatedly accused of manufacturing hospital beds that dropped and injured nurses and patients. Earlier this year, Perry capped off a series of tort-reform measures with a “loser pays” bill that forces litigants who lose a lawsuit to pay the legal expenses of the companies they’ve sued.
That kind of give-and-take between Perry and big-money Republicans has not been limited to Leininger. Nearly half of the corporations Perry has rewarded from his economic development funds have been owned by major donors to his campaigns. Perry’s two largest contributors—Bob Perry (no relation to the governor) and Harold Simmons—have seen their generosity repaid. In 2006, when Perry ran for re--election, Bob Perry, a homebuilding magnate whose pet issue is deregulation, gave the governor $275,000; he also donated $2 million to the Republican Governors Association—which, in turn, gave Perry $1 million in the closing weeks of the campaign. During his tenure, Perry has stripped numerous environmental, financial, and workplace rules from the books. The governor’s second-largest benefactor is Simmons, known in Texas as the “buyout king” and best known nationally for helping fund the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign against Senator John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election (Bob Perry was the other major funder). He has contributed $1.2 million to the governor over the years. Simmons stands to make millions by building a massive waste dump in West Texas to house the country’s radioactive trash—a project approved by Perry-appointed regulators, though state scientists have determined the site is unsafe.
Perry’s relationship with Leininger is of a different order. The governor has lent his full weight to the San Antonian’s social crusades. Leininger chipped in the bulk of funds for a campaign to enact an anti-gay-marriage amendment in Texas, backed by Perry. But Leininger’s overwhelming interest has been in fighting “secular” public education, pouring millions into primary challenges to Republicans who oppose school vouchers and putting millions more behind state school-board candidates who support the teaching of creationism, abstinence-only sex education, and a version of American history that promotes Christian nationalism. Perry has appointed three state education-board chairs backed by Leininger.
Now, as Perry seeks the presidency, Leininger is doing his part again. On the weekend of August 27, he brought together some 200 evangelical leaders and pastors for a private retreat—and another major audition for Perry. According to the Los Angeles Times, the attendees included David Barton, James Robison, Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, and James Dobson of Focus on the Family. “The Texas governor … was grilled about his beliefs and his record in extraordinarily frank sessions,” the Times reported. “He responded by describing his relationship with Jesus and pledging to pursue the anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage agenda championed by the evangelical right.”
An effort to mobilize the nation’s pastors behind Perry was already under way, modeled on a Leininger-funded project that helped the governor win re-election in 2006. That year in the general election, Perry faced a difficult four-way field that included Democratic Congressman Chris Bell, cigar-chomping satirist Kinky Friedman, and Carolyn Keeton Strayhorn, the Republican state comptroller who ran as an independent. With both Friedman and Strayhorn appealing to independents and moderate Republicans, the campaign was sure to be a tough one—Perry’s closest since 1998. But Leininger had the answer. Along with several other wealthy conservatives, he helped create the Texas Restoration Project.
The Restoration Project invited thousands of Texas ministers to six “Pastors’ Policy Briefings,” closed-door events funded by the Niemoller Foundation, a Houston nonprofit bankrolled by Leininger and friends. The pastors and their spouses were urged to organize their churches behind Perry; later, as the campaign revved up, they were called upon to get out the vote. “The mission is the mobilization of pastors and pews as a way to restore Texas and America to our Judeo-Christian heritage,” said David Lane, chief organizer of the events and one of Perry’s most ardent allies on the evangelical right. At the end of each briefing, Perry offered a sermon. “This I know,” he told attendees at one gathering. “He who counts every hair on our heads and every drop in the oceans; He who knows the number of our days and every thought before it enters our heads; this all-knowing, all-powerful Creator loves us so much that there is not a matter so trivial or so small that we can’t surrender it to Him and say, ‘Father, your will be done!’ I certainly know this to be the heartfelt prayer of a governor.”
“For us, it seemed like classic machine politics,” says Dan Quinn of the Texas Freedom Network, a nonprofit that supports church-state separation. “Some of Perry’s biggest donors gave money to a nonprofit that then funneled it into these events around the state where pastors attended for free and heard one speaker after another speak in praise of the governor—and then the governor comes out at the end. It seemed nakedly partisan and political.” An Internal Revenue Service complaint filed by Quinn’s group went nowhere, with the agency saying it did not have sufficient evidence that the money was being channeled directly into Perry’s campaign.
Perry’s campaign sent Christmas cards to the pastors who’d attended the Texas “briefings,” using the Restoration Project’s list. A week before the 2006 election, David Barton and others made calls to the thousands who’d attended, encouraging them to marshal their flocks behind Perry. It worked. Perry narrowly won re-election with 39 percent of the vote.
In 2008, Lane, with financial backing from Leininger and the anti-gay evangelical group American Family Association, began to expand the Restoration Project into politically important states around the country. Nearly 10,000 pastors have attended all-expenses-paid two-day “briefings” in Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, South Carolina, Colorado, Tennessee, California, Florida, and Iowa. Speakers have included several potential presidential contenders and candidates such as Michele Bachmann, Haley Barbour, Newt Gingrich, and Mike Huckabee. This year in Florida, Perry was the featured speaker.
“Perry and Lane have truly mastered the tactic that Rove used for W. in Ohio in 2004,” Quinn says. “They’ve taken that strategy and really honed it in Texas, more so than I’ve seen anywhere else, and now they’ve exported that model to most of the presidential battleground states.”
On April 15, 2009, the typically dapper governor of Texas strode onto a makeshift stage outside Austin City Hall wearing an unfamiliar costume—hunting jacket, jeans, boots, and baseball cap—and delivered the most important speech of his life. “I gotta say it gives me that thrill up my leg when I see all these people standing out here,” he told the 1,000 placard-waving citizens who’d come out on a blustery morning to rail at Obama and stimulus spending and to witness Rick Perry’s Tea Party debut. He’d been viewed with suspicion by some small-government purists in Texas, not only for his executive order to mandate HPV vaccines but also for his ambitious (and unsuccessful) proposal to launch a massive infrastructure project called the Trans-Texas Corridor. One Tea Partier carried a sign that read “Big Government Perry,” handing out leaflets on the theme.
But as the governor blasted Obama’s “socialism” and railed at the mainstream media’s derogatory coverage of “tea baggers,” his reception went from warm to hot. “I’m just not sure you’re a bunch of right-wing extremists,” he hollered. “But if you are, I’m with you! ’Cause you are a true patriot today in this country. And I might add, you’re surrounded by fellow patriots—individuals who embrace the concepts like lower taxes and smaller government and freedom for every individual. I’m talking about states’ rights! States’ rights! States’ rights!”
“Secede!” one hoarse voice called out over the clamor of whoops and cheers. “Seceeeeede!” Perry never used the word himself but did say: “Since the U.S. Constitution was first ratified, the federal government has slowly, steadily, and successfully eroded the notion of states’ rights. … I happen to agree with the seventh governor of this great state, Sam Houston. He once said, ‘Texas has yet to learn submission to any oppression, come from what source it may!’”
As Perry left the stage, basking in his foot-stomping reception, rally organizer Jason Moore, a local talk-radio host, hallooed, “Maybe it’s Perry for president now!”
As the first major American politician to embrace the nascent Tea Party, Perry had found a way to overcome a dangerous challenger, three-term Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, in the 2010 Republican primary—and simultaneously to launch himself into the national spotlight. Soon he was writing op-eds in The Wall Street Journal, getting glowing reviews from Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, and touring the country nonstop to preach about the virtues of the “Texas model”: low taxes, light regulations, and a frontier mentality of self-dependence. “There is still a land of opportunity, friends—it’s called Texas,” Perry said. “We’re creating more jobs than any other state in the nation.” He then provided one more reason for Texas’s success: “Would you rather live in a state like this or in a state where a man can marry a man?”
Railing at Washington was nothing new for him; the governor had built his career on opposing government spending. In 2003, when Texas faced a $10 billion shortfall, he seized the moment. With help from Grover Norquist, who came to Texas to persuade waffling Republicans to balance the budget with cuts alone, Perry held the line on taxes—even though it meant dropping more than 200,000 children from the Children’s Health Insurance Program and another 500,000 from Medicaid. He also pushed the nation’s most aggressive round of deregulation and tort reform. “Texas is open for business,” he proclaimed.
Early this year, perfectly timed to suit his presidential ambitions, came another opportunity to show small-government conservatives he was the real deal. In January, the state comptroller announced that Texas had a $27 billion budget hole for the next two years—representing nearly one-quarter of the state’s already-lean spending. The deficit was the direct result of a massive property-tax cut Perry championed in 2006. It was Norquist’s favorite strategy: Cut taxes, and spending reductions will have to follow.
“Now is not the time to get wobbly,” Norquist said as he toured the state with Perry in March, urging the governor and legislators to stand firm against growing anxieties about huge cuts to schools and social programs. “Do more tort reform, more tax reduction, more spending restraint.” Invoking “political philosopher Rahm Emanuel,” Norquist told an audience that included Perry, “Sometimes the only way to get the bureaucracy to rethink what it’s doing is to tell them there’s a crisis.”
Perry insisted that the legislature close the budget gap with no new revenues—and without touching the state’s $9 billion Rainy Day Fund. He supported a budget that cut $4 billion from public schools and $2 billion from Medicaid. “I don’t think there is anything that is so important that [it] cannot be cut,” he said.
The only large program that did not fall victim to the budgetary bloodletting was Perry’s most cherished initiative: the Texas Enterprise Fund and the Emerging Technology Fund, which have doled out more than $600 million in taxpayer money to corporations of his choosing. “He takes from us so that he can play with his corporate slush fund and award his friends’ businesses,” Debra Medina, Perry’s libertarian challenger in the 2010 Republican primary, said in a debate.
When asked about his governing principles in an interview last year, Perry responded: “I’m a big believer in wealth first. You cannot have expanded education programs, you cannot take care of health and human service needs of those who can’t take care of themselves, you cannot have the infrastructure in your state that will drive your economy, unless you have wealth to pay for it.”
Perry’s economic approach is the purest version of trickle-down that the United States has ever seen. That’s made Texas a case study of what happens when wealth is first. Despite the nation’s highest rate of job creation, more than one-quarter of Texans have no health insurance, a higher percentage than in any state. Homeowners’ insurance premiums are the nation’s highest. Texas ties with Mississippi for the top percentage of minimum-wage jobs. Under Perry, Texas school funding and achievement have plummeted to near the bottom of national rankings; the state has the country’s highest percentage of citizens without high-school diplomas. Texas’s Medicaid reimbursements are the second lowest in the country. Child poverty and hunger, along with incarceration rates, are among the highest.
While his Tea Party rhetoric made Perry famous, his leadership of an often overlooked organization—the Republican Governors Association (RGA)—made him a major player in national Republican circles. He has been both its finance chair and chair. The RGA’s stated purpose is to elect Republican governors. But under Perry and Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, the group has become a powerful force tugging Republicans toward the far right. Its ideological mission is reflected in the agendas of its most generous donors: Koch Industries, which gave $1.1 million in 2010; Bob Perry, who gave $6 million; and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation subsidiary News America, which donated $1.25 million.
In the 2010 election cycle, with Perry as chair, the Republican Governors, operating with little scrutiny, raised $117 million to the Democratic Governors Association’s $55 million. In the months immediately before the election, the RGA brought in some $60 million—more than the Democrats’ total for the previous two years. After November, partly thanks to its efforts, the GOP had won back a majority of governorships. But it wasn’t just the winning record that mattered—it was who won.
Many of the new governors who benefited from the RGA are Perry disciples: Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Rick Scott in Florida, John Kasich in Ohio, and Bob McDonnell in Virginia. Each cites the Texas model as inspiration for their severe budget cuts, frontal assaults on workers’ organizing rights, and pushes for deregulation and tort reform. “All I think about every day is how I’m going to beat Rick Perry at job creation,” Scott told Florida Republican National Committee members in August. Walker, after his election, joked with a group of dairy-business leaders that he’d told Perry, “Look out, we’re coming after you.”
The Republican right has been a fickle beast in 2011, first swooning over Michele Bachmann before discarding her, daydreaming in vain of Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio, and—when the early debates kept Perry from cementing his position as Mitt Romney’s only viable foe—taking up with Herman Cain and chanting “9-9-9.” But no presidential candidate is better suited to the current Republican moment than Rick Perry. He has always specialized in anger and outrage. He exemplifies a movement that sees no gray areas. Almost everywhere he goes, Perry quotes Ronald Reagan: “We need bold colors, not pale pastels.” At a stop in New Hampshire, Perry made sure the point wasn’t missed: “I am that bright color.”
If he can regain his footing and hammer home the considerable gray areas in Romney’s record, Perry may yet prove the Barry Goldwater of 2012. After all, as he told a packed house of 10,000 at Liberty University in mid-September, God “doesn’t require perfect people to execute his perfect plan. Moses was this hotheaded murderer who was afraid to speak in public. God used him to lead the Israelites to freedom. ... Paul was a persecutor of Christians; God used him to spread the gospel to the ends of the universe.”
Now, Perry implied, God was using him to bring his message to early-21st-century America. The stakes, he said, were clear: “America is going to be guided by some set of values. The question is gonna be, whose values?”
During the fall, as Perry floundered, it was easy to forget how many times he has risen from the grave. He was given little chance of winning his first statewide race, against the beloved cowboy populist Jim Hightower; in 1998, running for lieutenant governor, Perry was tied in the polls up to Election Day; a year before his re-election as governor in 2010, Republicans preferred Kay Bailey Hutchison by a seemingly insurmountable margin, 56 percent to 31 percent. He won them all. One reason: his pugilistic campaign style, which Perry introduced to the country in the late-October Las Vegas debate and which left Romney’s aides calling him a “bully.” Perry does not defeat his opponents; he obliterates them.
Perry also wins because of his fundraising abilities and connections to ideologically driven big donors, which he developed at the Republican Governors Association. His evangelical network has been instrumental in his victories, and clearly Perry hopes the organizing efforts of James Robison and David Lane will boost his chances in the primaries. While he has infused his campaign message with biblical capitalism, he has also avoided alienating the Christian right by rejecting calls to disassociate himself from Texas pastor Robert Jeffress, who called Mormonism a “cult” at the Values Voters Summit in October. Although his debating skills have never been sharp—he’s avoided debates in Texas as much as possible—Perry is a retail politician of the first order. As Iowans and New Hampshirites are discovering, he small-talks, back-slaps, and baby-kisses his way through a crowd with relish—a quality that will help in the small early-primary states, including South Carolina and Nevada.
Then there’s Dave Carney, the wily and reclusive campaign strategist from New Hampshire who’s teamed with Perry since 1997. As Karl Rove was to George W. Bush—his “brain” and a master of brass-knuckles politics—Carney is to Perry. In 2010, when Perry was universally expected to lose to Hutchison, Carney engineered one of the nation’s most innovative campaigns, modeled to some extent on Barack Obama’s social-media push in 2008. Carney assembled a team of political scientists, challenging them to throw out the old political playbook. Perry ended up running a “virtual” campaign: no yard signs, no direct mail, no general-election debates, no interviews with newspaper editorial boards (Carney and his team had determined that their endorsements carried negative weight with voters). The governor targeted medium-sized towns, where his campaign appearances would receive fawning press and where studies show voters respond to seeing candidates in person. He used the Internet to create a grassroots campaign in which volunteers promised to sign up more volunteers and pledged to make sure specific numbers of Perry supporters showed up at the polls.
Perhaps most important, Carney unleashed—and his candidate single-mindedly executed—a relentless campaign to transform Hutchison, a beloved figure in Texas, into a wishy-washy Washington insider. She became Kay “Bailout” Hutchison, defined no longer by a quarter-century of deep conservatism but by her vote to bail out the banks. Shortly after she lost to Perry by 21 percentage points—a 46 percentage-point reversal from polls the previous year—Hutchison announced that she would not seek re-election to the Senate in 2012.
Perry and Carney’s next target is Romney. The Texan left Romney red-faced and fuming in Las Vegas and had more money in the bank than any other candidate. The barrage was about to begin in earnest. If the former Massachusetts governor prevails, he’ll be the first politician who’s survived the brutal experience of running against Perry.
The debate in Orlando was Perry’s lowest moment—the national press was soon writing him off—but earlier that same day, he displayed all the qualities that make him a formidable campaigner. He bounded onto the stage at a rally for Ralph Reed’s Faith & Freedom Coalition, wearing an open gingham shirt and jacket, wife Anita on his arm. Perry has long been lampooned back home for an antic, arm-flapping style of televangelistic speechifying, but he’s calmed down his style considerably. Standing still at the podium, Perry clinched his hands prayerfully. As always, his words had the old evangelical fervor.
“I’m campaigning the only way I know how,” he said. “That’s as a true believer.” The crowd whooped and cheered and surrounded the stage six deep, as Perry moved seamlessly into his message, mixing small-government and Christian-right orthodoxy. “Our founders didn’t need a nanny state to carve out the greatest civilization known to man. We didn’t need a nanny state to win the Second World War and then the Cold War. And we didn’t need a nanny state to revive our economy, to create jobs, and to renew our nation’s promise.” In closing, to wild cheers and amens, Perry invoked Abraham Lincoln: “My concern is not whether God is on my side. My greatest concern is to be on God’s side.” ª