Friday night, after candidates David Dewhurst and Ted Cruz finished their debate on who would be best to fill Texas' Senate seat, Cruz fired off a shot at his opponent. He argued that Dewhurst's key supporter, Governor Rick Perry, only endorsed the lieutenant governor so that he could replace his number two. Perry, of course, quickly dismissed the allegation, but the exchange raised a good question—why has Rick Perry waded so far into a Senate primary from which he has little to gain?
The race began simply enough, with the personally wealthy Dewhurst as a giant amidst a field of lesser-known and lesser-funded candidates. Few expected the race to go into a run-off at all. But thanks to a lengthy legal fight around the state's redistricting maps, the Texas primaries were postponed again and again. The extra time gave Cruz a chance to build a coalition of conservative backers. He's gotten major contributions from Grover Norquist's anti-tax group Club for Growth—national Tea Party organizations like FreedomWorks have also helped out. In an upset, Cruz forced a run-off election, scheduled for July 31. It's anyone's guess who will win.
As the race has narrowed, Perry has gone far beyond endorsing Dewhurst. "This thing went from a surefire can't-lose deal to the biggest mess of [Perry's] year so far," says Bill Miller, a longtime Texas lobbyist and powerful political consultant with largely Republican ties.
The governor's team of staffers—the same ones who ran his disastrous presidential campaign—have now taken the helm of Dewhurst's operation. Perry has appeared in several ads for the lieutenant governor, and the campaign's messaging sounds similar to Perry's. (Texas Monthly's Paul Burka summed it up in his post "Dewhurst for president! Or is it Perry for senate?") Perry promoted Dewhurst at the state's GOP convention, resulting in boos from the floor. In the past, the idea of Perry booed at a Republican convention was unthinkable—the man has ruled Texas for over a decade, inspiring both fear and adulation.
But in this case, Perry is campaigning for Dewhurst against his own constituency. Both Perry and Cruz have inspired Tea Party love. While Perry's been a career politician who's pushed some decidedly insider deals, he jumped on the movement early and found a whole lot of favor. Let's not forget, it was at an early Tea Party rally in 2009 that Perry first made his famous secession remarks. Meanwhile Cruz has generated overwhelming enthusiasm around his candidacy. He's successfully made the race a choice between his outsider persona and the establishment. And therein lies the real rub. If Cruz wins, the governor will look even weaker—a party leader with little control of his party. Even if Dewhurst can find a way to win, Perry will have sided with the establishment against the Tea Party guys who once supported him.
"I think he loses either way," Miller says. Perry "was a true love affair for the Tea Party and vice versa." Perry's support for Dewhurst has left some activists disillusioned with the governor, according to Miller.
Some say the Senate race is just one more coal in the fire against Perry. After years in power, he's made enemies all over the place and scores more are simply waiting for a chance at power after watching Perry's people run the state for so long. Says Texas Democratic consultant Jason Stanford, "He's starting to lose his grip, but I think that largely happened when we saw him say, 'Oops.'"
Miller and Stanford both say the race itself is unlikely to determine the governor's political future. But it's hard to see how the situation can strengthen his position.
"People are remarkably unafraid of him" now, Stanford said. "For a long time we didn't know he was vulnerable."