Thanh Tan of the Texas Tribune was kind enough to interview me for her piece on what we can learn about Rick Perry by looking at his TV commercials. It’s flattering when reporters call to ask you about your career. It’s less flattering when they call about that time you got your butt kicked by perhaps the worst Governor in Texas history. I took the loss as the campaign manager for Chris Bell in 2006 and continue to regret not figuring out how to beat Rick Perry when he was at his most vulnerable. As I told Tan, ”Rick Perry is a phenomenally bad governor and he keeps kicking our butts. It does tend to make you question your manhood.” But while Tan liked that line, she didn’t put it into the story because it wasn’t the point. The point, as she quoted me saying below, is that Rick Perry’s TV ads show that Perry’s team has committed to a winning strategy when Texas Democrats are still pouring over crosstabs.
“When he does an attack ad, he’s like the godfather. It’s never personal; it’s always business. He does exactly what he needs to do to win. There’s no extraneous effort.”
The 2006 campaign was a good example. We faced two colorful independents–Comptroller Carol Strayhorn and novelist Kinky Friedman–who sucked up all the media oxygen and most of the Democratic money. Bell could have won had he consolidated the Democratic base, but with the well-funded and over-covered independents, our campaign became conventional wisdom’s whipping boy. Perry’s three-ring circus of an opposition drew so much attention that few stopped to notice that Rick Perry was facing re-election with an approval rating in the 30s.
The first ad he aired was the often-mocked “Proud of Texas.” It was perhaps Rick Perry’s only mistake of his political career. It continues to be mocked, and rightly so. But with Perry struggling to boost his job approval ratings over 40%, maybe what he was trying to do was to change the subject from his stewardship to Texas’ steadfastness. Anyway, you decide. (Note him bragging about increasing school funding.)
I just played that again. Overhearing it from the next room, the wife mutters, “What a tool.” Pretty sure she’s talking about Rick Perry.
But when the general election rolled around, he had it all figured out. In a year in which illegal immigration was the top issue, Perry had to hold together a conservative coalition that included angry Anglos who complained that illegal immigrants were sucking up public resources, libertarian Republicans who considered an undocumented worker mowing their lawn just another benefit of free trade, and Hispanic Republicans who could stand neither racism nor a crime-ridden border. It was like he was driving a station wagon full of angry 14-year-old girls to the Grand Canyon and having to talk to them about the birds & bees at the same time. There’s going to be some screaming sooner or later.
Except there wasn’t, and this is the clearest evidence of his political genius I can find. Jumping on the Tea Party bandwagon early was smart, but threading the immigration needle in 2006 when he couldn’t afford to blow up his coalition on a heated issue took more strategic brilliance, foresight and discipline. What he figured out better and sooner than any other major politician in the country is that real people see a division between illegal immigration and border security. In other words, when Texans hear RPGs explode in Mexico, they don’t blame their maid.
When Rick Perry put up this ad, the campaign was effectively over:
There’s Rick Perry standing with his Hispanic friends to keep the bad element out. Left unsaid is that Rick Perry would not prosecute you for hiring a dishwasher with sketchy paperwork or getting the housekeeper who doesn’t speak English. It wasn’t jingoistic enough to piss off the third of Texas Hispanics who have been voting Republican since George W. Bush was Governor, but it reassured the “hang ‘em high crowd” that he was going to something about those Meskins.
Just to show you how early Perry had figured out the political calculation necessary to talk about border security and have conservatives hear “illegal immigration,” I dug up this old Houston Chronicle piece that gigged Perry on using stimulus money to fund law enforcement. It also revealed for the first time that as early as 2005 he was funneling state money into the coffers of border sheriffs, many of whom endorsed the Governor for re-election despite being Democrats.
Perry in 2005 gave $6 million in funds to the counties participating in the Texas Border Sheriff’s Coalition “to deter illegal immigration and prevent border-related crime.” Days before Perry’s 2006 re-election victory, the sheriffs made a high-profile trip to Washington with the governor to discuss border crime, and most endorsed Perry.
“I don’t think it was a coincidence that the grants roughly correlated with those endorsements,” said Democratic political consultant Jason Stanford, who managed the gubernatorial campaign of party nominee Chris Bell.
Scott Henson, former director of the ACLU Police Accountability Project, said some of the Byrne money in Texas is used for prison diversion programs and drug courts in urban counties. But Henson, who blogs about criminal justice, said some of the money Perry gave to the border sheriffs did nothing to deter crime.
“Some of the people he gave the money to turned out to be on the drug lords’ payroll,” Henson said, referring to former Starr County Sheriff Rey Guerra, who recently was sentenced to 64 months in prison for leaking sensitive law enforcement information to Mexican drug traffickers.
Of course, in 2006 we didn’t know Sheriff Guerra was collaborating with Mexican drug gangs. We were just mad that he’d endorsed Perry. And luckily for Perry, he didn’t put Guerra into his next TV ad:
By decoding the political algorithm of immigration, Perry had locked down his vote share and then only had to worry that the Bell campaign would consolidate Democrats. When Bell started to move, Perry was waiting with a few ads to define Bell as a liberal beholden to trial lawyers. (In fact, it was only one trial lawyer. Most of them stuck with Strayhorn all the way to her distant third-place finish in the teens, right where we said she’d be all along. Not that I’m bitter.) Oh, and lest we forget, there was this radio ad.
It seems easier to see in retrospect, but nuancing immigration by buying off border sheriffs and emphasizing border security so as not to piss of his Hispanic and pro-immigration, free-market support wasn’t a story I remember reading in the newspapers that year, and I sure as heck didn’t understand what he’d done until years later. Regardless, it stands as clear evidence that when it comes to campaign strategy, Rick Perry’s team is playing three-level Spock chess when the rest of us in Texas are playing checkers.
Update: I’m right. Or at least that’s what I infer from Evan Smith’s interview with NPR:
Halloran: How might he match up on the trail against President Obama?
Smith: Arguably, the governor and the president have nothing in common except for this: they’re extraordinary politicians and campaigners. This governor connects with voters of all sorts around Texas better than just about anybody I’ve seen running at that level here. He can be antic, he can be manic. But it has been a mistake over his career to underestimate him, and it will be a mistake for either Republicans in the primary, or the president, to underestimate his abilities as a campaigner.
Update: Wayne Slater quotes from this blog in his column today about Rick Perry’s vulnerability on the DREAM Act. Worth a read, not just because Wayne offers me more chances to dump on Perry:
Texas Democratic consultant Jason Stanford said Perry’s immigration record, especially tuition breaks for the children of illegal immigrants, could damage him among some conservatives.
“It won’t be hard for Mitt Romney to get up and say that because of Rick Perry, kids from Mexico have a better deal in Texas than kids from New Mexico,” Stanford said.