The 2016 presidential primaries may still be a year away, but former Texas Governor Rick Perry wants you to know that he is definitely running—and this time, he really, really wants to win. Although he hasn't officially announced his campaign, Perry is staffing up in Iowa, hiring key aides and strategists, and assembling a team of donors he claims are committed to funding his second presidential campaign. And this weekend, his political action committee RickPAC released what may be the first ad of the 2016 campaign. And it's... something.
The web ad, shot during Perry's trip to New Hampshire last week, pitches the Texas Republican to the Granite State's first-in-nation primary voters. "Granite's tough, it's durable, just like the people who live in this fiercely independent state," Perry narrates, over clips of him meeting with old people and babies. "It's snowin', it's cold, but I'm fired up. Live free or die—amen."
It's an optimistic message for Perry who, despite being the longest-serving governor of one of the largest states in the union, is currently polling in the bottom of most early voter surveys for 2016, trailing behind long-shot candidates like Rick Santorum and Donald Trump. The low standing almost certainly has something to do with Perry's 2012 campaign, when he graced us with some of the most delightfully cringe-inducing campaigns in recent political history, capped off by the time he forgot one of the three federal departments he had pledged to eliminate during a Republican primary debate.
This time, though, Perry seems determined to have his shit together. He is testing the waters early, recognizing it was a mistake to jump into the 2012 race just months before the primaries, while still high on painkillers and recovering from major back surgery.
Last week, in New Hampshire, I joined Perry as he crowded into an unremarkable New Hampshire office suite to talk with the locals. The questions Perry encountered weren't exactly hardballs, but he answered each one with variations on a theme, namely that Texas is awesome. Campaign finance? "I'm a big believer in transparency. I think, state by state, you've got to decide what you're comfortable with." Obamacare? "In Texas we chose not to participate in that." The economy? "States that do, in fact, want to create an environment where people know they can risk their capital, where they know they'll have a return on their investment, that's where they're going to come and invest."
After being pegged as a hard-right guy in 2012, Perry has returned with a more moderate image this time. His core message is a basic middle-of-the-road Republican one: States ought to make their own decisions with minimal government interference, and taxes and regulations should be set to the lowest possible level. And he's in a particularly good position to play it. Having just left the Texas governor's mansion after 14 years in office, Perry is clearly trying to set up his campaign as a referendum on the so-called Texas Miracle, an undeniable boom in jobs and population growth that has allowed the state to rebound faster than most other places around the country.
"Not everybody wants to live in Texas, and that's OK," Perry told his New Hampshire audience last week. "But let's look at the model."
Perry likes to say that a third of the jobs created in the country during his time in office came from Texas, including both entry-level and top-tier positions. He's basically right, though the story is more complicated than the equation of "low taxes + reduced regulation = job growth" that Perry tends to emphasize. Certainly, though, Texas's growth rate has been more impressive than anything Perry's rivals for the GOP nomination can claim. In 2013—the last year official figures are available for—the Texas economy grew by 3.7 percent, while Scott Walker's Wisconsin rose just 1.7 percent, and the figure for Chris Christie's New Jersey was up a measly 1.1 percent.
To Perry's critics, the notion of Texas as a beacon to the rest of the country doesn't necessarily add up. A quarter of the state's residents are lack health insurance, and the state also stands out for high poverty and high school dropout rates. And even if the number of jobs has grown, Perry's critics claim that the governor has taken too much credit for the boom. A Washington Monthly feature last spring took a long look at the so-called Texas Miracle and found that a lot of the state's economic success mostly depends on factors that don't have much to do with the "pro-business" policies Perry likes to point at. For one thing, much of the job growth is related to immigration, with lots of working-age people streaming across the border. Of course, this point is a bit fraught for Republicans, since not all these economy-boosting immigrants are authorized to be in the country.
For now, though, the Texas story seems likely to resonate with GOP voters. "Texas is the only state that's had a net creation of jobs," said Bob Rimol, owner of a company that makes greenhouse systems, who attended the event. He's not exactly right, but net job creation in Texas has been higher than the rest of the country combined since before the recession. "They're very business-friendly," he added. "It's a big state, but it's not bogged down [by regulation.]" Rimol said he does business with customers in Texas and has been impressed with the absence of regulatory hurdles, in contrast to states with more onerous government involvement in the private sector, like New Jersey. (Asked about his feelings about that state's governor, Chris Christie, who leads Perry in 2016 polls, Rimol quickly declined to comment.)
Andrew Van Kuren, a small business consultant who also attended the event, agreed, saying that he works with companies all over the country, and that the firms in Texas seem to be doing well. "I like the conservative approach of less government," he said.
There's no doubt Texas is a strong brand for GOP voters. The state is a center of roguish resistance to the federal government, and Perry isn't shy about pushing that angle. Recently, when Democratic Congressman Alcee Hastings of Florida called Texas a "crazy state" for refusing to join an Obamacare exchange, Perry shot back that Hastings was right. "We are crazy!" he told an audience at a gala for the conservative American Principles Project. "We're crazy about jobs, we're crazy about opportunity, we're crazy about liberty, we're crazy about the Constitution!"
Meanwhile, what makes Perry's claims about the Texas economy and its causes particularly interesting is that they're in the process of being tested. As you may have noticed if you've gassed up your car recently, oil prices have declined in a big way. There's some debate among economic analysts about what this will mean to Texas, with some warning of a possible "regional recession" while others note that the state's economic diversification will protect it from trouble at the oil wells.
For Perry's 2016 campaign, gathering primary and caucus votes a year from now may well depend on how the Texas economy fares in the meantime. That is, of course, assuming he can avoid becoming a punch line again.
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