When news broke Thursday morning that Texas Gov. Rick Perry was dropping out of the race for the Republican presidential nomination, longtime Texas progressive pundit Jim Hightower was positively jubilant.
“He embarrassed us enough,” said Hightower, who preceded Perry as Texas agriculture commissioner. “When he got started, I warned people not to underestimate Perry -- he’s a lot stupider than he looks.”
That the governor dropped out before Saturday’s primary in South Carolina was no surprise to those watching back in the Lone Star state, Hightower said.
“Finally someone clobbered him on the head with a two-by-four and said, ‘It’s over’,” Hightower said. “It was possible Stephen Colbert was going to outdo him.”
Democratic strategists in Texas were already grave-dancing on Perry’s campaign.
“‘Oops!’ will be the bumper sticker,” said Democratic strategist Matt Angle, a Texan who runs the Lone Star Project, a Washington-based policy group.
Texans forgave Perry’s early gaffes on the national stage, Angle said, but that became more difficult as the campaign wore on.
“By falling flat on his face and reminding people of all the things they didn’t like about him, particularly Texans, it increases the morale of Democrats and independents who are very upset with the Texas leadership.”
Angle and others said Perry’s rightward shift during the campaign on issues such as immigration will likely hurt him back in Texas, alienating Latino voters.
“It comes down to trust,” Angle said. “Now people think he never tells his view on immigration sincerely — that he will take the position that’s convenient to get where he wants to be…. He’s damaged goods now and there’s an opportunity to take advantage of it.”
While the nation appeared to sour on Perry early on due to his lackluster debate performance, “Texans were used to him not being the best debater,” said Mark Jones, head of the political science department at Rice University in Houston.
However, “even Texans weren’t prepared for how bad it would eventually get,” Jones said.
In particular, Perry’s decision to embrace Arizona’s controversial Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio as a member of his campaign could prove problematic should he decide to try to run for governor again in 2014, Jones said — a coveted job for which the state attorney general and several other Republicans are already vying.
As governor, Perry had “successfully walked a tightrope on immigration,” Jones said, but his talk on the campaign trail could come back to haunt him by alienating moderates and driving Latino turnout against him a la California’s Pete Wilson.
Perry and campaign guru Dave Carney also return to Texas having lost their air of invincibility, Jones said.
“There was a view in Texas that Rick Perry might not have been the best governor in terms of policies, but that he knew how to campaign,” Jones said. “That image no longer exists.”
Many Texas analysts were watching Thursday to see how Perry handles his homecoming.
“He was arguably the most powerful political figure in the state when he left on this quest,” said Jim Henson, who directs the Texas politics project at the University of Texas and co-directs the UT/Texas Tribune poll. “Everybody wonders: Does he come back the same figure?”
A poll this week showed Perry’s presidential campaign has “dampened the enthusiasm among the base” back in Texas. He has raised more than $1 million for his state campaign fund while he’s been on the campaign trail, ending the year with $2.5 million in the fund, which is impressive, Henson said, but may not be sustainable.
“Donors will look at his damaged image among the public and there will be skepticism,” he said, adding, “He’s overcome skepticism before.”
Texas donors may have continued giving to Perry even as his campaign flagged because they believe he will wield the same power in the capital that he did before he left, said Craig McDonald, director of the nonprofit Austin-based watchdog group Texans for Public Justice.
“This is a pay-to-play state,” McDonald said. “His network of donors believes he will come back and they’re giving to him for fear that he will and they may be caught short.”
Some believe Perry could still prove to be a powerful force in Texas politics for the remainder of his term if he handles his return right.
“This wasn’t some sort of ruse we were trying to pull off on the country — he really was good, for a long time,” said Austin-based lobbyist Bill Miller.
“We have a saying down here, ‘He’s as strong as horseradish,’” Miller said. “He has been diminished, but he can regain some of that strength by coming back and acting like he’s on top of his game.”
This may not be Perry’s final act, however. Perry adviser Ray Sullivan told reporters in North Charleston, S.C., on Thursday that he may run for president again in four years, and that seeking a fourth full term as Texas governor in 2014 is “a strong option.”
Maeve Reston contributed to this report.