The way Karl Rove saw it in 1989, Rick Perry made the perfect candidate to go far in Texas. There was one problem: Perry was a Democrat.
The political strategist set about to solve that issue, recruiting Perry -- who had endorsed then-Democratic Senator Al Gore for president the year before -- to switch his partisan loyalties and help build the Republican Party in Texas.
Perry, an anti-government spending, pro-gun stalwart who felt his party drifting from his values, was open to the idea. And it turned out Rove was right. Perry’s partisan change of heart led to statewide office, including his ranking as the longest-serving Texas governor.
It also set him on a path to the 2012 presidential campaign trail, where he is claiming the sharpest contrast with President Barack Obama. Yet to his opponents, Perry’s Democratic past is becoming Exhibit A in the case against his professed authenticity.
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann have both criticized him during nationally televised debates this month for backing Gore, and Representative Ron Paul, a fellow Texas Republican, in a television ad called Perry “Gore’s Texas cheerleader.”
Perry, 61, defends his political transformation as a common one for Southern Democrats who became Republicans after their party strayed from conservative principles on taxes, welfare, abortion and guns. “He’s always said the party left him,” said Perry spokesman Mark Miner. Perry “was more conservative as a Democrat than people like Mitt Romney ever were as Republicans.”
Perry has publicly dismissed his support for Gore as an aberration. “I came to my senses,” Perry has said, adding during the Oct. 11 debate that he “came to the Republican Party sooner in age than” former President Ronald Reagan. Perry was 37 when he switched parties, Reagan 51.
While philosophical differences with the Democratic Party influenced his decision, there were practical considerations.
The governor and other lawmakers “saw they were going to have a hard time getting elected in those areas as a Democrat, and they saw that the statewide offices were going to start to topple,” said Matthew Dowd, a Republican strategist today who was a Democratic operative in Texas when Perry made the partisan switch.
“Rick saw an opportunity that he could get elected statewide, and the path to it seemed to be as a Republican,” added Dowd, who is now an analyst for Bloomberg Television.
Perry came of age on his parents’ tenant cotton farm in Haskell County, Texas, about 200 miles northwest of Dallas, where Republicans were so rare the party didn’t hold primaries. He graduated from Texas A & M University in College Station, and joined the Air Force before running as a Democrat for the state legislature.
Elected in 1985, Perry’s opposition to government spending led Donald “Gib” Lewis, then the Democratic speaker of the Texas House of Representatives, to tap him for the appropriations committee, where he joined a group of lawmakers known as “pit bulls” for their resistance to budget requests.
Perry did vote for a $5.7 billion tax increase in 1987 that most Republicans opposed -- a measure that the Club for Growth, an anti-tax group in Washington, says was at the time the largest state tax increase in American history, hiking levies on sales, cigarettes, hotel occupancy and franchises.
Miner, Perry’s spokesman, said that one vote should not be a measure of his career and philosophy. “You have to look at the overall record,” he said, adding that Perry has slashed taxes as governor.
There were other ways Perry drew distinctions with Republicans. On Jan. 5, 1988, he was one of several Texas Democratic lawmakers to endorse Gore, who was courting southern endorsements by touting a pro-military agenda. Perry didn’t work for the Gore campaign, as his opponents have charged; he and about two dozen other Democrats merely signed on as supporters.
Gore was running in a Democratic primary that also featured Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, Missouri Representative Richard Gephardt and Illinois Senator Paul Simon, all of whom championed an expanded federal government.
“At the time in his career, Al Gore was the moderate-conservative Southern Democrat,” Miner said.
Gore’s progressive side -- his support for environmental protections and government regulations -- was hardly hidden. Just three months before Perry’s endorsement, former Senator Albert Gore Sr. told the Washington Post that once his son “has won the nomination, people will see the other side of his record come through: his work on the environment, on chemical waste, on standards for infant formula, on the ozone layer.”
The younger Gore, who was not available to comment for this story, told USA Today in an interview published Sept. 9 that he was happy to have Perry’s support. “I don’t know what has happened to him since then,” Gore said, adding that it would be up to voters to “make their own interpretation of his explanation for his extreme shift in views.”
What happened, Perry has said, is that he felt distant from the party in which he’d been raised. Democrats were increasingly under pressure to back unions, tax increases and cuts in military spending, said one person close to Perry who discussed his party-switch on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to detail it.
Rove, who would go on to orchestrate former President George W. Bush’s political rise, teamed with Perry’s political consultant David Weeks to sell Perry on the idea of switching parties, and enlisted the help of several recently converted Democrats, including Phil Gramm and Perry’s fellow legislator Kent Hance.
In his 2010 book “Courage and Consequence: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight,” Rove, who declined through a spokeswoman to be interviewed, wrote that he and Weeks “talked him into switching parties and running for the GOP nomination for agriculture commissioner.”
Perry initially refused, saying he wanted to try to change the Democratic Party rather than leave it. “He was hoping that it would turn around and the Democrats would move back toward the middle,” said Hance, now chancellor of Texas Tech University.
In a telephone call the day before he announced his party switch at the state capitol, Lewis said Perry told him, “‘Politics is changing, and peoples’ philosophy is changing, and I just feel that’s the way I should go,’” Lewis recalled.
No More ‘D’
When Perry made the announcement he said he would “vote the same convictions,” according to a report in the Texas Tribune. “The only difference is there will be an ‘R’ beside my name.”
Perry, who had fought in the legislature against proposed pesticide regulations, entered the agriculture commissioner race and in 1990 defeated Democrat Jim Hightower, who had pressed for more stringent pesticide rules.
“Perry didn’t have to switch parties over any kind of ideology -- it was opportunism,” said Hightower, who argues that Perry’s closeness with the chemical lobby drove his decision to become a Republican and make a play for the agriculture post. “He’s always looked to who’s buttering the biscuits.”
Perry’s timing was fortuitous; within six years, every statewide office in Texas would be held by a Republican. He would on go to become lieutenant governor and then governor, after Bush was elected president.