Texas Governor Rick Perry’s indictment, initially seen as a political dagger in his 2016 presidential aspirations, could turn into an asset -- especially if he beats the abuse-of-power charges.
“Every Republican in Iowa that I have spoken to thinks it is a politically motivated scheme to tarnish him as he prepares for the 2016 campaign,” said Jamie Johnson, a member of the party’s state central committee who last month introduced Perry at a county fundraiser in the state that will host the first presidential nomination contest.
“This is going to backfire and it will help Rick Perry,” said Johnson. “It will cause people to rally around him.”
It could get ugly between now and then, though, as an arraignment date is expected to be set this week, and a possible trial is in the future. Perry will also need to reserve time for his legal team.
Neil Levesque, executive director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at St. Anselm College, said the indictment will bring added burdens, even if party activists consider it politically motivated.
“An indictment places a tougher burden on all of the pre-primary activities such as fundraising, grassroots organizing and favorable earned media exposure,” he said. “He has to run a marathon and prosecutors have just strapped on a fifty-pound backpack. It makes it that much harder to finish first.”
Perry said yesterday on Fox News Sunday that he planned to vigorously fight the charges.
“This is not the way that we settle differences, political differences in this country,” he said. “We settle our political differences at the ballot box.”
In the Aug. 15 indictment, Perry is accused of abusing his power by threatening to veto funds used by prosecutors who investigate public corruption, a threat he delivered on. Michael McCrum, the case’s special prosecutor, was selected by a Republican judge.
The charges came after Perry tried to remove Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg from her post as head of the public integrity office after she was arrested for drunk driving. When the Democrat refused to step down after pleading guilty and completing a brief jail sentence, Perry vetoed $7.3 million for the unit she led.
So far, even Perry’s potential rivals -- and some Democrats -- are backing him.
U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, a fellow Texan, defended Perry with a weekend statement that called the charges “highly suspect,” while Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, a longtime ally and friend, expressed support. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush dismissed the indictment as “ridiculous” and a “major overreach.” And Democrat David Axelrod, a former senior adviser to President Barack Obama, called the allegations “pretty sketchy.”
The 2016 Republican primary is shaping up to be one of the most wide-open in the past five decades, with no early front-runner such as an incumbent vice president or someone who previously came close to winning the nomination.
Perry, 64, has been roughly in the middle of the pack in early national polling that has tested Republican preferences, recording 7 percent in a McClatchy-Marist Poll released this month. That’s similar to the support received by Rand Paul among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents.
The political fallout from the two felony counts may come into clearer focus late this week when he’s scheduled to make his first post-2012 campaign visit to New Hampshire, the state that will hold the first presidential primary in early 2016.
Another telling indicator will be whether Republican candidates who face close contests in November’s election, such as U.S. Senate candidate Joni Ernst in Iowa, will continue to make public appearances with Perry.
John Feehery, a Republican strategist in Washington, also called the charges “obviously politically motivated” and expressed skepticism that they’d hurt Perry’s prospects. “In fact, it might help him,” he said.
Before the indictment, one advantage for Perry was that he’s viewed as a successful state executive who isn’t surrounded by legal investigations, as are New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Walker.
Christie faces multiple probes of politically motivated lane closures and traffic jams in September created by his administration, while Walker has seen six former associates or aides convicted on charges ranging from doing political work on government time to stealing public funds.
“Nothing disqualifies anyone anymore,” said Mary Matalin, a former adviser to President George W. Bush’s campaigns and administration. “Most of these cases are trumped up politics. Each of these guys has strengths and weaknesses which will play out in the primaries. My prediction is Perry and Walker will go the distance.”
Perry, who has spent the last 18 months brushing up on national and international policy matters, was animated and accessible during a swing through Iowa last month. He has now traveled to the state five times since the 2012 election.
His confrontation with Obama over control of the southern U.S. border and decision to move as many as 1,000 National Guard troops to help secure the border with Mexico have also excited Republican activists.
Perry’s 2012 White House campaign was hurt badly during a November 2011 debate in suburban Detroit, when he couldn’t remember the name of the third government agency he’d pledged to eliminate as president. He named two, the Commerce and Education departments, and then acknowledged he couldn’t remember the third. “I can’t. Sorry. Oops,” he said.
He came in fifth in the Iowa caucuses, sixth in the New Hampshire primary and subsequently dropped out of the race.