Teasing a presidential announcement “in the next 30 days,” Republican Rick Perry emphasized the Supreme Court as a central issue in the 2016 election while a crowd of some 100 locals munched on barbecue Friday evening in Taylors, S.C.
The former governor of Texas drew a warm welcome at Dickey's Barbecue Pit—a chain based in his home state—in this suburb of Greenville, delivering a standard dish of conservative red meat on issues like reducing the national debt, protecting states' rights, and rejecting Obamacare and financial reform.
When the subject turned to religious freedom, Perry invoked the pending high-court case about whether same-sex marriage is a constitutional right to sound the alarm about a hypothetical President Hillary Clinton appointing as many as four justices to the Supreme Court.
“Something I want you all to think about is that the next president of the United States, whoever that individual may be, could choose up to three, maybe even four members of the Supreme Court,” he said. “Now this isn't about who's going to be the president of the United States for just the next four years. This could be about individuals who have an impact on you, your children, and even our grandchildren. That's the weight of what this election is really about.”
“That, I will suggest to you, is the real question we need to be asking ourselves,” he continued. “What would those justices look like if, let's be theoretical here and say, if it were Hillary Clinton versus Rick Perry? And if that won't make you go work, if I do decide to get into the race, then I don't know what will.”
Though few contenders have emphasized the Supreme Court as a factor in 2016, the magnitude of the issue wasn't lost on at least some in the crowd, who responded with a mix of sighs and approving laughter at his proposition. On Election Day, three out of nine sitting justices will be at least 80 years old, and a fourth will be 78. The average retirement age for a U.S. Supreme Court justice is 78.7, a 2006 study in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy found.
The justices have been divided, five to four, on monumental legal issues such as campaign finance, voting rights, gay rights, and the role of religion in public life. Replacing even one justice has the potential to be dramatic; replacing three or four could be transformative.
Ultimately, it's unlikely that Perry will have that opportunity. Recent polls have found him near the bottom of the Republican field with just 2 or 3 percent support nationally and in early-voting states. Those findings were reflected in the attendees' hesitation toward the self-described “prospective candidate,” even as they generally approved of him.
“I'm not quite sure yet,” said Tori Bennett, 28, a native Texan turned South Carolinian, when asked if she could see herself supporting Perry in the primary.
“He's a good guy, but I don't think he's the right guy,” said Mike Shockley, 65.
“He's probably not on my short list. Maybe my medium list,” said Marianne Sease, a 39-year-old banker. “Mainly because I don't think he could win a presidential election. We're in a time where electability is so important.” She mentioned Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson as her top three.
Perry's hour-long discussion with a friendly interviewer yielded few revelations. He voiced some platitudes that produced applause, including, “We're a couple of good decisions and a leadership change from the best days this country has ever seen.” The edgiest crack of the evening was about the Clintons and it came from the interviewer, local radio host Josh Kimbrell: “Hillary Clinton's definition of marriage equality is both of them get to be president.”
Vaun Wimberly, a longtime Texan who retired in South Carolina, said Perry was on his “short list” because he approved of the former governor's job performance.
Craig Shockley, a man in his mid-50s, reflected the mood of many when he said he was still evaluating the field at this early stage. “I don't know. It's dang meaty right now,” he said, “and there are more to jump in.”