Before he decided to run for president for the first time, Rick Perry had never lost an election. He had been a member of the Texas legislature, the state agriculture commissioner, the lieutenant governor (under Governor George W. Bush), and governor for a record-setting 14 years. But he had never been a loser.
And so, in August 2011, when Perry strode onto a stage in Charleston to announce his first presidential campaign, it was easy to see why Republican activists wanted him in the race. The establishment’s preferred candidate, Mitt Romney, didn’t excite the party base; the other candidates were, to varying degrees, small-timers and buffoons. (Sound familiar, Jeb Bush?) Here was someone who could speak to the nascent Tea Party and the evangelical right and the business class, someone who had governed a big state while railing against Washington. He rolled into the room with a phalanx of Texas Rangers, big and tough and sharp. “It is time to get America working again!” he said, and the ballroom roared.
It was pretty much all downhill from there.
Perry’s 2012 campaign is remembered for one of history’s more remarkable debate gaffes—oops—but his slide began earlier. Joking about secession had been amusing in Texas; quips about stringing up the Fed chairman didn’t play so well in New Hampshire. When he said, of those who criticized his relatively moderate record on immigration, that they didn’t “have a heart,” conservatives revolted. Perry’s poll numbers had already started to slide by the time “oops” came around in November 2011. After coming in fifth in the Iowa caucuses, he saw the writing on the wall and dropped out.