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Family Feud

Rick Perry versus the Bush machine.

Sep 19, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 01 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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Complicating things, the Perry campaign wanted to run a negative ad against Sharp. “Depending on who you talk to, you get a different version of the ad. One of them was attacking Sharp on a plan he had for overhauling the state’s business tax, and they were going to call it an ‘income tax,’ ” Ratcliffe says. “And it was so similar to a plan that Bush [had once endorsed that] there was some fear this would come back to haunt Bush in the presidential campaign as, ‘Oh, he proposed an income tax in Texas.’ ”

Rove is then alleged to have threatened the Perry campaign that if they went negative on Sharp, he would withhold further use of the endorsement ad that Perry had received from George H.W. Bush, which was proving effective. Perry didn’t go negative and eked out a too-close-for-comfort victory by 68,000 votes.

Bush’s legacy: In 2007, as improbable as it seems, Perry was stumping for Rudy Giuliani in Iowa and told the crowd, “George [W. Bush] has never, ever been a fiscal conservative.” That might be a defensible statement to many Republicans, but it appears to have been taken as a major affront in Bush world.

“I think the Bush people consider that an extraordinary breach of etiquette from someone whose career was at least in part made by George W. Bush’s embrace of him,” says Smith, “and by Bush’s departure for the White House,” which promoted Perry from lieutenant governor to governor. Ratcliffe thinks the incident created more tension between Rove and Perry than the squabble in the ’98 election. This was seen as a personal attack, and the dispute over election strategy as just a “consultant fight.” 

Further, Rove likely encouraged Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison to mount a primary challenge to Perry last year. “It’s hard to look at who endorsed Kay and not draw conclusions,” Smith says. “You had Karl, you had Karen [Hughes], you had H.W. Bush, you had Baker. You have pretty much every consequential figure in Bush world—with the exception of Joe Allbaugh—supporting Kay. You want to call that a coincidence?”

Proxy wars: To some extent, Perry and Bush really just embody the divide in the broader GOP between grassroots conservatives and the more moderate political establishment. Fairly or unfairly, these differences get projected onto Bush and Perry as personal characteristics.

There are obvious contrasts. Perry was the son of rural tenant farmers, while Bush was born into a wealthy political dynasty. “Certainly there are style differences, there are approach differences, there are background differences. You can go on and on and on,” Sullivan says. “These differences mean that everyone thinks there must be conflict, conflict must exist.”

But Sullivan insists the differences mean little to Texas voters. “[There are] great staunch supporters of Hutchison in the gubernatorial primary who are now sporting ‘Perry for President’ bumper stickers on their cars,” he said. 

The reality is that many of the contrasts between Bush and Perry could also be explained away by circumstance. Bush had to work with a Democratic legislature when he was governor so was naturally more conciliatory. Perry, on the other hand, enjoyed a GOP supermajority in the last state legislative session, and the era of Pelosi and Obama has GOP voters wanting sharp-elbowed, rather than compassionate, conservatism.

Still, to the extent there is a class divide in Texas politics, neither camp is above exploiting perceptions when it’s useful. “One thing to understand is that it’s really Dallas versus the rest of the state. Over the last decade, if you went to Fort Worth or Houston or Midland you would find Republicans like Rick Perry. But if you went to Dallas they would say he was a hick and a bumbler and was an embarrassment to the Republican party. Dallas is kind of a blue-blood Republican town,” Ratcliffe says.

During the 2010 primary fight against Hutchison, Perry strategist Dave Carney described her and those behind her campaign as “country-club Republicans” to some effect. Smith thinks Rove took that personally. “If you know anything about Karl Rove, he is many things, but I’m not sure a ‘country-club Republican’ is one of them,” he says.

Despite this, Jeb Bush told Fox News last month he’s “never heard anybody in my family say anything but good things about Rick Perry.” But he did allow that there might be tension “maybe with Karl.” For his part, Rove dismissed that idea on The O’Reilly Factor as recently as the night before the Reagan Library debate when Perry dismissed Rove’s criticisms as “over the top.”

Assuming, then, the existence of a Bush/Rove/Perry feud, the question becomes whether this will have an effect on a Perry candidacy. 

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