AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Even as he announced he wasn’t running for governor again, Rick Perry implored Texans not to rock the political boat too much in choosing a successor.
Although he stopped short of endorsing his Republican heir apparent, state Attorney General Greg Abbott, there was little debate that’s who Perry was referring to when he repeated a famous quote from legendary University of Texas football coach Darrell Royal.
“You gotta dance with the one that brung ya,” Perry quipped, just before announcing that he wouldn’t seek to continue in the office.
Abbott is popular with both grassroots tea party activists and mainstream conservatives in the GOP-dominated state. He already has raised a whopping $18 million in campaign funds, even without officially announcing his candidacy.
Perry said for months that he and Abbott had an agreement not to run against each other for governor — a pact Abbott never confirmed. Still, Mark P. Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston, said Abbott did a masterful job biding his time so he could carry on Perry’s conservative mantle without making it look like he pushed him aside.
“I think you can see this as a managed transition,” Jones said, “but one that was done on Rick Perry’s terms, not on anyone else’s.”
Abbott, who has used his post to sue the federal government more than 25 times since President Barack Obama took office, has kept a low profile in recent weeks while Perry, already the longest-serving governor in Texas history, made up his mind about his political future. And, he was purposely nowhere to be found Monday, when Perry formally eschewed a fourth re-election try in front of 200 relatives, friends, current and former staffers and supporters in San Antonio.
Abbott, now considered the overwhelming front-runner for the GOP gubernatorial nomination in primaries set for March, “will make his intentions clear in the coming weeks,” spokesman Matt Hirsch said.
Despite holding his post since 2002 and positioning himself as Perry’s likely successor, the 55-year-old Abbott is hardly a household name in Texas.
Abbott has used a wheelchair since he was 26, when a tree collapsed on him during a jog, leaving him paralyzed in both legs.
He has used the attorney general’s office to constantly sue the Obama administration over everything from its signature health care reform law to environmental regulations to federal voting rules.
An avid defender of gun rights and fierce opponent of abortion, Abbott champions social conservative causes but also is seen as a strong fiscal conservative.
“He gets what he wants which is to be governor, but he was able to do it without alienating one of the most popular politicians in the history of the state,” Jones said. “Now the pathway between him and the governorship is a clear shot. There’s nothing standing in the way, and he created no ill will between himself and Perry.”
That’s important because Perry has been governor since George W. Bush left for the White House in December 2000 and has reshaped what was traditionally a weak office to wield unprecedented power. Perry’s sheer longevity has helped him fill every major appointed office statewide with loyalists — often even his donors — and dictate the direction of the Republican party in one of the country’s most-conservative states.
Perry didn’t mention Abbott by name but told Monday’s crowd: “After January 2015, new chapters will be written, new leaders will write them.”
A Democrat hasn’t won statewide office in Texas since 1994, and for a generation, the winner of the GOP primary has usually cruised to victory in the general election, no matter the race.
No Democrats have yet entered the gubernatorial field, though state Sen. Wendy Davis, who became a national sensation for staging a filibuster to temporarily block sweeping new limits on abortion, may run.
Gilberto Hinojosa, who chairs the Texas Democratic Party, said a race against Abbott will look very similar to how one against Perry would have.
“They both think the exact same way,” Hinojosa said. “Philosophically, there’s absolutely no difference between Rick Perry and Greg Abbott.”
Hispanics have accounted for nearly 90 percent of Texas’ population growth in recent years, meaning demographics may soon no longer be on Republicans’ side — but the shift almost certainly won’t come in time to affect next year’s elections.
That means Perry’s decision breaks a logjam of top conservatives waiting to move up as he held the top spot so long.
At least six out of nine elected executive offices will change hands as Texans replace the governor, attorney general, comptroller and commissioners for land, agriculture and railroads. They’ll also get a chance to choose another lieutenant governor, with three men running to replace David Dewhurst, who plans to seek re-election.
Meanwhile, Perry left the door open for another White House run after his 2011 presidential bid flamed out. The governor is perhaps best remembered nationally for infamously forgetting during a debate the third of three federal departments he had promised to shutter if elected and muttering sheepishly, “Oops.”
He used his Monday address to promote his accomplishments as governor, including overseeing a booming state economy that created nearly a third of the country’s new jobs on his watch. He also promised not to let his focus slip in his term’s remaining months.
“I will actively lead this great state,” Perry said, “And I’ll also pray and work to determine my own future.”
(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)