There's the Austin ophthalmologist responsible for his trademark glasses. The former Texas Tech official who wants to represent his parents in Congress. The former police chief of Dalworthington Gardens. Meet Rick Perry's class of 2016.
They are the state-level candidates who have benefited from the endorsement of the state's most recent — and longest-serving — governor. Perhaps more revealingly, though, they are testing just how much influence Perry has in a state whose politics have only turned redder since he left office just 16 months ago.
Perry has emerged as prolific endorser on the state level, throwing his support behind at least 10 candidates for offices ranging from county sheriff to U.S. representative. That's in contrast with other top Texas Republicans, such as Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who have largely stayed out of primaries.
"I think what makes Perry’s endorsement powerful is the fact that you have a lot of people with personal connections to the governor, and he seems to be willing to give it," said Ted Delisi, an Austin-based Republican strategist who once worked for Perry. "I don’t think it singlehandedly wins a race, but I suspect when we look back on these primaries, when we look at his win-lose record, I think he will have done well."
In the March 1 GOP primaries, Perry made at least eight endorsements, picking three candidates who won outright — state Supreme Court justices Eva Guzman and Paul Green and U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady— and three who advanced to runoffs: Dawn Buckingham and Bryan Hughes for state Senate, and Bill Waybourn for Tarrant County sheriff. Since then, Perry has endorsed at least two more candidates: state Rep. Wayne Smith for re-election and Jodey Arrington for Texas' 19th congressional district. Perry also got involved in the race for Texas GOP chairman, backing interim chairman Tom Mechler over former Harris County GOP Chairman Jared Woodfill. Mechler easily defeated Woodfill at the state GOP convention last week in Dallas.
"I'm going to be doing what I can to help elect Republican candidates across the board right here in the state of Texas," Perry told reporters during a trip to Austin earlier this month. "In our state senate races, I'm actively involved in Dawn Buckingham — Dr. Buckingham — as she runs for the senate. I'm helping some people outside of the state of Texas as well."
Buckingham has been perhaps Perry's highest-profile endorsee at the state level. The two go back for years — Perry once borrowed her office to film a campaign ad, and she has been his eye doctor for a while. ("Yes, he needs the glasses," she joked in an interview Friday.)
Buckingham was among the first candidates — if not the first — Perry endorsed this election cycle, making it official Aug. 5 of last year. Since then, he has starred in radio ads for her, appeared at a fundraiser and recorded robocalls.
"We get a strongly positive reaction to it," said Buckingham, who faces state Rep.Susan King of Abilene in a runoff Tuesday for the Republican nod in Senate District 24, a seat being vacated by Sen. Troy Fraser. The reason is simple, according to Buckingham: "He’s the longest-serving, most conservative governor Texas had."
Not every candidate backed by Perry has a success story to share. Two candidates Perry endorsed in the March 1 primaries, Scott Fisher for Texas House and Michael Massengale for the Supreme Court of Texas, were unsuccessful. Fisher lost to state Rep. Jonathan Sticklandof Bedford by 16 percentage points, while Massengale came up four points short against Place 3 incumbent Debra Lehrmann.
Looking back on his race, Fisher said he was grateful for Perry's endorsement — "it elevated the campaign very significantly" — but acknowledged it was turned into a liability as he battled Stickland, a Tea Party favorite.
"I was portrayed as the establishment and so having the governor’s endorsement, that fed that," said Fisher, whom Perry had appointed to the Texas Ethics Commission and Texas Youth Commission. "But there was so much distortion of issues in our race that were just not true — both myself and Perry were presented essentially as RINOs [Republicans In Name Only]."
"Certainly Gov. Perry is not considered by most people to be a liberal," Fisher added, sounding somewhat perplexed. "If that’s liberal, it’s a strange thing."
Those battling Perry-backed candidates have shown little reluctance to cast a negative light on the former governor's long career in public service. After Perry threw his support behind Arrington last month, his opponent reportedly brushed off the endorsement, saying Arrington "has ties to that old crowd."
In Texas House District 128, Smith challenger Briscoe Cain is grouping Perry with all the usual boogeymen that crop up in Republican primaries in Texas.
"Gov. Perry is joining the hundreds of Austin insiders coming to Mr. Smith’s aid," Cain said in a statement Wednesday. "Lobbyist money continues to pour in to confuse conservatives, but we will continue to spread our message with every ounce possible."
The candidates Perry has endorsed laugh off the idea Perry is anything but a giant in state GOP politics. Among them is Bill Waybourn, the former chief of police in Dalworthington Gardens challenging Tarrant County Sheriff Dee Anderson.
"We have had some people say that, and you know, when they start talking about conservatism and Rick Perry, one of our standard statements has been, 'Listen, we went though some of the most turbulent times in America on his watch and Texas did well,'" said Waybourn, whose support from Taya Kyle — wife of "American Sniper" Chris Kyle — was key to bringing Perry on board.
In Texas 19th congressional district, which covers a large part of West Texas, Perry waited until the runoff to get involved, backing former Texas Tech vice chancellor Arrington over Lubbock Mayor Glen Robertson. Arrington has known Perry since Arrington worked for then-Gov. George W. Bush, and the two have since been on a Christian retreat together. Plus, Perry's parents live in the district, in Haskell, and in Arrington's telling, "I don't think they much cared for the way my opponent has been running his race."
As for Robertson's insinuation that Perry is part of "that old crowd," Arrington claims he is not hearing the same refrain from voters.
"We’re running to represent part of the state of Texas in Washington," Arrington said. "To have a guy that’s not a Washington guy, but a state of Texas guy — there hasn’t been criticism of that that I’ve heard of."
Asked about Perry's sway in his race, Waybourn put it more succinctly: "It’s better to have his endorsement than not."