SAN ANTONIO — Let the Texas-size political shake-up begin.
With Rick Perry stepping aside after more than a decade as governor, a host of statewide candidates can finally try to move up. And the governor freed himself to focus on another possible run for president.
The impact of Monday’s announcement on the state political scene was immediate and dramatic. Attorney General Greg Abbott plans a multi-city statewide tour starting Sunday in San Antonio. He’s considered the front-runner for governor — a job that has been out of reach for a decade. An aide says there will be no formal announcement this week.
At least six of nine top elected executive offices will change hands. Texans will replace the governor, attorney general, comptroller and commissioners for land, agriculture and railroads.
Tom Pauken, the former state Republican chairman and a one-time Reagan administration official, is already in the race for governor. Minutes after Perry’s announcement, Pauken called likely rival Abbott part of an Austin political scene “grown stale with insiders.”
For Perry himself, Monday’s event seemed designed to pivot from Texas successes to a return to the national scene. His speech was replete with references to job-creation and the Texas economy. Those could serve as the foundation for a repackaged national message for 2016.
A campaign video, played for hundreds of supporters and former staffers before Perry took the stage, depicted bright scenes of a booming Texas economy. A tag line touted Perry as “America’s greatest job creation governor.”
Aides think Republican voters would forgive Perry’s disastrous performance last year and give him a second chance if he runs for president again.
Perhaps the most vigorously fought race will be for lieutenant governor in which David Dewhurst faces three challengers who want his job. Dewhurst is a rare incumbent who says he will seek re-election statewide next year.
While Perry was delivering his announcement in a heavy-equipment warehouse that was a backdrop for his jobs-and-economy message, Dewhurst was tending affairs in the Senate. The Capitol is embroiled in a fractious political fight over a bill to ban abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
Dewhurst has come under fire from social conservatives after Democratic Sen. Wendy Davis’ filibuster doomed the bill in the last legislative session. Perry called lawmakers back and Dewhurst has visibly championed the bill. He hopes to win over social conservatives who abandoned him in last year’s GOP primary for U.S. Senate against Ted Cruz.
He faces fire from the right in the GOP primary. Land Commissioner and gun-rights advocate Jerry Patterson, Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples and Houston Sen. Dan Patrick, a tea party favorite, are all running.
The attorney general race could divide the Republican establishment and trigger a big-dollar political slugfest. Barry Smitherman, a Perry appointee to the Railroad Commission, could face Dallas Rep. Dan Branch, a legislative veteran with the backing of some of the GOP’s established business interests.
Texas’ fundamental Republican character isn’t expected to change next year. Democrats haven’t elected a statewide candidate since 1994. There are few signs that will change in 2014 — the contested races in the GOP primary are the contests that count. The last time there was an open race for governor was 1990.
Still, Democrats took the opportunity of Perry’s announcement to renew predictions that a rising Hispanic population and growing dissatisfaction with Republican rule will help turn Texas blue. The goal is to mobilize national Democrats to provide help.
“To his credit, Rick realized that he’s worn out his welcome,” said Democratic activist Matt Angle of the Lone Star Project.
Democrats have yet to field any statewide candidates. Davis’ headline-grabbing filibuster made her a star in the Democratic Party. She is being urged to run for governor.
But the odds against her would be formidable — especially now that she wouldn’t be running against Perry, who has his share of enemies after a quarter-century as an elected official in Texas.
Perry had promised to announce “exciting future plans.” But some supporters were left Monday feeling underwhelmed, in part because the governor didn’t talk about what exactly he intends to do next.
He recited his record on low taxes, business-friendly regulations and his opposition to abortion and gay marriage. He bragged, “We Texans are not afraid of a good fight.” But he didn’t say what the next battle was.
Perry will serve out his current term, which ends in January 2015. Leaving office would allow Perry to spend time in the early nominating states of Iowa, South Carolina and Florida without the responsibility of the 2015 legislative session.
His last race for president ended in embarrassment, after the “oops” debate moment in which he couldn’t remember the names of the three federal agencies he promised to abolish. After getting in ill-prepared and late, Perry dropped out before the South Carolina primary.
Perry aides blamed his poor performance in 2012 on the effects of back surgery and lack of proper preparation. This time, expectations about Perry would be low. His advisers believe that he could spend time meeting with voters and learning the issues.
Perry has promised to let top supporters know his presidential plans before the end of the year.
AT A GLANCE: Likely candidates for statewide positions
Here is a tipsheet on the Republican primary battles taking shape for the six most powerful statewide constitutional offices:
Likely candidates and hometowns: Attorney General Greg Abbott, Houston; former Texas Workforce Commission Chairman Tom Pauken, Dallas
Analysis: Abbott, while never tested in a primary, has the money and the staff. Pauken will try to link him to Austin’s “pay to play” political culture and the state’s hiring of foreign vendors to build toll roads and administer school tests. Edge to Abbott.
Likely candidates: David Dewhurst (incumbent), Houston; Sen. Dan Patrick, Houston; Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, Palestine; Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, Houston
Analysis: In last year’s U.S. Senate race, Ted Cruz punctured Dewhurst’s aura of invincibility. All four candidates are running hard to the right. A tossup.
Likely candidates: Rep. Dan Branch, Dallas; Sen. Ken Paxton, McKinney; Railroad Commission Chairman Barry Smitherman, Houston
Analysis: Branch starts with a money edge and competes with Smitherman for establishment backing. Meanwhile, Paxton hopes for tea party help — and a replay of the 2012 Senate race.
Likely candidates: Sen. Glenn Hegar, Katy; Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, Kerrville; former gubernatorial candidate Debra Medina, Wharton
Analysis: Incumbent Susan Combs is retiring, and three unknowns are chasing her post. Hegar, a rice-farm heir, is expected to press a financial advantage. Railroad Commissioner Christy Craddick may also jump in, making it four.
Likely candidates: Rep. Brandon Creighton, Conroe; former Rep. Tommy Merritt, Longview; former state GOP executive director Eric Opiela, Karnes City
Analysis: Creighton, chairman of the House GOP caucus, helped defeat Medicaid expansion in this year’s regular legislative session. But he may face questions about whether he brought enough conservative pressure to bear on Speaker Joe Straus. And the field may not be fully set.
Likely candidates: George P. Bush, Fort Worth
Analysis: Money and the Bush brand should deter major challengers as former President George W. Bush’s nephew makes his political debut.