Omar Villafranca, NBC 5 News
Gov. Rick Perry announced on Monday in Austin that he would not seek re-election.
Gov. Rick Perry was a champion of fiercely conservative social activism long before the tea party was born. He oversaw the "Texas Miracle" job-creation boom and became the most powerful Texas governor since Reconstruction.
But nationally, Perry is better known for his "oops" presidential debate brain freeze or for not opposing forcefully enough the notion that Texas could secede from the union. For many outside the Lone Star State, he's a political punch line on par with Dan Quayle — if he's known at all.
Now, the longest-serving governor in Texas history is quitting his day job. Perry announced Monday that he won't seek a fourth full term in office next year.
"The time has come to pass on the mantle of leadership. Today I'm announcing I will not seek re-election as governor of Texas," Perry said Monday. "I will spend the next 18 months working to create more jobs, opportunity and innovation. I will actively lead this great state. And I'll also pray and reflect and work to determine my own future."
But with another presidential run being speculated, Perry may first need to concentrate on rebuilding his tattered image with non-Texans.
"He's starting behind the eight ball," said South Carolina-based Republican operative Hogan Gidley, an adviser to former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and ex-Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee -- both unsuccessful presidential hopefuls who have remained national conservative forces.
Perry never lost an election during his 27-year political career and became a near-instant front-runner when he strapped on his signature cowboy boots and strode into the race for the GOP presidential nomination in August 2011.
But his White House run flamed out spectacularly, culminating in a debate in Michigan where Perry remembered that he'd pledged to shutter the U.S. Departments of Commerce and Education but forgot the third one, the Department of Energy. Quipped late-night comedian Jimmy Fallon: "It turns out George Bush was actually the smart Texas governor."
It wasn't the first time Perry's mouth had gotten him into trouble. Ending a television interview in 2005, Perry smirked at the camera and signed off: "Adios, mofo."
Those incidents, however, did little to lessen Perry's influence in Texas, where he is considered the most powerful governor since the Civil War.
Perry, who took office when then-Gov. George W. Bush left for the White House in December 2000, set the tone for his tenure the following June -- vetoing more than 80 bills in what became known in Austin as the "Father's Day Massacre." Since then, he's vetoed scores of other would-be laws, including a $35 billion public education budget and a ban on executing mentally disabled inmates.
But most of Perry's power has come from his sheer longevity. He remained in office long enough to tap loyalists -- sometimes even his top donors -- to every major appointed post statewide.
"He's made the state into his personal fiefdom," said Matt Glazer, a Democratic consultant.
Still, Gidley and others note Perry has been successful at appearing regularly on national television, attracting a great deal of media attention in his recent job-poaching tours of California, Illinois and New York.
Perry also still has his TV anchorman good looks -- he's often dubbed "Governor Good Hair." He has been a ferocious fundraiser buoyed by both grassroots activists and mainstream Republicans while presiding over a flourishing Texas economy.
The governor said Monday he is "looking forward to the next 18 months as I serve out my term. Any future considerations I will announce in due time and I will arrive at that decision appropriately. But my focus will remain on Texas."
Longtime staffer and former presidential campaign spokesman Ray Sullivan attended Monday's event and said afterward that Perry would have more opportunity to prepare for a presidential run.
"Without the pressure of another campaign, a governor's campaign and without the pressure of another legislative session, there's a lot more opportunity to make those trips, to have those opportunities," he said.
Sullivan said of Perry's legacy: "He has held the line on government. He has created an economic engine that is the envy of the nation and has really stuck to his conservative principles and been successful doing so."
Perry's decision opens up the field to a wide swath of gubernatorial contenders. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott is expected to seek the governorship and becomes the immediate front-runner. Spokesman Matt Hirsch said Monday that Abbott will announce his plans soon, and Abbott has said he plans to travel to many cities across the state.
Perry has been a leading voice on many social issues conservatives hold dear, including states' rights, relaxed environmental regulations, strict abortion limits and opposition to gay marriage.
An Eagle Scout, Perry urged the Boy Scouts not to accept openly gay youngsters. And the avid defender of gun rights once produced a laser-sighted pistol from his running shorts and shot a coyote while jogging in rural Austin.
Over the past decade, Texas has created a third of the net new jobs nationwide, though critics note Texas has a disproportionate percentage of hourly workers earning minimum wage or even less, according to federal employment data.
Perry also credits the state's relaxed regulatory climate and limits on civil lawsuits for job creation, though some have pointed to the consequences of little oversight, noting the West fertilizer plant explosion in April that killed 15 people was lightly regulated and even firefighters were unaware of the highly combustible chemicals inside.
Perry detractors also note that the governor opposes expanding Medicaid coverage in Texas -- a centerpiece of the White House's health care reform -- even though Texas has the highest rate of uninsured residents in the country.
Perry first won a seat in the Texas Legislature as a Democrat in 1984, when Texas was still reliably blue. As the state turned deeply red, Perry shifted too. Democrats have not captured a statewide office in nearly 20 years.
The opposition party insists, though, that a booming Hispanic population means it's only a matter of time before Texas switches back -- a notion Perry has dismissed as a "pipe dream."
It didn't look so far-fetched last week, however, when Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis was on her feet for 12-plus hours as Democrats used the filibuster to help block sweeping new restrictions on abortion in Texas. She became a national political sensation, prompting many supporters to urge her to run for governor.
Perry's response was swift, immediately calling lawmakers back for an extra special session. He said he was confident they'd approve the law in record time.
Texas Reacts to Perry's Announcement
Politicians and others weighed in Monday on the news that Rick Perry, the longest-serving governor in Texas history, won't seek re-election next year.
"It has been a tremendous honor to work alongside Governor Rick Perry to help lead the great State of Texas. As Governor, Rick Perry has fought for lower taxes, less regulation and more job creation -- all of which have helped Texas claim the best business climate in the nation. Along the way, Governor Perry has kept Washington in check, working to block an intrusive federal government from meddling in our personal lives and preventing the heavy hand of government from stifling small businesses in Texas." -- Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, long considered a potential candidate for governor
"Under Governor Perry's leadership, Texas has been a shining example that less government, lower taxes and fewer regulations helps to grow jobs and move our economy forward. It's a striking contrast to the big government, big spending, liberal mindset of the current Administration." -- U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas
"Gov. Perry led the Great State of Texas during a period that will forever be etched in history for unprecedented job creation and economic growth – his leadership has helped empower all Texans to pursue and achieve unlimited opportunity. We should all be grateful to Gov. Perry for the work he has done to keep Texas the most prosperous state in the nation." - U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas
"I have fought on the front lines with Governor Perry to help create jobs, cut taxes, and stop federal overreach. If Texas is to remain the envy of the nation, we need strong conservative leaders like him in the future that will fight back against Obama and his liberal allies in Texas." -- Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, running for lieutenant governor in 2014
"I usually disagree with the Governor several times per day, but I appreciate his love of Texas and wish him the best of luck. Unfortunately, his legacy will be one of cutting education funding, pushing more testing into our classrooms, and promoting issues that divide Texans rather than bringing us together." -- Texas Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio
"After twelve years of failed policies and divisive rhetoric, it's welcome news that Governor Perry announced he will not run for re-election. It's time for a new era in the Lone Star State -- Texans deserve a leader who will stand up and fight for their values." -- Jenn Brown, executive director of the left-leaning group Battleground Texas
"He has held the line on government. He has created an economic engine that is the envy of the nation and has really stuck to his conservative principles and been successful doing so." -- Ray Sullivan, longtime staffer and former spokesman for Perry's failed presidential run
"While thousands of Texans throughout the state rally to protect women's rights and make their voices heard during the second Special Session, Perry continues to focus on his own agenda and interests. Texans know how Perry has failed as a leader. After his three terms as governor, one out of four Texans still lack health insurance, and our public education system has been gutted." -- Gilberto Hinojosa, Texas Democratic Party chairman
“In 2000, Governor Rick Perry took over a Lone Star State that was doing well, but not exceptionally well versus the other big states,” said Foundation President and CEO Brooke Rollins, “When he steps down in 2015, he will leave behind a Texas that has surpassed the other 49 states in nearly every metric of prosperity — from jobs created, to immigrants from other states, to businesses relocating, and beyond. Under Rick Perry, liberty proved its case and the American Dream came to live in Texas. That's a legacy of pride — and it is the enduring accomplishment of a true freedom-loving Texas patriot.” -- Brooke L. Rollins, president and CEO of The Texas Public Policy Foundation