AUSTIN, Texas – As they form exploratory committees, consider the grueling prospect of a national campaign with their families and begin hiring staff in key presidential battleground states, three potential Republican White House candidates also face the distraction of legal troubles back at home.
The latest is Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who following his indictment on two felony charges, is staring at the most serious accusations of wrongdoing by a prominent Republican governor openly considering a run for president.
In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie is trying to move beyond the apparent effort of his staff to create traffic chaos on a bridge into Manhattan late last year, while state prosecutors in Wisconsin are examining whether Gov. Scott Walker coordinated too closely during a past campaign with outside conservative groups.
But prosecutors have taken no action against Christie and Walker, and may never do so. Only Perry has suffered the infamy of an actual indictment, handed up by a grand jury in Austin, Texas, that accused the longest-serving governor in the state’s history of abuse of official capacity and coercion of a public servant.
The charges came after a special prosecutor spent months presenting evidence that Perry broke the law when he carried out a promise to nix funding for the public integrity unit run by the office of Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg unless she resigned. A Democrat, Lehmberg had been convicted of drunken driving.
Technically, Perry faces up to 109 years in prison if convicted, although legal experts of all political stripes have said such a sentence – if not a conviction itself – is unlikely.
That may not matter. Perry is the still the first Texas governor since 1917 to be indicted, and as the case drags on, that fact could be all would-be 2016 Republican primary voters remember about him.
“Indictment is a loaded word,” said Mark McKinnon, a GOP consultant and former top adviser to the presidential campaign of George W. Bush.
The indictment came as Perry spent months rehabilitating his national image after his failed 2012 run for president. He’s become a staple on national television and a frequent visitor to the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina and has insisted he’ll be better prepared this time for the national spotlight.
“From a personal standpoint, this is a tragedy for Perry,” said Matt Mackowiak, a Texas-based Republican strategist. “This new uncertainty about Perry’s future will stall his positive political momentum for 2016 until this is resolved, which could take a year.”
Perry, though, has given no indication that he plans to stop his early moves toward a campaign. He’s dismissed the case as a political ploy, an argument sure to resonate with some Republicans.
Lehmberg is a Democrat and Austin, where the grand jury was seated, is a liberal bastion in fiercely conservative Texas.
“We don’t settle political differences with indictments in this country,” Perry said Saturday.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who is also eyeing the 2016 presidential contest, dismissed the charges in a Twitter message as “a political witch hunt.” Another potential White House hopeful, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, defended his fellow Texan, saying in a statement, “Rick Perry is a friend, he’s a man of integrity.”
Some even wonder whether Perry could benefit from the legal hot water. The case creates a reason to show a jailhouse video from Lehmberg’s April 2013 arrest for drunken driving, when she shouted, kicked the door of her cell and stuck her tongue out. The district attorney’s blood-alcohol level was nearly three times the legal limit.
“The constant message has to be that this is the consequence of standing up and doing what’s right,” said Michael Dennehy, a Republican operative helping organize Perry’s New Hampshire outreach. He said Perry’s visit to New Hampshire planned for next weekend would go forward as scheduled.
Facing reporters Saturday, Perry was defiant, saying “an individual who was booked in, had to be restrained, was abusive to law enforcement, was kicking the door. I think Americans and Texans who’ve seen this agree with me, that that is not an individual who is heading up an office that we can afford to fund.”
Such a resolute approach stands in contrast to Christie, who showed deep contrition in apologizing for alleged wrongdoing of his staff, then waited months for the political scandal at home to blow over before he again began strongly positioning himself for a potential 2016 presidential run anew. The U.S. attorney in New Jersey continues to investigate allegations that the governor’s staffers and appointees ordered the closing of access lanes to the George Washington Bridge last September in an apparent act of political retribution.
And, though he’s not been charged, prosecutors have said Walker violated the law by helping to coordinate fundraising with a string of outside conservative groups helping him and top Republican state senators avoid being removed from office in 2011 and 2012 recall elections. Five people have also been convicted on various charges related to illegal campaign work done by Walker’s staff from his time as Milwaukee County executive during his first run for governor.
In Iowa, national Republican committeeman Steve Scheffler said Perry’s indictments would likely have little lasting impact on his political prospects — and he’s predicting similar outcomes for investigations surrounding Christie and Walker.
“The people of Iowa care about the facts,” Scheffler said. “There seems to be a heck of a lot more to the story than it appears. I just don’t think there’s anything that’s going to be of any damage at all.”