Why Rick Perry’s Disastrous 2012 Run Should Haunt Ron DeSantis

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Tell me if this sounds familiar.

There’s a popular Republican Governor from a state with a fast-changing population, a compliant legislature that all but wrote his thesis for seeking higher office, and tremendous buzz about fundraising potential. He weathered a national crisis in ways that set him apart from his peers, further stoking chatter that he was destined for the White House. He seemed hellbent on stripping federal agencies off organizational charts, scrapping long-held policies, and promising to change D.C. in ways great and small. Allegations of cronyism abounded, bombshell reporting came with a steady cadence, but his polling continued to depict him as a real contender.

And then all the momentum slowed down. Way, way down.

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This may sound a lot like the current footing of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ 2024 campaign. But it is also a fair summary of another Republican leader: Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who was a darling for a moment in 2012. Both roared into the race as the highly anticipated alternative to the anointed frontrunner. In 2012, that man-to-beat was former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney; a decade later, it’s ex-President Donald Trump.

To be fair, differences are as easy to spot as the similarities. For one, DeSantis isn’t pushing himself to return to the trail before he’s physically ready; Perry was suspected of being on pain pills right after back surgery. For another, DeSantis famously embraces his hostility to reporters; Perry cultivated a likable and goofy persona with the press. DeSantis has been dogged for lacking charisma, a liability that no one who is a sucker for a well-placed darlin’ would accuse Perry of sharing. DeSantis is about as anti-vax and -mask mandate as you can find, even during COVID-19; Perry mandated an HPV vaccine for 12-year-old girls.

Still, the parallels between what I’ll generously describe as the fades in the Perry and the DeSantis campaigns… Well, they seem ripe for exploring.

Perry once caught a lot of donors’ imaginations and activists’ interest. He seemed ready to unify the Tea Party with the Christian right, with the blessing of the business community to boot. The “Texas Miracle” had helped the state avoid the worst of the 2008 economic recession. Businesses were flocking to a state with lower unemployment than most and practically free tax bills for the right newcomers. He tossed red meat with aplomb all while casually reminding audiences that he had earned his pilot’s wings flying for the Air Force. The Texas legislature greenlit plenty of his agenda. The money—tons of it—seemed primed to flow to his campaign. By some estimates, raking in more than $25 million would be easy. After all, Perry had been undefeated in elections dating to 1984, and no ethics kerfuffle ever tanked him.

Curiosity drove a lot of the D.C.-based press corps to check out Perry even before he officially joined the race. A bunch of us wound up in New Orleans for the Republican Leadership Conference in June some 12 years ago, where Perry impressed the heck out of the younger reporters and jaded pros alike. It was all we could talk about over dinner that evening, and I sheepishly messaged a colleague steeped in Texas politics. I get it now, was the gist. We were ready for the Perry Show, complete with holiday lights to decorate the press bus joining his motorcade right before Christmas.

But despite his team’s outstanding—if occasionally inconsistent—preparation, Perry struggled from the start. He joined the race the same day Michele Bachmann unloaded her bank account to win the symbolic Iowa Straw Poll in August of 2011. Two days later, Perry drew controversy by suggesting that the Federal Reserve chairman was guilty of treason for printing money and warned that things could get ugly if Ben Bernanke ever set foot in Texas.

Perry later expressed skepticism about climate change science and courted more criticism when it was revealed that his Texas ranch used to greet visitors with a terrible racial epithet painted on a slab of rock. Perry proposed canceling three federal Cabinet agencies, only to mutter “oops” on a debate stage when he forgot the third.

After his campaign ended, he was candid with himself, his supporters, and reporters about what had gone wrong. That’s when he conceded the experimental back surgery just before he joined the race in August wasn’t the best thing for his chances, and he wasn’t getting enough sleep between pain pills.

To describe Perry’s 2012 campaign as a misfire for the ages wouldn’t be too much of a stretch. At least until you consider how DeSantis started his bid with a Twitter meltdown. As I traveled around before the 2022 midterms, voters at GOP events consistently told me they were Ron curious—open to Trumpism without the drama. The 2022 results soured a lot of voters on what Trump could do to tank the party yet another time. And DeSantis looks like a viable alternative, especially after his big win in Florida on an Election Day that saw Republicans suffer setbacks from coast to coast.

The case is easy to make, at least on paper. DeSantis proved a competent leader during Hurricane Ian. He was a creature of Trump’s making, having emerged from a tough primary in 2018 based mostly on the then-President’s endorsement. He trolled Democratic cities by sending migrants there on state-chartered flights. Cash was at the ready, his control of Tallahassee seemed complete, and his middle finger toward COVID-19 lockdowns and vaccine mandates, his culture war with Disney over LGBTQ rights and with schools over Black history, and his home-state advantage in Florida all fed this belief. His allies saw visions of a $200 million anti-Trump campaign.

But just like Perry, once DeSantis started running, things started to go sideways. Crowds seemed bored with his first trips. The buzz quieted. DeSantis is trying to one-up Perry in calling for Cabinet agency eradication, this time going after the same targets of Commerce, Energy, Education, plus the IRS for good measure. But his polling fell precipitously.

TIME’s Molly Ball profiled DeSantis in a recent cover profile full of insightful, must-read nuance. But the topline for most of the party is still this: despite serious challenges, DeSantis could be the real deal.

Not all collapses stick. Their remedies range as much as the causes, but one common trait emerges: authenticity. Sen. John McCain’s campaign had blown apart, shed staff, and was relying on the kindness of volunteers to ferry him through the dog days of summer 2007. But then he ditched the fancy Straight Talk motorcoach, stopped in veterans’ halls, and laid bare his faith in the war effort in Iraq. Within months, he was back on top. A few months later, Sen. Hillary Clinton gave her 2008 campaign a second life when she betrayed her steely shell in Portsmouth, N.H., right before that state’s primary. They later stumbled again and didn’t quite get across the finish line. But neither wrote their last chapter at their nadir.

Voters can spot when candidates are showing their true selves, or at least something approaching it. They can also see when candidates are insincere, frightened, and cynical. And, more often than not, those three combined can lead to a cratering of confidence that poses serious threats to even the most well-hyped option. Perry failed to reassert the authenticity that made him such a potent threat in 2012. More than a decade later, DeSantis would do well to spend a beat studying what went wrong.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com