AUSTIN, Texas — Three potential Republican White House candidates now face the distraction of legal troubles back home.
The latest is Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who after 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 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 Republican 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.