Gov. Rick Perry has a Texas-sized reputation as a fundraiser, but it will be put to the test in the Republican presidential primary.
Perry has collected more than $100 million since becoming Texas governor in 2000. His donors there include wealthy real estate, energy and construction executives well-positioned to become "bundlers" who could round up money for him in the primary. As a former chairman of the Republican Governors Association, Perry has donor networks outside of Texas. And many big GOP donors and bundlers have, whether out of dissatisfaction or uncertainty, so far sat out the race.
At the same time, Perry has operated in Texas under much less stringent fundraising rules than those that will apply now that he is a federal candidate. The Lone Star State imposes no limit on the size of a contribution, meaning that Perry has relied heavily on a relatively small cadre of six-figure donors.
As a presidential candidate, Perry faces a $2,500 individual contribution limit, forcing him to build an organization around surrogate fundraisers, or bundlers. All of that is new to the governor, as is the type of massive, small-donor fundraising that helped President Barack Obama collect $745 million in 2008. Obama could clear $1 billion next year, and Perry is getting a late start.
"I think [Perry] is good at getting big-dollar donations; I just don't know how good he's going to be at getting the next tier down," said professor Mark P. Jones, chairman of the political science department at Rice University.
More than half of the $102 million Perry has raised as governor has come from just 204 sources, according to Craig McDonald, director of the nonpartisan watchdog group Texans for Public Justice. These included high-dollar donors from the construction, energy, waste management, finance, insurance and real estate industries.
"The money that's come to him has been highly, highly concentrated — which is not compatible, of course, with the federal system," McDonald noted.
Perry's campaign money has come under scrutiny in Texas because a number of his big donors have received public appointments or received state grants through economic development funds that Perry set up. While nothing illegal has been alleged, ethics questions raised by groups such as McDonald's are sure to gain attention if Perry enters the national stage.
Perry "knows he needs to broaden out of his Texas base," Jones said. Texas donors who could emerge as important players in his bundling operation include businessmen Harold C. Simmons of Contran Corp., Thomas Friedkin of Friedkin Companies Inc. and Bob Perry (no relation), the home builder and major GOP donor. With his wife, Bob Perry has given more than $2.5 million to the governor since 2001, according to Texans for Public Justice.
Perry has recently been meeting privately with bundlers who, Texas sources say, have been asked to commit to raising $250 million apiece.
One point in Perry's favor is the apparent lack of donor enthusiasm for the other GOP candidates in the field so far. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, for example, has raised just $18.3 million — less than he had at this point in 2008.
"Romney's fundraising totals speak volumes to the fact that a lot of people are on the sidelines still," Jones said.
Perry will also get help from as many as seven super PACs, a new type of political action committee that can raise unlimited funds from corporations and other sources barred at the federal level provided it remains independent from candidates and parties. Mike Toomey, an Austin lobbyist and former Perry chief of staff, has just set up a super PAC dubbed Make Us Great Again with Brint Ryan, a Perry donor and head of a Dallas accounting firm.
Separately, the Americans for Rick Perry super PAC has collected some $400,000 since opening its doors in late June. The group hopes to pull in $1.8 million by the end of the year, said national campaign director Bob Schuman, a California political consultant and veteran GOP operative.
Perry's allies predict that, as someone who appeals to both social and fiscal conservatives, he will have no trouble raising money from small donors.
Steve Munisteri, chairman of the Texas Republican party, said, "Money is not going to be one of his problems."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.