Republican presidential candidates Rick Perry (left) and Mitt Romney prepare to shake hands with other candidates at the end of a presidential debate sponsored by CNN and the Tea Party Express at the Florida state fairgrounds in Tampa on Monday.
Members of Congress shouldn’t wait by the phone for Texas Gov. Rick Perry to call.
The surging GOP presidential contender makes no secret of his disdain for Washington, D.C., and so far, his campaign’s efforts to get chummy with Members are minimal.
Perry’s nascent Congressional outreach operation is spontaneous and decentralized, according to interviews with Texas operatives, Capitol Hill aides and K Street supporters. They say Congressional endorsements are not Perry’s priority — at least not yet — except for Members from early presidential primary states.
Perry’s backers on the Hill have not had a formal meeting or organized their efforts, and one of Perry’s supporters, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), struggled to name which of his colleagues also supported the governor.
“I don’t really know who else,” Scalise said. “I couldn’t give you a list of them. I imagine there’s one that’s assembled somewhere. I think it’s clear that’s not a main focus of the Perry campaign. They’re focused on getting his grass-roots base built up in the early primary states and raising money to compete.”
The race for Member endorsements is a prickly process for candidates — especially Perry, who’s branded himself as an anti-Washington candidate. Perry unveiled two major gubernatorial endorsements this week, but on Capitol Hill his campaign has been slower to boast about support.
At least nine Members have voiced their support for Perry: Sen. James Inhofe (Okla.), Reps. John Carter (Texas), Mike Conaway (Texas), John Culberson (Texas), Sam Graves (Mo.), Michael McCaul (Texas), Candice Miller (Mich.), Mick Mulvaney (S.C.) and Scalise. Perry’s campaign did not return an email request seeking a list of its endorsements or comment about its outreach efforts.
Despite this, Perry’s public backers total more than any presidential candidate who has served in Congress and more than half of two-time presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s tally.
Perry’s supporters point out the campaign is still young and that the governor will make his first major visit to Washington, D.C., later this month. A pair of fundraisers will serve as an introduction of Perry to rainmakers downtown.
But his Sept. 27 visit also falls in the middle of a Congressional recess, when almost all Members vacate Capitol Hill for their districts or for their own fundraising junkets. As a result, many Members will have to wait to meet Perry.
“I don’t think they’re trying to win the Washington primary. He’s never been that type of candidate,” said Matt Mackowiak, a Perry supporter and GOP strategist from Texas. “These folks in Washington want to know who they’re supporting, but they also want to support the winner. Those two factors are in direct conflict right now.”
Perry’s Capitol Hill strategy stands in contrast to that of other candidates — some of whom have been working the halls of Congress for several years. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty tapped Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.) to set up introductory breakfasts with Members for his now-defunct presidential campaign starting in early 2010.
Perry’s chief competition, Romney, began working Members in advance of his 2008 presidential bid. By the time of the Iowa caucuses, Romney boasted more Congressional endorsements than the eventual nominee, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a Capitol Hill veteran of almost three decades.
Since his 2008 campaign, Romney has maintained his relationships with Members and forged new ones with freshmen. He invested millions in Republican Congressional campaigns around the country. Today, the Romney campaign counts two Senators and 11 House Members on its public endorsement list.
Perry’s late entrance into the race puts him at a disadvantage in this area as his Capitol Hill allies attempt to play catch-up.
Three of Perry’s Congressional backers — Scalise, Graves and Miller — recalled that Perry’s campaign never asked for their support. They called his campaign on their own to say they wanted to endorse him.
“I actually reached out to the Perry campaign and told them that I’d like to endorse the governor,” said Miller, who backed former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani in the 2008 primary. “Most people would think I would be with Romney because he’s a Michigan guy, but my inclination is for Rick Perry.”
Graves phoned Perry in mid-June to say he was waiting for him to jump into the race. While Perry’s operation continues to build, Graves said he’s reaching out to his Missouri colleagues to seek their support.
“It’s more organic right now as opposed to an organized effort. I’m sure they’ll get pretty active and aggressive on that,” Graves said. “I’m going to be working on a lot of my colleagues, too. I’m just going to be doing that on my own.”
Perry has also yet to make significant inroads in the Senate. He’s never met one of the chamber’s leading conservative kingmakers, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), in person. Perry canceled what was supposed to be their first meeting at DeMint’s presidential campaign forum after deadly wildfires erupted in Texas.
But Perry and DeMint have spoken on the phone a few times, according to a source close to DeMint. The South Carolinian called Perry in late 2009 to ask for his thoughts about candidates to succeed Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), who was expected to resign to run for governor at the time.
Perry’s fundraising efforts on K Street have progressed further than his Congressional relations, said Texas Republican operatives and aides.
The pair of upcoming fundraisers feature A-list host committees, including rainmakers formerly aligned with the presidential campaigns of Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and Giuliani.
Perry’s endorsements on Capitol Hill also feed into this fundraising effort. For example, Inhofe’s endorsement came when Perry stopped in Oklahoma last month for a planned fundraiser.
But the Texas governor’s relations on Capitol Hill are still lacking — especially among his own Lone Star State delegation. Texas GOP House Members have often been at odds with Perry over federal funding issues.
Tensions between the two camps spilled over in 2010, when Hutchison challenged Perry in the GOP primary.
Every time that Perry attacked the Senator as “Kay Bailout Hutchison” in a campaign ad, the Congressional delegation took a hit, too.
The entire delegation stayed neutral or backed Hutchison’s challenge except for one Member, McCaul, who supported Perry.
Hutchison still isn’t a Perry fan. She told NBC in early August that she’s looking for a candidate with private-sector experience — an obvious hit at Perry, who’s been working in government for almost three decades.
But since Perry entered the 2012 race, aides said his relationship with the delegation has improved.
“The relationship is tempered,” one Texas Congressional aide said. “Certainly the fact that he may become president of the United States, I think a lot of these folks are being careful what they do and how they play it.”
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.