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How Rick Perry Ended Up In A Financial Hole

Abby Livingston
Texas Tribune
Rick Perry delivers his stump speech to Republican voters and activists at a lake house near Derry, New Hampshire, in July.

Already considered among the walking wounded politically, Rick Perry startled the Texas political world on Tuesday when it became clear that his presidential campaign is in serious financial trouble.

This is the man who dominated state politics — and drew deeply from the pockets of Texas donors — for fifteen years. He raised $17 million in the first seven weeks of his ill-fated 2012 presidential campaign, but almost four years to the day latercouldn’t make payroll on his second presidentialbid.

Like nearly everything else about the former governor's campaign, wooing donors is proving far more difficult the second time around. 

July and August are notoriously hard months to raise campaign money. But a source close to the Perry campaign said his failure to make last week’s Fox News prime time debate weighed on campaign fundraising.

Perry’s return to the debate stage was supposed to prove what is known on the ground in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina: That Perry is a much-improved candidate since his disastrous “Oops” moment in a 2011 GOP debate.

But that was not to be, since Perry did not poll high enough to qualify for the evening debate last Thursday. When it became clear that Perry would instead appear in the undercard debate, fundraising deflated, according to this source.

The earlier debate featured backbencher candidates and was derided in the press as the “kids' table” and the “happy hour debate."

Still, one plugged-in former Bush administration official who used to work for former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchsion said Perry's debate misfortune didn't matter, citing former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina’s breakthrough that night. 

“It’s not like being at the kids’ table was the death knell,” said GOP consultant Jenifer Sarver of Fiorina’s performance.

Depending on his performance in the polls, Perry could still make the next national debate set for Sept. 16. But that would place him smack in the middle of his second-biggest problem — a GOP field much bigger and deeper than 2011, when conservative activists practically drafted him because they were so unhappy with their options. 

An exceptional number of the 17 top contenders have ties to the Lone Star State – and competing donor loyalties. 

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush hails from the Texas family dynasty that practically invented the concept of political bundling in Texas. 

Take Tyler attorney Gaylord Hughey, for example. Known as the single-most important Republican bundler in East Texas, he raised $15,000 for Perry during the 2012 campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Hughey joined with the Bush campaign earlier this year. In an interview with The Texas Tribune, Hughey underscored Perry’s ability to maintain loyalty among donors and staffers. But, he noted, the former governor never did corner the Texas donor market this year.

“Gov. Perry’s traditional donor base was divided when he decided to run for president,” Hughey said. “There were other allegiances and alliances in those relationships that that donor base responded to." 

Other Texas operatives not involved with the campaign speculate some of Perry's recent struggles arose because he is now an out-of-office politician, no longer wielding the implicit powers of the governorship.

Instead, he is competing against sitting U.S. Senator and fellow Texan Ted Cruz. And there are plenty of non-Texas candidates eager to poach donations from Perry's backyard. 

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio competed early on for Texas dollars, getting the backing of Dallas-based investor George Seay. And Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker hiredAustin-based fundraiser Susan Lilly in February to run his Texas fundraising.

The large field means all of the candidates, save for Bush, are spread thin on the hard money side — the dollars raised in $2,700 increments that go directly to the candidate's official campaign. The surprise, at least in Texas circles, is that Perry was the first candidate to falter.

Not everyone was shocked. His super PAC supporters say they saw the writing on the wall when his campaign filed its quarterly financial report in July and proactively began preparing. 

“We saw this coming," Austin Barbour, senior adviser to Perry’s super PACs, told The Washington Post. "We knew we would have to do more than just paid media and there’s nothing in the playbook that says we can’t do that."

Barbour and his colleagues raised far more — $17 million — for their operations. In fact, that sum put Perry in the top tier of super PAC dollars.

And so on Tuesday, a polarizing debate emerged among political spectators as to whether this moment marked the beginning of the end for Perry, or if it is far too early in the campaign to draw such sweeping conclusions. 

It's been a bad week, most would agree, but Perry's political skills could well keep his campaign going until the caucuses and primaries kick off in February. 

Perry's retail political skills frighten his rivals, and now that he is out of office, he has the time to make his case one-on-one to voters in the early states. That is how U.S. Sen. John McCain survived his mid-July 2007 presidential campaign implosion and went on to win the party nomination.

McCain's issue then was the same — finances — but the dynamics were somewhat different. McCain was the early Republican frontrunner in that race and was unable to live up to expectations. Perry, by contrast, is unable to separate himself from the back of the GOP pack.

McCain actually improved as a candidate after his campaign fell apart. Perry’s campaign manager told The Washington Post that his candidate had similar attributes.

“None of those people have the track record that Rick Perry has," Jeff Miller said. “Rick Perry performs best when his back’s against the wall.”

Perry will also benefit from the changes in campaign finance law. There were no such thing as super PACs at that time, whereas the Perry super PAC team is well-funded. 

One Perry supporter, Dallas-based fundraiser Roy Bailey, said Perry only needs to place well in an early state primary to regain his footing.

“He wouldn’t have to win, by the way, to have huge momentum,” Bailey said. “If he finished top four or five, he’s got huge momentum.”

Bailey pointed to McCain’s narrowed focus on a single state as the solution to Perry's trouble. 

“Perry would, I think to survive, have to have the same kind of strategy: Pick his place to win and go make it happen." 

The Texas Tribune provided this story.

Abby Livingston joined the Tribune in 2014 as the publication's first Washington Bureau Chief. Previously, she covered political campaigns, House leadership and Congress for Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper. A seventh-generation Texan, Abby graduated from the University of Texas at Austin. She grew up in Fort Worth and has appeared in an episode of "The Bold and The Beautiful." Abby pitched and produced political segments for CNN and worked as an editor for The Hotline, National Journal’s campaign tipsheet. Abby began her journalism career as a desk assistant at NBC News in Washington, working her way up to the political unit, where she researched stories for Nightly News, the Today Show and Meet the Press. In keeping with the Trib’s great history of hiring softball stars, Abby is a three-time MVP (the most in game history —Ed.) for The Bad News Babes, the women’s press softball team that takes on female members of Congress in the annual Congressional Women’s Softball breast cancer charity game.