Texas governor invites GOP donors to December sessions to discuss 2016.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry is inviting hundreds of prominent Republican donors and policy experts to a series of gatherings next month that are intended to rebuild his damaged national brand and lay the foundation for a potential 2016 presidential campaign, fundraisers and organizers confirmed to POLITICO.
The small-group sessions kick off Tuesday and Wednesday in Austin with a pair of lunches and dinners held in the governor’s mansion wedged between policy briefings at the nearby office of Perry senior adviser Jeff Miller. In all, Perry’s team expects he will meet in person with more than 500 major donors and bundlers from around the country in December as well as a slew of operatives, Republican National Committee members and policy experts.
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Perry’s intensive month of foundation-building comes as other prospective Republican presidential candidates – notably former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz – are engaging with the wealthy Texans who for years have been among the GOP’s most significant sources of cash. As the heir to a political dynasty with deep Texas ties, Bush in particular could seriously cut into Perry’s financial base. Bush over the last few months has met with major Texas donors.
Perry has long enjoyed support from Texas’s biggest wallets for his state campaigns, but some of the donors remain skeptical of his presidential viability as a result of his bumbling 2012 run, during which some abandoned him in favor of eventual nominee Mitt Romney.
Perry had entered the race to much fanfare as the most formidable GOP foe to Romney. But his debate performances induced cringes, his anti-establishment tough talk prompted grumbles in the business community and he had only limited success expanding his fundraising base beyond Texas. When he dropped out not long after finishing fifth in the Iowa caucuses, Perry further alienated his party’s business wing by snubbing Romney and backing the long-shot rival campaign of Newt Gingrich.
While some in the party wonder if his star dimmed even further this summer when he was indicted on public corruption charges, Perry has nonetheless tried to remake his public image over the past year. In a series of high-profile interviews, the governor, sporting trendy new glasses that give him a more studious look, has admitted that he bungled 2012. He’s said the experience “humbled” him, and admitted he erred by jumping into the race without sufficient preparation and just six weeks after back surgery that left him in pain and unable to sleep.
Things would be different if he ran again, say sources who have interacted with the three-term governor, who is leaving the office after having held it longer than any other person in Texas history. They describe his health as “tip-top” and his policy expertise as light years ahead of where it was in the last presidential cycle — all of which he intends to highlight in his December donor meetings.
“If Gov. Perry is going to run, he’s going to be better prepared, and he’s going to have the resources necessary to compete,” said Henry Barbour, a Republican national committeeman who is helping plan for a Perry 2016 campaign and organizing next week’s donor sessions.
After next week, there will be an additional four or five sessions throughout the month, as well as an array of briefings held at Miller’s office with policy experts from leading conservative think tanks, such as the American Enterprise Institute and the Hoover Institution, according to those familiar with the planning.
The sources said Perry has been receiving twice-a-week briefings on different policy areas for months, including one on health care this past week in Austin featuring leading Obamacare critic Avik Roy of the Manhattan Institute. Perry also has been briefed – both in Austin and over the phone – by Lanhee Chen, the highly regarded policy director for Romney’s 2012 campaign, who authored a 172-page job-creation outline for Romney and likely would have played a leading role in a Romney White House.
Miller – who has overseen Perry’s post-2012 reemergence, and who many expect would run a Perry presidential campaign – added that full preparation means “not just on policy, but also with the necessary relationships in both the early states and with major donors around the country.”
Several major donors and bundlers who supported Perry’s last White House run – including some who have been invited to the Austin sessions – were cautious or even skeptical when asked this week if they’d back a Perry 2016 campaign.
“I’m a huge fan of Gov. Perry’s and would do whatever I could to help, but other stars have emerged in the party, and I want to hear what they have to say,” said Matt Keelen, a GOP lobbyist who rallied Capitol Hill support for Perry’s 2012 campaign. Keelen specifically cited Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida as intriguing presidential prospects.
Fort Worth investor and GOP bundler Hal Lambert supported Perry in 2012. He described the governor as “very good at working crowds and talking to people, but he’s really going to have to pick it up on the debate side. Those debates really ruined his chances last time.” While he said he wasn’t ready to commit to Perry – or anyone else – in 2016, Lambert said he’ll bring an open mind when he attends a dinner with Perry at the governor’s mansion on Dec. 17.
“I’d need to hear what the overall strategy would be for victory,” he said.
A Washington lobbyist who supported Perry last time but has since cooled on him was more blunt, asserting that Perry “ran a crummy campaign in 2012” and hasn’t demonstrated that he’s figured out how to do things differently. Donors also are concerned about the unresolved corruption indictment hanging over Perry’s head, said the lobbyist. Perry has adamantly asserted his innocence in that case, and many across the political spectrum have rallied to his defense, calling the prosecution a witch hunt.
“None of the D.C. lobbyist crowd who were supporting Perry in 2012 are planning to support him this cycle,” said the lobbyist, who is considering supporting Govs. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana or Scott Walker of Wisconsin should either run in 2016. “He is a good guy, but Perry’s time has passed.”
One prominent GOP bundler who was invited to Austin for one of the Perry sessions in December said, “I admire Perry, but my first commitment is to Jeb Bush and until Jeb makes up his mind, I and a lot of other folks in the Bush extended family are kind of frozen.” If Bush doesn’t run, the bundler said, “I think it’ll be time for a new generation.”
Some major bundlers for George W. Bush’s presidential campaigns — including Wayne Berman and Dirk Van Dongen — have been supportive of Rubio. But the Florida Senator, who has not said whether he’s going to run, could face a difficult financial path if Bush ran, since the fellow Floridian has deeper ties to many of Rubio’s home-state benefactors, as well as the Bush family’s vaunted national money network.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) gets an endorsement for her gubernatorial run from former President George H. W. Bush and his wife Barbara outside their home on Jan. 22, 2010, in Houston. | AP Photo
Perry’s Texas network overlaps slightly with the Bush network. But there’s also been tension between the camps, stemming partly from the Bush crew’s support for then-Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a longtime Bush family ally, in her unsuccessful challenge to Perry in the 2010 Texas GOP gubernatorial primary.
A GOP fundraiser who has worked with Texas donors said some of the richest among them have been meeting with Jeb Bush in Texas, and that his brother, the former president — and former Texas governor — George W. Bush has been talking up Jeb to rich Texans. “Perry is responding to that, and a lot of these donors are caught in the middle,” the fundraiser said of Perry’s Austin meetings.
Lambert, however, said Jeb Bush’s primary reason for visiting Texas was supporting the successful campaign of his son, George P. Bush, for Texas land commissioner.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily been about meeting donors. He’s not going to have any problem there,” said Lambert, who conceded that Texas donors could have divided loyalties in 2016.
“Ted Cruz could compete as well,” Lambert said of the junior senator from Texas. Cruz is a favorite of the conservative grassroots, but he has struggled to win over GOP establishment donors, who view him as an impractical ideologue.
“There will definitely be a difference in the donor base, but I think he’s right in the mix,” said Lambert, who praised Cruz and added, “It will be a tough decision.”