Rick Perry's Fundraising Prowess: Big Donors Central to His Success

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Gov. Rick Perry is not only the longest-serving governor in Texas history, but also the most successful campaign fundraiser, records show.

In a state that places no limits on how much donors can give to campaigns, Perry has brought in more than $100 million during his 10-year tenure, almost half coming from large donations of at least $100,000.

"He is the most successful campaign fundraiser in the history of Texas politics, hands down," said Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice.

But Perry's statewide success might not translate into big bucks nationally, where federal campaign-finance rules limit donations to $2,500 per person.

Brad Smith, chairman of the Center for Competitive Politics and former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, said Perry's success will hinge on his ability to transition from primarily relying on a small cadre of big-money donors to capturing the broad base of small donors that is essential to winning a national race.

"What you'll see is over time if he's not good at raising smaller contributions he'll probably fade because they show popular support," Smith said. "If people aren't willing to give you money, they probably are not going to vote for you either."

He said candidates who are more on the ideological fringes of the Republican Party, such as Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, tend to be better at tapping into the small donor base.

"Typically, the big-money guys are the moderate, middle-of-the-road people," Smith said. "The candidates who can raise lots and lots of money are the ones who get people ideologically motivated like Ron Paul."

Paul has snagged millions in Internet donations with his "money bomb" technique, a short burst of fundraising spanning about a day that is heavily advertised on social media. The Paul campaign raised more than $1 million Aug. 6 from a money bomb targeting GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney's Massachusetts health care law.

But with Bachmann's increasing popularity and Tea Party support, she could give Paul's "money bombs" a run for their money, Smith said.

"Bachmann potentially has the potential to out-do Paul on that small-dollar and Internet fundraising," Smith said. "It's all about whether you can tap into that vein or not."

But Perry and Romney will likely still bring in the most cash because of their experience with big-donor, large-scale fundraising, Smith said.

"Perry's fundraising prowess goes beyond Texas," McDonald of Texans for Public Justice said.

As chairman of the Republican Governors Association, Perry is credited with record-breaking fundraising numbers. In the first half of 2011, the association raised $22.1 million, more than it brought in for all of 2007.

Half of Perry's total fundraising dollars in the past decade came from 204 mega-donors who have chipped in more than $100,000 each. Thanks to the strategy of "bundling" developed by former George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove, Perry's wealthy donor network in Texas can still bring in big sums for his federal race.

"He's laid the groundwork to raise all the money he might need in a presidential race," McDonald said. "I would be very surprised if Perry's fundraising didn't leap to the top of the field in short order."

McDonald said Perry's fundraising style is similar to the way Bush brought in millions during his gubernatorial campaigns, but "Perry is just much better at it." When Bush started his run for the White House, his wealthy Texas base pledged to contribute millions for the Bush presidential campaign before it even got off the ground.

"Perry can pretty much do the same thing," McDonald said. "He has a high donor network here in Texas that can bundle millions."

In Bush's two gubernatorial races and five years in the state house, he raised just $2 million more than the $39 million Perry pulled in for his 2010 re-election campaign alone.

"I don't think money will be an object," McDonald said. "I mean it won't be a question in his success unless he stumbles badly."