Friends and associates of the Texas governor who want to support Mitt Romney for president are living by a certain credo: Don't mess with Rick Perry.
Major fundraisers for Romney's campaign in the Lone Star State say that even though Perry has fallen in national polls since entering the GOP primary, prominent lawmakers, businesspeople and other Texans are afraid to sign a check for Romney out of fear that Perry will turn on them when he returns as governor.
For these major donors, say the fundraisers, it's a waiting game until Perry loses the contest for the nomination - then they'll be free to give to Romney without fear of repercussion.
"People said that he's gonna lose, and he's gonna come home, and he's gonna beat the s*** out of us," one big-dollar bundler, who feared recrimination and so would speak only anonymously, said of conversations with top donors. "He's the most vindictive guy there ever was."
Perry's campaign rejects the notion that the governor would hold a grudge against prominent Texans who support his opponents in the primary, saying that he conducts his state business based on his views, not on donations.
"When it comes to state business to official policies, political support - political contributions are completely irrelevant," said Perry spokesman Ray Sullivan. "Donors need to make their own decisions, and frequently, they will find an excuse to stay on the sidelines, whether those excuses are entirely accurate or not. That is an easier answer than a flat 'no.' "
But the bundler, who was a Bush Ranger, meaning that he raised more than $300,000 for the ex-president's reelection campaign, said that "everyone in the legislature" is afraid not to show their support for Perry. A staff member in a Democrat's office in the legislature confirmed the fragile mood and noted that lawmakers haven't forgotten the frayed relationship Perry has with Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who tried to unseat him in a primary.
"From the state lawmakers' perspective, coming out and supporting Romney over Perry won't do them much good," the staff member noted. "Romney's not going to give you anything as a state senator when he's president, so there's no point. And it would piss off the governor, and he's got veto capabilities."
Another fundraiser said that people in Texas who have gotten state commissions or appointments feel that they would be "cut off" by Perry if they support Romney while the governor is still competing.
"A lot of them do business with the state," said this fundraiser, who raised more than $1 million for John McCain in 2008. "They're just not going to take a chance."
One well-connected fundraiser in Texas, one of the bigger cash wells for Republican fundraising, said that many bundlers have said, "We want Mitt - Mitt's the guy, but we just can't do anything until Perry is formally out of the equation."
"Mostly, it's fear of retribution," said the fundraiser, who, like the others, would speak candidly about the situation only without being named.
"A lot of folks don't want to do anything to antagonize a sitting governor," said Larry Finder, a lawyer in Houston who supports Romney. "They've already supported him financially. … They're not going to publicly support someone else."
"People here have been close to Rick and supportive of Rick for so long that they don't feel comfortable if they can't support him," said Fred Zeidman, a friend of Perry's who raises money for Romney and who was a chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. "They don't want to hurt him, and they don't want to hurt the state of Texas."
Despite the frustration, Romney's Texas fundraisers said that rich donors waiting for the general election to take shape will have plenty of time to empty their wallets. "The closer we get to an election and the closer we get to having a limited field," Zeidman said, "the more they're getting involved."
Jeff Wentworth, a state senator who supports Perry, said that closet Romney backers' worry of a backlash from Perry is a "legitimate concern," though he questioned whether the governor would be the one to remember their names, rather than his political operatives.
"I think it's pretty likely Rick's not going to be the nominee," Wentworth said. "So whoever you give money to … I guess you do run that risk."
Leticia Van de Putte, a Democratic state senator, said Perry has a "solid track record of finding disfavor with those who support his opponents" in elections. "What is not tolerated, and he does exercise selective enforcement, is when they give to another candidate who he's running against," she said.