Ask Republican lobbyists or operatives who Rick Perry’s K Street boosters are, and some variation of “I don’t really know” is likely to roll off their tongues. Unlike some of its predecessors, Perry’s nascent presidential campaign counts only a handful of influential rainmakers among its supporters.
And, so far, little evidence indicates that Washington will become the kind of fundraising power center for Perry that it is for rival GOP contender Mitt Romney. In the White House cash dash, the Texas governor’s much-feared fundraising machine seems to view Washington more as a rest stop than a destination.
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“I’m not certain that that’s a bad thing that they don’t have tremendous Washington ties. Because, right now, Washington, D.C. is one of the most unpopular cities in the world, and I think people are looking for an outsider to straighten out Washington, D.C. the way he did in Texas,” said Matt Keelen, a GOP lobbyist who is working Capitol Hill on Perry’s behalf. “I think he’s going to be a fairly nontraditional Republican candidate. I just don’t see him facing or centering a lot of his attention in Washington.”
Although small, however, Perry’s Washington crew is aggressive. In addition to courting uncommitted, influential Republicans, some Perry backers are wooing supporters of his rivals -- especially Romney, who has an edge among the Washington elite.
“There are Romney supporters or others who didn’t think Perry was going to get in and jumped on someone [else’s campaign] early who are taking another look,” a GOP lobbyist and Perry supporter said.
Enter Peter Terpeluk, a top fundraiser for President George W. Bush who became ambassador to Luxembourg and who is now putting his skills to work for Perry.
Terpeluk, of the lobbying firm American Continental Group, recently called former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, who heads the American Bankers Association, to ask him to meet with Perry. Keating said he reminded Terpeluk that he’s a Romney guy, but Terpeluk persisted. Keating relented and agreed to a meeting. But that doesn’t mean he’s looking to switch candidates.
“I'm committed to Mitt, but I think that all Republicans are as committed to November success and are willing to meet each other's candidates,” Keating told National Journal.
For his part, Terpeluk hung up on a reporter and did not respond to a follow-up e-mail.
Perry will likely lean heavily on Washington insiders such as Terpeluk and Dirk Van Dongen, another influential member of Team Perry, becauses he has not spent much time cultivating the K Street crowd during his decade as governor. Perry has chaired the Republican Governors Association and Texas has a federal lobbying operation, but most of his support comes from Washington’s Texas mafia, a group that has dwindled in recent years.
“A lot of Rick’s network that he’s had over the years has moved back to Texas, and there aren’t many of us left in Washington,” said GOP lobbyist Scott Styles, who grew up 30 miles from Perry in West Texas. “He’s done most of his fundraising on a national basis and really isn’t going to rely on D.C.”
Styles, the lead lobbyist for the insurance trade group America’s Health Insurance Plans, said he plans to offer to advise the campaign on health policy issues and to connect industry officials with Perry. He is planning to meet with campaign officials later this month when he visits Austin – the seat of Perry’s fundraising power.
Running for office in a state that has no campaign contribution limits has allowed Perry to rely on a small group of big-dollar donors. In his presidential run, those donors will be able to give only $2,500 to his primary campaign. But many will likely work their networks to raise additional money. In fact, Perry’s campaign is offering special perks to those who raise $50,000 or more.
And it’s a good bet that many of those bundlers will come from Texas, where, even if Perry’s presidential campaign fails, he’ll still be governor. “The smart campaign play is, we have to draw on those people that need us,” said a second GOP lobbyist who supports Perry. “The people in Texas, no matter what, will have to deal with Rick Perry.”
But Perry’s Washington supporters are by no means sitting on the sidelines. In fact, they’re aggressively courting the sizable universe of influential Republicans who have yet to back a candidate, as well as supporters of Tim Pawlenty, who are up for grabs now that the former Minnesota governor is out of the race.
“The relative bad news is that Perry comes into the race late, which means you have a compressed amount of time to get to your marks. The good news is that … he has such a large network of bundlers and other influentials who have not committed yet that are now available to Governor Perry,” said a third GOP lobbyist and supporter who, like the two other unnamed lobbyists who talked to National Journal, requested anonymity to speak candidly.
Van Dongen, president of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors, said the Washington organizational effort is in its “very earliest stages” and predicted, “In time, he will have a very respectable D.C. team.”
Perry supporters said they expect the candidate to hold his first Washington fundraiser sometime in September and that the campaign will be able to raise a total of between $2 million and $4 million on K Street by year's end.