Conservative donor Bob Perry gives big to Pawlenty, Romney — and Rick Perry

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Super donor Bob Perry, owner of Perry Homes

Bob Perry website

One of the most prolific Republican money men, Bob Perry has played a critical financial role in elections from Houston mayor to the presidency. For the 2012 cycle, the conservative Texas home builder started giving early and often — and is hedging his bets in the wide-open GOP presidential primary.

Perry is one of the major backers for Restore our Future, a Mitt Romney aligned “Super PAC” that raised more than $12 million through the first six months of 2011, according to a filing Sunday with the Federal Election Commission. Perry donated $500,000 to the committee.

Romney isn’t the only presidential contender to benefit from Perry’s largesse. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty received $60,000 last September from Perry and his wife, and in 2006 Perry was instrumental in aiding Pawlenty’s gubernatorial campaign by helping flood Minnesota with attack ads in the final days of a tight race.

Perry has also been a major financial supporter for Texas Gov. Rick Perry (no relation), having kicked in an estimated $2.5 million over the last decade to his campaigns. Speculation that Rick Perry will enter the 2012 presidential race has picked up steam over the past month—as well as what happens to Bob Perry’s support of Romney and Pawlenty if the governor throw his gallon-sized hat into the ring. (The AP has reported that Rick Perry will decide by the end of August.)

“Without Bob Perry, there would be no Rick Perry,” says Andy Wilson, a Texas-based campaign finance analyst for Public Citizen.

Make no mistake: Bob Perry is a contributor who campaigns will fight for. The Texas Tribune estimated Perry has given at least $38 million to national candidates and groups since the start of 2000. That’s in addition to the $28 million he has funneled into statewide races in his native Texas. Perry, whose fortune comes from his construction firm Perry Homes, has at times defied the conservative orthodoxy — he recently hired a Texas lobbyist to help kill a bill supported by Gov. Perry that would restrict immigration in Texas and has occasionally given to Democrats in state races— but the candidates he supports all share similar qualities. They tend to be pro-business and in favor of limited government. Tort reform is a particularly important issue for Perry, who has used his influence to make it almost impossible to bring lawsuits over homes bought in Texas.

Wilson describes Perry as a savvy donor. When Perry breaks with Republican orthodoxy, Wilson believes it’s only because he’s “thinking about his bottom line, and about what is good for Bob Perry and Perry Homes.”

“He’s very, very strategic in who he gives to,” says Wilson.

Other experts agree that Perry is a knowledgeable donor, who puts the ability to win above the party line. Perry “thrives on the idea that he has shaped the results” of the country, says Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University.

Famously media shy, Perry routinely declines to comment on stories about himself, his company or his politics. Even Fred Malek, a longtime ally of both Bush presidents who hailed from Texas, said he has never met Perry personally. Malek praised Perry as “a most generous contributor for all the right reasons—his core belief in center right principles.”

Perry Spokesman Anthony Holm declined to comment for this story. But Perry’s official bio emphasizes his working class background and charity work, including the funding of an orphanage in Mexico. While it makes no mention of political activities, it does offer a paragraph outlining his beliefs, which includes “promoting free markets, strengthening our domestic security, and promoting tax relief.” At the same time, he continues his breach with Republican orthodoxy by describing himself as an “advocate for affirmative action.” His website, designed by a Russian firm, features only his bio and picture.

Patron of Outside Groups

Despite early expectations, the Romney campaign raised only $18 million in the second quarter of 2011. That amount is the most of any Republican candidate, but far below the stunning $86 million raised by the Obama campaign. However, the $12 million revealed by Restore Our Future lends credence to speculation that major donors like Perry are giving to outside groups this cycle to help bolster their candidate of choice.

Perry is no stranger to outside committees. Over the past decade he has made a habit of funneling cash to outside groups towards the end of election cycles. If the donation comes in close enough to Election Day, the disclosure of donors doesn’t occur until after the votes have already been cast. That’s a big plus for someone like Perry, according to Jillson.

“Given his personality and his approach to the world,” Jillson says, “[Perry] wants his major contributions to come after the reporting period if at all possible.”

Additionally, Jillson says, these groups appeal to Perry because they are a more “efficient way, a wholesale rather than retail way to influence the outcome of the election.”

Certainly, Perry has made good use of these outside groups. He is perhaps most famous for providing $4.45 million to fund the Swift Boats Veterans for Truth PAC during the 2004 presidential race between incumbent George W. Bush and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry. The Swift Boat ads, which played a role in defeating Kerry, accused the Vietnam veteran of lying about his service and betraying fellow veterans with accusations of war crimes. They also questioned the validity of the service medals awarded to him, including his Purple Heart.

While the Swift Boat Vets may be his most famous involvement in outside groups, it was hardly his last. The Center for Responsive Politics says Perry donated $9.7 million to so-called “527” political groups in 2006; during the 2008 elections, he was a major funder for the conservative Club for Growth, which was active in a variety of races.

During the 2010 election cycle he kicked in $7 million for the Karl Rove-led American Crossroads, making him the single largest publicly disclosed donor to Crossroads. Perry has continued that support this cycle, having already donated $500,000 to Crossroads since the start of the year. Rove and Perry go way back to when Perry was finance chairman for a 1986 Texas gubernatorial race that Rove was managing. Crossroads, which doesn’t discuss its donors, declined to comment for this piece.

And his 2006 work on behalf of Pawlenty, funneled through an outside group called A Stronger America, was so controversial that it caused the Minnesota legislature to revise campaign finance laws for the state.

Bob Perry has also used the official Republican Party apparatus to help out candidates he supports. In the closing days of the 2006 election, Perry donated $1 million to the Republican Governors Association, which was quickly followed by a $1 million donation from the RGA to Texas Gov. Rick Perry. A judge later ruled the move a violation of state law; Perry settled for over $400,000 with Democratic challenger Chris Bell. That didn’t deter Bob Perry from donating to the RGA again at the end of the 2010 cycle; the group was the recipient of $3.5 million from the home builder.

So what happens if Rick Perry enters the race? Both Wilson and Jillson believe that the Texan governor could count on support from his longtime patron, but that it might not be exclusive. “I think that Bob Perry would clearly put his weight behind a Gov. Perry campaign, but he is a very wealthy man who wants any door he may need to walk through to open automatically,” says Jillson, who expects that Perry may continue to give “friendly contributions” to other candidates.

In the end, Wilson of Public Citizen adds, it all comes back to who can win. “I won’t deign to know exactly what goes on in Bob Perry’s head, but he likes to pick winners.”

And regardless of the presidential race, Perry is likely to contribute to many other political causes. In particular, the fact the U.S. Senate is in play “would be an intriguing prospect for him,” says Jillson.

Outside groups are expected to play a major role in the 2012 election in the wake of last year’s Citizens United case, which legalized unlimited corporate, union and individual spending on ads and other campaign tools that directly advocate for a candidate. So called “Super PACs” are free to raise and spend as much money as they would like, avoiding fundraising limits that are placed on political campaign committees. While Super PACs cannot directly coordinate with a campaign about how to spend their money, a new loophole authorized by the FEC allows the candidate to raise up to $5,000 per year from a contributor.

Reporter Peter Stone contributed to this story.

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