Texans have elected Rick Perry governor three times — with almost 55 percent of the vote in 2010 — but that does not mean Texas’ Republican establishment is falling in line to help elect him president.
Some prominent Texas business executives, Republican members of the state’s Congressional delegation and even university regents whom Perry appointed have lent their money — if not their endorsements — to other Republican contenders, most notably former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
It is a risky endeavor. Whether Perry makes it to the White House or comes back to the governor’s office, he will wield legislative power, political influence and a veto pen.
“It’s a risk you run when you work against somebody,” said Bill Miller, an Austin-based lobbyist and political consultant, who said some high-dollar donors to U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s failed 2010 run for Texas governor are still writing big checks to Perry to apologize. “If you guess wrong, there’s always a price.”
Among the prominent Texans who have formally endorsed Gingrich are U.S. Reps. Michael Burgess of Lewisville and Joe Barton of Arlington, both Republicans.
Louie Gohmert, a Republican congressman from Tyler, has not endorsed a Republican candidate but has contributed to Congresswoman Michele Bachmann of Minnesota — and, as of the end of September, had not reported any contributions to Perry.
Romney’s endorsements include those of Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio; former Chief Justice Tom Phillips of the Texas Supreme Court; and Scott Caven, a former University of Texas System regent who once served as Perry’s finance chairman and has contributed more than $18,000 to his re-election bids for governor in the last decade.
Smith declined to speak with The Texas Tribune, but he said in a statement that he had committed to Romney three months before Perry announced his candidacy. Caven said his support for Romney shouldn't be taken as an "anti-Perry endorsement." Still, while Perry has been "a good governor for Texas," Caven said, being president takes "a different set of skills."
In the current election cycle, Romney has received campaign contributions in Texas from John Barnhill and Janiece Longoria, former University of Texas System regents; Bob Perry, a billionaire homebuilder; Larry Kellner, the former Continental Airlines chief executive; and Mayor Mike Rawlings of Dallas, none of whom reported contributions to the Texas governor in the first 48 days of his presidential campaign.
Kellner, who has contributed $25,000 to Perry in past elections, said in an e-mail that Romney “is the right leader for the country in these challenging economic times.”
Rawlings said through a spokeswoman that his contribution should not be seen as an endorsement of Romney, and that he made it at the request of his business partner, who is Romney’s co-chairman for finance in Texas.
A spokesman for Bob Perry (no relation to Rick Perry) — who has given Perry’s campaigns for governor more than $2.5 million over the last decade — did not respond to questions about whether he endorses Romney.
Meanwhile, the Dallas real estate magnate Harlan Crow has helped finance the presidential bid of former Gov. Jon Huntsman of Utah, despite having given more than $142,000 to Perry’s past bids for governor. John Mackey, the chief executive of Whole Foods, based in Austin, has contributed to the long-shot campaign of former Gov. Gary Johnson of New Mexico, a libertarian.
In separate interviews, Burgess and Barton, both of whom say they had decided to endorse Gingrich before Perry entered the race, said they do not believe that Perry is the best-qualified Republican candidate.
Barton said the governor assured him last spring that he had no interest in running for president. He said Perry is “not quite as well prepared to step into the no. 1 office right off the bat” as Gingrich, but that he thinks Perry could “get there” quickly.
Burgess, who acknowledged he “got on the other side” of Perry last year by endorsing Hutchison for governor, said he personally asked Gingrich to run in late 2009.
Burgess said he patched up “a lot of the hurt feelings” with Perry last spring. But the governor “did not convey to members of the Texas delegation that he was thinking about doing this,” Burgess said. “Rick never came up here and said, ‘I’ve got to have you guys.’”
Miller, the political consultant, said support for Perry’s bid in Texas, while widespread, has a far different feel from George W. Bush’s first presidential race. To campaign for Bush, then the Texas governor, state lawmakers and Austin lobbyists routinely traveled to primary states at their own expense, he said — some of them Democrats.
“Everyone was saying, ‘Have you been to Michigan? To New Hampshire?’ There was a cool factor,” Miller said.
But the risks of opposing the sitting governor were great then, too. When state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, campaigned against Bush in his first presidential bid, it was unusual — Coleman and Bush were friends, and some of Coleman’s fellow Democrats were on the trail supporting Bush.
Coleman was bullied. Lawmakers warned him he was endangering a good political career. They told him he had a target on his back. He worried his bills would get vetoed, but he was not deterred.
“I thought it was better that we keep him here than send him to the White House, where he could do more harm,” he said.
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