Days after U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, launched his presidential bid in March, he swooped in on his hometown of Houston and raked in hundreds of thousands of dollars during a fundraiser just across the highway from his campaign headquarters.
Meanwhile, another Texas Republican with presidential ambitions — former Gov. Rick Perry — held his own fundraiser that evening just a mile away, walking distance for those interested in dropping in on both.
It was not the only time this year two White House hopefuls descended upon the same Texas city to raise money, and it probably will not be the last. But it was one of the more acute signs of a new reality for Perry, who will enter the 2016 race Thursday vying for campaign cash in a crowded field with strong pull among Texas' deep-pocketed donors.
"My goodness, I think it's much more fierce than it's ever been," said Fred Zeidman, a major Houston fundraiser with ties to a number of GOP hopefuls, including Perry. "We’re still the low-hanging fruit, and you’ve got 20 candidates chasing Texas money now instead of two or three candidates."
The big question, according to those watching Perry ramp up, is where the mad dash for Texas cash leaves the state's longest-serving governor, especially given his diminished stature in the 2016 race compared to his last run. He is polling in the low single digits in the early-voting states, and recent national surveys suggest he may not even make the cut for the first primary debate in August.
His supporters nonetheless see a path forward — and a well-funded one, to boot.
"Last cycle, we had a great advantage. He was the sitting governor ... and there wasn't any more competition, but having said all that, I think he's going to be totally funded to the extent he needs to be" for 2016, said Roy Bailey, a Dallas insurance executive who served on Perry's national finance team for 2012. "He literally has so many friends all over this state, and they're going to want to help him."
Perry has long maintained he is not sweating the money race, while those close to him have carefully managed expectations, aware of the stark differences between 2012 and 2016. Few of his allies dispute the notion that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is rumored to already have raised more than $100 million, has made serious inroads in Texas, the home of his brother and father — both former presidents. And they have taken note of Cruz's expectations-busting fundraising, with his campaign raking in more than $4.3 million in its first nine days and a network of pro-Cruz super PACs claiming an eye-popping $31 million haul in their first week.
"Are we going to raise more than anybody? No. But the presidency's not something that's for sale. It's about people's ideas," Perry told a New Hampshire TV station earlier this month, responding to reports his fundraising was lagging.
Little will be known for sure about Perry's recent fundraising abilities until late summer, when his likely campaign and a super PAC supporting him will have to disclose their finances. RickPAC, a pro-Perry leadership PAC launched last year that is laying the groundwork for his 2016 run, raised a relatively modest $300,000 during the second half of last year, according to federal records.
Like many aspects of his impending 2016 campaign, Perry has gone about fundraising perhaps more methodically than he did for 2012. He made sure some of the country's top Republican donors were in the mix at legacy-stamping dinners he had at the Governor's Mansion last year. And back in February, he sought to mark his territory with the release of a list of dozens of prominent GOP donors who were apparently backing him.
Perry's supporters were quick to note the geographic diversity of the so-called RickPAC Advisory Board, a point of comparison to the 2012 race, when nearly three-fifths of the money his campaign raised came from his home state. Since then, Perry has been especially helped in California by likely 2016 campaign manager Jeff Miller, a respected GOP fundraiser who ran Perry's Golden State campaign for 2012.
But whether it is Texas or elsewhere, Perry is facing a challenge not unique to him: Some Republican donors are simply sitting on the sidelines until their party's field fully takes shape. The trend extends to even some members of Perry's advisory board, such as New York PR guru Bob Dilenschneider, who had nothing but praise for the former governor Thursday but said he does not plan to give to him unless he is the nominee.
"A lot of the donors are holding back," said Frank Visco, a California insurance executive who is behind Perry. "They’re taking a wait-and-see attitude because there are so many candidates out there."
"Let's see who gets the momentum," donors are saying, according to Visco, a former chairman of the California GOP.
To be sure, Perry has not forgotten about Texas. He barnstormed the state in late March and early April, holding nine fundraisers in seven cities with the help of billionaire hosts such as Houston auto distributor Dan Friedkin, San Antonio car dealer Red McCombs and Dallas pipeline tycoon Kelcy Warren.
Yet even as they pitch in for Perry, some of the biggest GOP donors in Texas are still keeping their options open, a trend Zeidman likened to "buying seats at a bunch of tables." McCombs, for example, also has hosted a fundraiser for Cruz, and in recent weeks has said he has not yet settled on a single candidate.
Other heavyweight contributors in the Lone Star State already have made their pick — and it is not the former governor. Dallas fracking pioneer Trevor Rees-Jones donated $100,000 to a super PAC that backed Perry in 2011 but is now committed to Bush, serving on his so-called "Texas Leadership Committee."
"Out of all this, I think it’s going to be very difficult for Gov. Perry to raise a lot of money," said Jim Francis, a Dallas businessman who advises Rees-Jones. "Can he raise some money? I think he can."
Perry's backers do not necessarily bristle at that kind of characterization, again arguing Perry will be financially competitive but certainly not in contention for the No. 1 spot. If he were Perry, Bailey said, "the race starts in Iowa, and I just want enough money to go get the job done in Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire."
Perry is scheduled to formally begin that quest Thursday in Addison, where he will be surrounded by prominent veterans in a nod to what he sees as one of his 2016 calling cards: his five years in the Air Force. It was that attribute that made one well-connected Texan reconsider her 2016 choice. Judith DuBose, a former bundler for Mitt Romney, said she was leaning toward Cruz before Perry began talking up his military experience.
"They both have very equal fundraising capacity, but the one edge with Gov. Perry is he's military, and we have a lot of military people in this country," said DuBose, an Army widow who attended one of the dinners Perry held at the Governor's Mansion. "That's where Rick Perry's going to bring in more support."
Disclosure: Fred Zeidman and Red McCombs are major donors to The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.