WASHINGTON — Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the GOP presidential front-runner, may be leading the pack in the money game as well, as a new "super PAC" supporting him gears up to raise $55 million or more — a potential game changer for the 2012 race.
The new pro-Perry political action committee, Make Us Great Again, is one of the emerging "super PACs" that started springing up after last year's groundbreaking Supreme Court ruling in Citizen's United v. FEC, which allowed unlimited cash from individuals and corporations for PACs that are separate from a candidate's campaign.
"These are new vehicles for vast sums of money," said Bill Miller, an Austin, Texas, political consultant to Republicans and Democrats who is not affiliated with Perry. "It's a new day in campaign finance. They're going to play an incredible role."
The Make Us Great Again PAC promises to set a new pace, flooding Iowa and other early voting states with ads.
"Super PACs can make or break a presidential candidate," said Virginia-based GOP consultant Tom Edmonds. "The incredible amount of money they can raise and spend has incredible influence."
A pro-Perry PAC spokesman, Jason Miller, confirmed that "an early planning document" had set the $55 million figure, first reported by NBC News, but he declined to release any updated amount. "Fundraising is going very well and there's a lot of enthusiasm for Gov. Perry," he said.
Mark McKinnon, a Texas consultant who worked with former President George W. Bush, said, "It ain't chump change. And I suspect every penny will be used to attack Romney." Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is Perry's closest rival.
The committees by law may not coordinate with a candidate's campaign. But the Perry super PAC has some built-in radar: It's led by Austin lobbyist Mike Toomey, a former Perry chief of staff, who is in tune with his former boss's thinking. Toomey recently got some national attention in the GOP debate for his role representing Merck, the maker of the Gardasil vaccine for human papillomavirus that Perry ordered all Texas young girls to be inoculated with. The Texas legislature overruled Perry's order.
The super PAC for Perry is likely to amplify charges that the Texas governor is too close to moneyed interests as part of Austin's pay-to-play political culture, where lucrative government contracts often are awarded to those who've made big campaign contributions. Perry himself became a millionaire while serving in relatively low-paying government posts over the past 20 years by making lucrative investments that benefitted from his connections to special interests with business before the state government. This week both Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin have challenged Perry for being ensnared in what they called "crony capitalism."
At the Perry campaign, political adviser David Carney said, "I have no clue what any other entity is doing, fundraising or otherwise. I don't believe everything I read. We are working hard to build our campaign team on all fronts: finance, political, organizational, and operations. Time will tell if we ever catch up with our competitors, who in some cases have been running for months if not years."
Federal rules for campaign fundraising outside of the super PACs limit individual contributions to $2,500 per election cycle, making the non-affiliated committees an easier way to raise large sums.
"The sky is absolutely the limit," said Michael Beckel, spokesman at the Center for Responsive Politics, whose website, opensecrets.org, tracks political money. "This is the first election cycle where super PACs will be used by any presidential candidate." Already, the pro-Perry super PAC's projected $55 million fund is almost as much as the $63.5 million that all super PACs spent in the 2010 elections, according to opensecrets.org.
"The whole rise of super PACs is troubling," said Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, a watchdog group that questions how separate the new PACs will be from the campaigns they champion. "It allows corporate money into campaigns. It allows an entry point for special favors for donors."
Donors will be made public, but Miller said the pro-Perry PAC won't have to file its first report until January.
Perry is particularly adept at raising large sums of money because in Texas campaigns, individual contributions are unlimited. And as Texas' longest-serving governor, Perry raised nearly $100 million from 2001 through October 23, 2010, with nearly 50 percent of it coming from 193 mega-donors who gave him $100,000 or more.
Mississippi-based Perry fundraiser Henry Barbour, a nephew of Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, is raising money for the campaign, not the independent Make Us Great Again PAC. But he sees the new super PACs as powerful forces.
"You can do a lot with $55 million," said Barbour. "You're talking about having real impact in early states. It translates into helping promote the image of Gov. Perry or promoting the strengths of their candidate and expose the weaknesses of their opposition. It can be powerful if it's done right."
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