AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Gov. Rick Perry has quietly replenished his depleted campaign war chest since he abandoned his presidential bid in January, fueling speculation that the longest-serving governor in Texas history will seek yet another term in 2014.
Perry raised $1.9 million from the start of the year through June — convincing donors to keep writing big checks even after a series of gaffes during his White House run left his political future looking murky.
His political committee, Texans for Rick Perry, now has about $3.3 million cash-on-hand. This exceeds the $2.9 million he had midway through 2008, two years before he waged a nasty but successful battle during the Republican gubernatorial primary against U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, then bested Democrat Bill White in the general election.
"He must be raising a lot of money for something," said Scott Caven, a Houston banker who was finance director for Perry's gubernatorial campaigns in 2002 and 2006 but later resigned because he didn't agree with the governor's decision to seek a third full term.
Already America's longest-sitting governor, the 64-year-old Perry has been in office since George W. Bush left for the White House in December 2000. He has not officially announced he will run again. But those who have attended Perry fundraisers say he's been assuring donors for months that he will. Some believe him; others say the governor is simply rattling his political sabers.
That's because it has been a rough year for Perry, who just 12 months ago was the toast of conservatives everywhere when he strapped on his signature cowboy boots, strode into the Republican presidential race and became an almost overnight front-runner. His campaign flamed out with almost equal speed, however, free-falling after Perry muttering "oops" during a November debate, when he couldn't remember the third federal agency he promised to eliminate if elected.
Back in Texas, Perry campaigned for Lt. Gov. Dewhurst, who poured more than $20 million of his own money into a Republican primary battle for the U.S. Senate with tea party favorite and former Solicitor General Ted Cruz. Dewhurst lost by 13 percentage points during last month's runoff, raising questions about whether the state has now moved too far to the right for Perry and the rest of the Texas GOP establishment.
Asked if Perry is no longer conservative enough for tea party activists — and if that could hurt his fundraising efforts — Perry spokeswoman Catherine Frazier said simply, "No and no."
Frazier added Sunday that Perry "continues to show strong fundraising, and Texans recognize that he has been a leader in tackling the issues most important to conservatives."
As further proof the governor still considers himself a future political force, he has also refused to rule out making another run at the White House in 2016 — though his doing so will depend heavily on whether President Barack Obama is re-elected or unseated by presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
Texans for Public Justice, a state campaign finance watchdog group that frequently clashes with the governor, has long dubbed Perry the top fundraiser in Texas politics. The group said he remains so despite his stumbles in the presidential race and with Dewhurst.
"There's a Perry machine in this state that reflects his unprecedented longevity," said research director Andrew Wheat. "He has the power and money flows to power."
Still, the governor is not the only one stockpiling campaign cash. Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott is widely believed to have gubernatorial aspirations, though he has also been seen as willing to wait for Perry to step aside before running.
Abbott raised $3 million during the first six months of the year, bringing his campaign funds to an impressive $14.5 million. He also has strong statewide name recognition, helping Texas sue the federal government 21 times since Obama took office.
But Eric Bearse, an Abbott spokesman and a former top Perry aide, said the attorney general isn't worrying about his political future yet.
"The only thing that we're focused on is maintaining a close, cordial relationship with the governor," he said.
"They have been friends for a long time. They work closely together and will continue to do so."
Perry has a lot of ground to make up if he wants to catch Abbott in fundraising — but the governor has proven to be a master at raising money. He raked in more than $17 million in donations during his first seven weeks running for president, though he also saw his donations dwindle after a series of gaffes, including his "oops" moment.
Perry's biggest donors in the first six months of the year were many of his old standbys. Houston homebuilder Bob Perry, who is not related to the governor, has long been his No. 1 contributor and gave $100,000. Another longtime Perry backer, Dallas business magnate Harold Simmons, contributed $25,000.
But both also gave to Abbott this year, with Bob Perry donating $50,000 and Simmons giving $250,000. The donations reflect how close the potential gubernatorial rivals are politically and ideologically.
"You don't see a lot of policy divisions," Wheat said. "Bob Perry and Simmons, they've been giving to both of those guys for a decade, and by the bushel."