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As Rick Perry Runs On Empty, Loose Campaign Finance Laws Keep Him Afloat

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The Rick Perry presidential campaign is running on empty. First he was bumped off last week's main debate stage by Ohio Governor John Kasich, then in the B Team debate, he was left in the dust by Carly Fiorina. And now, he has stopped paying campaign staff. According to a spokeswoman, only one staffer has quit, and she says the campaign remains optimistic that there is still a way forward for Perry. From member station KUT in Austin, Ben Philpott reports.

BEN PHILPOTT, BYLINE: I'm not trying to sugarcoat this - things definitely don't look good for Rick Perry. But history and the present state of campaign-finance rules do show a way for the longtime Texas governor to stay in the race. For history, we only have to go back to the summer of 2007, when John McCain stopped paying his staff months before the voting started. Jason Johnson is a political science professor at Hiram College in Ohio.

JASON JOHNSON: He was a prominent candidate in 2000, you know, he really gave Bush a run for his money. He was very, very popular. And then for somebody with his name, his recognition, his political history, to basically have to start dealing with volunteers in 2008, it was really shocking.

PHILPOTT: McCain, of course, went on to win the Republican nomination. Johnson says campaigns often operate by delaying payments or heavily relying on volunteers, and it wouldn't surprise him if other candidates with small bank accounts are already doing this.

JOHNSON: The truth is this happens a lot more often than we think. It's just, you don't hear about it.

PHILPOTT: Unless you're a one-time primary frontrunner, like Perry. So what about having no money? Sure, his campaign coffers are drying up, but he still has a super PAC that's raised $17 million. Matthew Dowd was chief strategist for President George W. Bush's re-election campaign in 2004. He says if this were just eight years ago, before campaign-finance laws were loosened by the courts, Perry would be done. But his super PAC can pay for ads, voter outreach and more to keep the campaign going. It just can't coordinate with the campaign.

MATTHEW DOWD: I mean it's problematic to not have enough money in your own campaign even with a super PAC. But with a super PAC, you can go on and survive much longer in this process than you otherwise would be normally.

PHILPOTT: Dowd says when the official campaign account is empty, super PAC money is like finding an extra oxygen canister on Mount Everest, but you have two broken legs. Sure, it'll keep you alive a little longer, but you're not going anywhere. For NPR News, I'm Ben Philpott in Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.