Texas Gov. Rick Perry, whose bid for the White House depends heavily on support from religious conservatives, finds himself confronting an issue that is a flash point for that part of his base: his attempt to order schoolgirls to receive a vaccine that would protect them against a sexually transmitted virus.
The vaccine is aimed at shielding girls from human papillomavirus (HPV), a common sexual infection that can lead to cervical cancer. Federal health officials say they are confident that the vaccine is safe, noting that more than 35 million doses have been administered in the United States with no pattern of serious side effects.
Perry bristled Monday night at accusations from his chief rival for tea party voters, Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), that he had pushed the vaccine in 2007 at the bidding of Merck, which employed a former aide to the governor as a lobbyist.
“It was a $5,000 contribution that I had received from them,” Perry said. “I raise about $30 million. And if you’re saying that I can be bought for $5,000, I’m offended.”
But campaign disclosure records portray a much deeper financial connection with Merck than Perry’s remarks suggest.
His gubernatorial campaigns, for example, have received nearly $30,000 from the drugmaker since 2000, most of that before he issued his vaccine mandate, which was overturned by the Texas legislature.
Perry served as chairman of the RGA in 2008 and again this year, until he decided to run for president. The group ranks among the governor’s biggest donors, giving his campaign at least $4 million over the past five years, according to Texans for Public Justice, a watchdog group.
“It’s very clear that crony capitalism could likely have been the cause” of Perry’s decision to issue the vaccine order, Bachmann said Tuesday on NBC’s “Today” show, alleging that the drug may be “dangerous” for young girls. Former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who until now has been generally supportive of Perry in public remarks, joined in the criticism.
A balancing act
The issue illustrates the difficult balancing act that Perry is attempting to perform in appealing to both the business and evangelical Christian wings of the Republican Party, a tightrope that he has walked for much of his political career. The governor is scheduled to travel to Liberty University in Virginia on Wednesday in his continuing bid to court religious conservatives.
The vaccine episode also underscores the close ties between Perry and his largest donors, many of whom have given millions of dollars to his campaigns and the RGA. In a report released Tuesday, Texans for Public Justice said that 32 percent of the $217 million collected at the RGA during the past five years, when Perry held several leadership roles with the group, came from 139 donors to his gubernatorial campaigns.