Editor's note: Sheila Krumholz is the executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research group that tracks money, politics and influence in Washington. Michael Beckel is a spokesman on the center's communications staff.
(CNN) -- On Monday night at the CNN/Tea Party Republican Debate in Tampa, Florida, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas suggested that he couldn't be bought for a campaign contribution of $5,000. That raises the question: Is there a price at which Perry's loyalty is for sale?
During the debate, House Tea Party Caucus founder and fellow presidential hopeful Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minnesota, alleged that campaign cash and connections to a major drug company played a pivotal role in Perry's executive order in February 2007 that mandated teenaged girls in Texas be inoculated against HPV, a virus that can cause cervical cancer. (The order was overturned by the legislature two months later and did not go into effect.)
"The company was Merck, and it was a $5,000 contribution that I had received from them," Perry responded. "I raise about $30 million. And if you're saying that I can be bought for $5,000, I'm offended."
But Merck's ties to Perry run much deeper than one $5,000 check.
Merck has given $28,500 to Perry's gubernatorial campaigns since January 2001, according to a new report by Texans for Public Justice, a political watchdog group, which uses data from the Center for Responsive Politics.
And since January 2006, Merck has given an additional $377,500 to the Republican Governors Association, which, in turn, was one of the largest backers of Perry's own campaigns. Notably, Perry also served as the chairman of the governors association in 2008 and again this year, until last month, when Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell succeeded him, so that Perry could pursue his presidential run.
Perhaps more importantly, Perry's friend, former chief of staff Mike Toomey, spun through the revolving door to become a lobbyist for Merck in Texas, a position he held at the time of the HPV-related executive order.
Merck was the first company to offer an FDA-approved HPV vaccine, which it offers under the brand name Gardasil.
In 2009, the FDA also approved the drug Cervarix, made by GlaxoSmithKline, which, for its part, has given about the same amount of money as Merck to Perry's gubernatorial campaigns since 2001 and nearly four times as much as Merck to the Republican Governors Association since 2006.
In fact, three other pharmaceutical companies have given more money to Perry than Merck and substantially more money to the Republican Governors Association than Merck.
The absence of attention-grabbing headlines does not signify that these companies expect nothing in exchange for their investments. To the contrary, it is their fiduciary obligation to return a profit to their shareholders. Bankrolling politicians -- Republican and Democrat -- is just another tool to help them meet their goals and, in so doing, bolster their profits. If anything, money spent on political donations and lobbying holds more sway when it is unexamined.
Perry's ties to Merck have made it into the sunlight, and people are now considering his actions in light of their past ties.
Is this an example of "crony capitalism?" That's not for the Center for Responsive Politics to decide. It's the public's job to decide if the money outweighed the merits in this policy decision, but it needs to have all of the facts in hand to do so.
Furthermore, Perry's actions benefiting donors from the pharmaceutical industry don't appear to stop with Merck.
For instance, drug-maker Novartis Pharmaceuticals has also contributed handsomely to the Republican Governors Association and it has also benefited from Perry's support.
Novartis has donated $700,000 to the RGA since January 2006, although it has only directly donated $5,000 to Perry's own campaign. In 2009, Perry signed a bill into law mandating meningitis vaccines for all college students, a requirement he expanded again earlier this year. Novartis was not the only pharmaceutical company to benefit from the new requirement, but its Manveo vaccine, introduced less than a year later, fit the bill.
As for Toomey, his involvement with Perry doesn't end with the HPV vaccine.
Earlier this summer, lobbyist Toomey co-founded a super PAC known as Make Us Great Again to aid Perry's presidential run. According to NBC News, Toomey's super PAC plans to spend a staggering $55 million to help his man win the GOP nomination.
If Make Us Great Again does spend more tens of millions to help Perry secure the Republican presidential nomination, what might Toomey and his clients be owed in return? What might the donors to Make Us Great Again be expecting a President Perry to deliver?
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Sheila Krumholz and Michael Beckel.