The primary of the wealthy is underway.
It’s conducted almost entirely behind closed doors. No one holds public rallies or runs ads. Instead, potential candidates are courting the wealthy who can make the first crucial decision of whether a candidate should run for the White House.
Former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida and former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts are already eagerly campaigning for the support of the people who’d finance their campaigns for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination – or freeze them out.
Romney made his first pitch to wealthy donors in the New York office of an NFL owner. Bush also huddled with potential financial backers last week in New York, and reportedly will head to Washington next week to woo lobbyists and other potential donors.
Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey is reportedly about to bring on a top-level Republican fundraiser. Others have teams that have helped them or their families for years, including Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.
They want the backing of people such as Barry Wynn of South Carolina, a prominent Republican in a key early primary state. He’s a corporate executive and former state party chairman, and he’s helped the presidential bids of George H.W. Bush and his son, as well as Romney.
He planned to meet with Christie on Wednesday. Last year, he helped organize a South Carolina fundraiser for Gov. Nikki Haley, and Perry, Walker and Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana – all prospective 2016 candidates – showed up.
So far, he’s largely torn between Bush and Romney.
“No one really wants to choose between them,” Wynn said. But he also noted that “there’s a collection of people out there who want to turn the page and go with someone like Rubio.” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is also in the 2016 mix.
The outcome of this intense battle likely will shape the Republican presidential-nominating race when ordinary voters start casting ballots in a year.
“There’s a fixed amount of money out there, and money means momentum,” said South Carolina Republican Chairman Matt Moore.
It’s a tough and savvy audience. They want to know what federal policy will mean for their interests. They like to go with winners. And they usually know and have long-standing relationships with the candidates.
“It can come down to personal relationships,” said Brian Ballard, a Florida lobbyist and Romney state finance co-chair in 2012.
While Ballard thought Romney would be “an outstanding president,” he also had lavish praise for Bush, whom he’s known for 25 years.
Wooing this audience demands patience and gentle persuasion. Bush hosted an intimate dinner for a handful of insiders in New York and plans more efforts in Washington. He plans to hold two meetings Tuesday with lobbyists, the CEOs of trade and business associations, and others, Politico reported.
Romney had a New York session last week for about 30 people, and he’s making a hastily arranged visit to the Republican National Committee meeting Friday night in Coronado, Calif.
They’re after a pool of power players who are coveted not only for their connections and personal wealth, but also for what they can bundle from employees and others.
“You’re looking for support from a finite number of people,” said former Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo., a Romney intimate who’s been making and getting calls.
Traditionally, candidates woo money people in five states with most of the wealthiest donors: California, Connecticut, Florida, New York and Texas.
With Bush and Rubio in Florida, and Perry and Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas, the biggest money in those states may well be spoken for.
Christie is close to Wall Street interests, and Ray Washburne, outgoing RNC national financial chairman, will reportedly join his team.
Romney, who co-founded the Bain Capital investment firm, relied heavily last time on his New York ties. Employees or others associated with Goldman Sachs were his most generous donors, giving an estimated $1 million.
Overall, the support of the people with money or access to money will be invaluable for two big reasons. The more people give, the more the candidate can claim a juggernaut and intimidate others from staying in or joining the race. In 2011, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty was a serious candidate who dropped out that August. Among things, he said, “I don’t have a big national financial network.”
In 1999, Elizabeth Dole, who thought she did have a network, found she couldn’t match the resources of George W. Bush and left the race in October, before the voters started weighing in.
Big money’s other advantage is giving a candidate the ability to run early ads that help define him or her and to fund a grass-roots organization crucial to the primaries and caucuses.
Before committing to anyone, the donors want to see who can effectively raise money. “That’s a big factor,” said David Wilkins, a Greenville, S.C.-based attorney who was the ambassador to Canada during the George W. Bush administration. “If you prove to be a strong candidate, you’ll have that ability.”
Bush had a head start, declaring his intention to explore a run nearly a month before Romney got serious last Friday. Christie is just beginning to make his moves. Perry and others are expected to follow quickly.
The insiders listen and wait. And a lot think like Wynn, who said, “I’d rather just have Bush and Romney go into a room and figure this out.”