Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks at an event Aug. 9, 2013, in Chicago, Ill.
Photo by M. Spencer Green/AP

As Jeb dives in, focus turns to big-money donors

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s announcement this week that he will “actively explore the possibility” of running for president in 2016 has already put pressure on major donors, fundraisers and even other establishment GOPers who might run and would be vying for that same pool of mainstream cash. That list includes New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — who is seriously considering a bid for the nation’s highest office — and even Mitt Romney, the failed 2012 GOP nominee who has not closed the door on another bid.

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Political rainmakers like to pick a winner, and they like to pick a candidate early. The earlier a candidate jumps in, the thinking goes, the faster they can get commitments from donors and crowd out competitors. And there’s a big benefit to the donor who jumps in early and picks the right horse.

Bush almost certainly has this dynamic in mind. 

Bobbie Kilberg, a top GOP fundraiser and donor from northern Virginia, said Bush’s announcement “puts pressure on donors to make a decision before they had to. It also puts pressure on potential candidates to move up their timetable.”

She added, “Donors expected to have a nice quiet Christmas, and now this has really upped the ante.”

Kilberg declined to say who her top 2016 pick is. She has worked for Bush’s brother, former President George W. Bush and his father, President George H.W. Bush. In 2012, she raised money for Romney.

Robert O’Brien, a former senior adviser to Romney’s presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012, acknowledged some donors who supported the former Massachusetts governor in the past are likely jump on the Bush bandwagon. But, he said, “No matter how much Jeb Bush raises, Gov. Romney will not have any trouble raising the money he needs should he decide to run.”

O’Brien said he has gotten several emails from party activists and bundlers since the Bush news saying they hope his announcement “will energize [Romney] and perhaps move up his timetable.”

O’Brien added that just because Bush is seriously looking to run doesn’t mean Romney would pass the establishment mantle to him. “I think Mitt’s going to make a decision on if he thinks he is the best person in the country to be the president and not be influenced one way or the other by the matrix of candidates,” O’Brien said. 

Requests for comment from Romney and Christie were not returned.

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Romney, Christie and Bush have all shown that they have the capability to raise real money. Romney raised more than $1 billion in 2012, and his name proved to be a big draw when he stumped on behalf of GOP candidates in the midterm elections. Bush, of course, already has a vast fundraising infrastructure, thanks to the Bush family’s legacy and reach. And Christie – as head of the Republican Governors Association – proved to be a cash-raising dynamo, setting fundraising records as he successfully crisscrossed the country campaigning for midterm candidates. Christie seemingly already has one big supporter willing to back him: Ken Langone, the billionaire co-founder of Home Depot, who told CNBC earlier this month that he’s going to do “everything possible” to help Christie get the GOP nomination, should the governor decide to run.

Some big fundraisers don’t see the need to commit to any one candidate just yet, even with Bush’s announcement. Georgette Mosbacher, a GOP fundraiser who in the lead-up to 2012 hoped Christie would run but committed to Romney after Christie didn’t, said Bush, Romney and Christie will all have the funds they need to run in the primaries should they decide to. “I will wait to see what the field is before I make a commitment. There’s no big disadvantage to wait. At some point it does become a disadvantage, but not yet,” said Mosbacher, a former finance co-chair of the Republican National Committee.

Fred Malek, a big GOP donor and bundler who is now the finance of the Republican Governors Association, had a different take. “There are people that will immediately get behind Bush. There will others who will wait.” Malek said he didn’t think Bush’s news would affect candidates’ willingness to make a White House bid or hurt their ability to rake in cash.

“People are going to be influenced more about the capacity to compete…I think all of them are going to raise enough money through their networks to be competitive,” said Malek.

David Beightol, a Washington lobbyist and Romney donor and fundraiser, is debating between Bush and Romney. “I would be really surprised if both ran. I guess before I did anything publicly I would just check with the Mitt folks just to be safe,” Beightol said, adding that he “absolutely” stands ready to fundraise for Bush. 

Unlike the potential Democratic field – in which former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton holds frontrunner status—the nascent GOP field is much more crowded. According to the latest RealClearPolitics average of polling data surrounding the 2016 GOP nomination, Bush holds a slight lead with 15.2% support. Close behind are Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin with 10.8%, Christie with 10.4% and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, and Dr. Ben Carson – all tied with 9% each.

Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney and Money

As Jeb dives in, focus turns to big-money donors