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2016 contenders battle for billionaire support

While voters won’t weigh in on candidates until the primaries next year, the race to court big donor support is growing more intense with each passing day.

Candidates beware: The billionaires are watching.

While voters won’t get to weigh in on candidates until the primaries begin next year, the race to court big donor support is growing more intense and visible with each passing day as contenders jostle for make-or-break support.

This weekend, casino magnate and pro-Israel hawk Sheldon Adelson will host a conference of the Republican Jewish Coalition at his Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas. Attendees include Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who announced his campaign earlier this month, as well as more prospective candidates in former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence.

One of the world’s richest men, Adelson spent upwards of $150 million on the 2012 election by some estimates and almost singlehandedly propped up Newt Gingrich’s primary campaign for a stretch by dropping millions into a super PAC supportive of his candidacy. 

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who has turned heads in the pro-Israel advocacy world with his vocal support for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and tough rhetoric on combatting Iran nuclear ambitions, has the inside edge for his support per a Politico report, but Adelson -- through a spokesman -- denied backing any one candidate yet. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush may have some issues to work through after one of his advisers, former secretary of state Jim Baker, criticized Netanyahu at an event held by center-left Israel advocacy group J Street. 

Thanks to a loose regulatory environment spurred by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and a cultural shift among the ultra-rich towards bigger donations, it’s a given that whoever wins the White House needs at least one billionaire BFF to bankroll outside support. While they can only give unlimited donations to outside super PACs and nonprofits and not candidates themselves, candidates-in-waiting like Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker are using these types of big money groups as their pre-campaign vehicles until they formally declare a run. 

RELATED: Jeb Bush: I’m not ‘auditioning’ for the Koch brothers

Outside groups backing declared candidates like Cruz and Rubio are already boasting jaw-dropping figures. While there are no financial reports yet, Cruz donors claim they have $31 million in support lined up, while Rubio backers threw out a $40 million estimate to Reuters. 

Meanwhile, the powerful donor network led by billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch are examining the field. AfterThe New York Times reported that David Koch told supporters he had settled on Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker as his candidate, the brothers followed up to assure that they had yet to endorse anyone. Politico reported that Bush is up for an “audition” as well, along with Sens. Rand Paul, Rubio, and Cruz, all of whom have cultivated relationships with the family over the years.

The Koch network is reportedly set to spend up to $900 million in the 2016 cycle.  

With so much money floating around, candidates’ presidential hopes could be made or broken by their ability to snag the right billionaire’s backing. Not surprisingly, they have a lot of nice things to say about them recently. “[The] Koch brothers’ organization is vast and broad and it’s an important part of any coalition to win the primary so I don’t view it as auditioning for sure, but my intention if I’m a candidate, I’ll reach out to every sector of our party for sure,” Bush told reporters on Thursday. 

Rubio participated in a press call with the Koch-backed Americans For Prosperity the same day to lend his support to their campaign to end the Export-Import Bank, which is up for renewal in Congress. During the call, Rubio warned that Hillary Clinton stood to raise heaps of cash from “established large industries ... who understand that they benefit from access to government” during the 2016 cycle. 

RELATED: Jeb Bush: Hillary Clinton 'will be held accountable'

Asked by a reporter about the prospect of a Koch endorsement, Rubio pivoted to declaring his “tremendous admiration” for the family and said they were “clearly aligned” on major economic issues. “I would love to earn their support, of course,” he said.

Earlier this week, Paul penned a glowing tribute to the Kochs for their inclusion in TIME’s 100 Most Influential People.

Brad Blakeman, a Republican strategist, predicted to msnbc that major Republican donors would be wary about committing to a candidate early in the race given the closely divided field. Many have preexisting relationships with multiple contenders and could dole out money to several acceptable candidates while waiting to see which one emerges as a frontrunner and which ones fizzles out. 

“Very few donors are being exclusive, they’re letting it play out,” Blakeman said. “It’s like a horse race or a craps table: You put money down on a number of entities, not big dollars necessarily. Then you wait for the field to dwindle and then you double down on your bet perhaps or move your chips around.”

Whichever Republican wins the primaries will face tough competition from the other side when the general election rolls around. Clinton is a prodigious fundraiser – there’s talk on the Democratic side of a $2.5 billion campaign, including outside support -- and will boast plenty of wealthy backers of her own.

Priorities USA, the Democratic group that backed Obama in 2012 and has pledged to support Clinton, has set a rough goal of raising $200 million to $300 million, according to people familiar with their plans. Progressive philanthropist Tom Steyer spent over $70 million targeting Republican candidates over their refusal to address climate change in the 2014 cycle and is poised to continue his efforts in 2016.