PARK CITY, Utah -- Are you a millionaire venture capitalist? Former commissioner of the NBA? Head of a major U.S. airline, or former CEO of a national retail chain?
Then please, step up and have a glass of wine with a Republican presidential candidate or six.
For the wealthy donors who bankrolled Mitt Romney's campaign, 2016 is up close and personal in a way that is out of reach for most Americans. Even in small states like Iowa and New Hampshire, the best most voters can hope for is a quick handshake or a selfie. Here, money and connections buy the kind of interaction usually reserved for close friends, family or colleagues: Late night cocktail hours, flag football games, meetings in hotel suites—all in addition to hearing each White House contender make a pitch for support and getting a chance to ask a question. Several would-be presidents lingered at the luxury Stein Ericksen Lodge for a day or more to try and woo wealthy donors, a rare and remarkable time commitment for any candidate or public official.
"The people in this room could affect the campaign. It takes millions and millions of dollars to run an effective campaign,” presidential candidate and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said in an interview. “You need investment, you need financial resources to go out and win a retail political contest."
For three days, about 250 of Romney’s friends, political and business associates took over the Stein, in the ski resort of Deer Valley, not far from where Romney has a home with his wife Ann. With more than a dozen Republican candidates capable of raising serious money, the gathering represented an opportunity for White House hopefuls to meet some of the country’s wealthiest people, all in the same place. Romney’s backers have a proven record of bundling small contributions—and many have the potential to give $1 million or more to the super PACs that will be more important in 2016 than ever before.
The candidates and donors circulated in the self-contained, five-star compound, with sprawling suites furnished with old ski lift chairs and private hot tubs, all arranged around a circular walkway that was constantly patrolled by young volunteers in suits and ID badges. During the gathering, outsiders were banned, even from the restaurant and shop spaces that are normally public.
The attendees arrived mostly in chauffeured cars or SUVs, a ring of black vehicles a constant presence in the circular driveway through the weekend. Most of the guests were personally greeted in the hotel lobby, handed pre-printed credentials and notebooks from the luxury Detroit retailer Shinola, emblazoned with Mitt Romney’s signature and the “E2” logo (it stands for “Experts and Enthusiasts”).
Thursday evening brought the welcome dinner on the deck overlooking the mountains. Democratic strategist David Axelrod—who was, with former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, one of the only high-profile attendees from the other side of the aisle—lectured the group on what Republicans needed to do to win the White House after eight years in exile. After dinner, guests enjoyed a lengthy cocktail hour, where presidential aspirants Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (with his wife, Tonette) and Graham all mingled into the night. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was away in Europe—but his son Jeb Jr. was on the Flagstaff Deck, making introductions.
The next morning? “Enthusiast” activities, each selected on a printed card handed out the day before; a lottery decided who got the chance to play flag football with Rubio in the early morning hours. Afterward, Rubio — still in his shorts and sneakers — sat with Mitt and Ann Romney and about six other donors for breakfast, though he slipped out to change before Walker came to the podium to address the wider room.
Walker—introduced by Anthony Scaramucci, a hedge fund manager and finance co-chair for Romney's 2012 presidential bid—opened with stories about growing up a town over from Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, a favorite son of the Romney crowd; he also mentioned Romney’s father, George, and lamented the election result in 2012.
“Mitt, you were so right in the debates and before that about how off-kilter this president was,” he said.
After breakfast, the proceedings moved upstairs to a ballroom set up with tiers of tables, each person sitting behind large, pre-printed name cards. Rubio (introduced by Wayne Berman, the Blackstone venture capitalist) was the next candidate up.
“Apparently, we were playing flag football this morning and there was a drone,” he began. “As it turns out, the drone belonged to American Bridge” — the Democratic tracking firm. Several attendees looked at each other in horror.
“This is a joke, guys,” Rubio said, and the room broke into laughter.
The program continued with speeches from the former CEOs of Walmart and eBay, then moved into a session with the president of the NCAA and former NBA Commissioner David Stern. (All were closed to the press.) Next up was Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who had spent much of the morning wandering the resort grounds, doing TV interviews and chatting with almost anyone he happened to run into.
After a break for lunch, it was time to hear from Graham and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
"You all are going to help to make the difference here. You all are going to decide whether we’re going to have a chance to win or whether we’re not. You’re going to help to move the needle,” Christie told them.
The gathering was winding down by Saturday morning, when about 20 or so attendees—including Katie Couric—boarded buses for the Kamas Valley Lions Gun Club, where Graham was holding a skeet shoot.
“That was a hard left, that was Elizabeth Warren right there!” one attendee said when he hit a clay pigeon that had taken a sharp turn to the left.
“Alright, do a Bernie Sanders!” Graham said, firing his shotgun. The pigeon splintered. “Hey!” he shouted. “Sorry about that, Bernie!”
Back at the resort, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, was the final candidate to speak. She was introduced by the chairman of JetBlue airlines, and she opened her remarks by asking for a show of hands: Who in attendance had managed to make it to the top of the mountain during their early morning hike with her? A half dozen hands went up.
“The chair lift ride down was even better!” she joked.
As the morning wore on, guests started to depart for the airport. (Only Romney’s closest friends and aides were invited to stay for a Saturday night gathering at his house.) Many, if not most, remained undecided about who to give their money to in 2016. If they do want to play in the nomination fight, they’re running out of time: If a fourth annual E2 Summit convenes in 2016, it will likely fall less than a month before the Republican Party formally selects its nominee at the convention.
In the meantime: The candidates will still have to face down early state nominating contests.
"The good thing is that all the people in that room, they can’t — they don’t have enough money to buy what is eventually going to have to happen,” Graham said. "They can give a candidate a chance. But if you can’t close the deal in small in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, you’re not going to be the nominee."