Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Rick Perry are holding dueling D.C. fundraisers this week ahead of the all-important third-quarter fundraising deadline on Friday -- a fact greeted with little more than an indifferent shrug by much of Washington’s donor class.
Despite the money race’s enormous political implications, there are more fence-sitters now than in any presidential election in recent memory. Big K Street names like Charlie Black, Ed Rogers, and former Reps. Bill Paxon and Tom Reynolds remain on the sidelines, along with plenty of lower-tier lobbyists and operatives, according to a number of senior Republican donors and fundraisers.
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The third-quarter fundraising reports will have significant implications on the Republican primary's trajectory. The numbers will signal whether Republican power brokers are ready to coalesce behind Romney, give Perry a much-needed financial boost, or stay on the sidelines hoping that a fresh face like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie enters the race late.
But despite the importance of the third-quarter numbers for both candidates, many insiders aren’t yet ready to pick a side. Unlike previous elections, there are no major candidates in influential positions on Capitol Hill who can help K Street win or lose.
“They’re sitting on the fence because they either do not find a candidate that they are both philosophically and in terms of personal chemistry attracted, to or they’re totally pragmatic and trying to smell who the winner is going to be,” said a four-decade veteran of Republican politics, adding he had never seen so much fence-sitting.
More than ideology and charisma, power players are sitting on their wallets because Washington is not an altruistic town. They want to back a winner.
“I want to know who the strongest possible nominee will be to win in November 2012,” said Reynolds, the former congressman-turned-lobbyist, who has yet to back a candidate. “There’s plenty of time to get involved.”
And as much as Romney’s campaign has been hammering home his electability, he’s not yet made the sale. Both Perry and Romney will likely be making the electability argument when they meet with Washington donors this week.
On Tuesday afternoon, Perry is holding his Washington kickoff fundraiser at the swanky Willard hotel, followed by another event at the home of Republican power couple Mary and Mandell Ourisman. On Thursday, Romney is scheduled to hold a fundraiser in Bethesda hosted by Bill, Donna, Dick, and Nancy Marriott, of hotel-chain fame.
Romney also held several big-money fundraisers outside of Washington this week, meeting with wealthy Jewish donors in New York on Monday and following it up with a major fundraiser on Tuesday at the Essex House that featured a host committee of over 100 movers and shakers. Perry is headed to Houston on Thursday to raise money back home.
Some insiders expect to see an uptick in K Street fundraising as lawmakers choose sides and hold fundraisers for their candidates. Many lobbyists are much more apt to help lawmakers they have relationships with and who hold sway over their issues.
But there’s little upside to endorsing now.
“If you come on strong for a candidate, whether you chose to start today, a month ago, or in December, it will have no impact on your ambassadorship, your appointment or your ability to lobby,” said a Republican who’s staying neutral. “But if you hit the wrong candidate and go strong right now, that could have an adverse effect.”
A serious cash-infusion during the heat of primary season is just as likely to be remembered, if not more so, than an earlier contribution. Former GOP Rep. Vin Weber, a Romney supporter, said he expects to see more people taking sides in the next two months.
“People are always welcome because you always need money. I think the people who want to get involved in the campaign seriously, they need to sign on when it’s less than 100 percent clear who’s going to win,” said Weber, now a top Washington lobbyist at Clark and Weinstock.
The grass-is-always-greener syndrome is also fueling indecision, as Republicans continue to wait for a more exciting, and electable, candidate. Some of those unimpressed with Romney jumped to Perry when he entered the race this summer.
And now some still lukewarm about the field are pushing Christie to join the fray. Some even mentioned that they’re waiting for a campaign to add sizzle to the ticket by announcing Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels as the vice presidential pick. The field’s fluidity gives undecideds plenty of cover when the fundraisers come calling.
The candidates themselves are doing an extraordinary amount of one-on-one cultivation, according to insiders. Romney, Perry, and Jon Huntsman have all personally reached out and met with potential backers. And one GOP fundraiser said that every major bundler has received a call or gotten a meeting with the major candidates.
When former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty dropped out of the race, Romney reached out to Pawlenty’s longtime friend and backer Weber. A 2008 policy adviser to Romney, Weber was a natural pick up for the former Massachusetts governor.
When Romney called, Weber said, “The first words out of his mouth were, ‘Vin, I just have one question. How come you’ve missed all those meetings these last two years?’ "
Alex Roarty contributed to this report.
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