Wanted: A Sugar Daddy to Fund My 2016 Presidential Campaign

The nascent 2016 field of Republican candidates is already fanning across the country to woo the wealthy. Can they find the next Sheldon Adelson?

National Journal
Shane Goldmacher
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Shane Goldmacher
Feb. 12, 2014, 2:45 p.m.

For­get Des Moines. The epi­cen­ter of the 2016 Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial cam­paign last week was in Dal­las.

Har­lan Crow, the real es­tate mag­nate and con­ser­vat­ive fin­an­ci­er who calls the city home, ar­rived there fresh from watch­ing the Su­per Bowl in New Jer­sey Gov. Chris Christie’s private box. On Tues­day, Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walk­er flew in­to town for a reelec­tion fun­draiser at Crow’s $24 mil­lion man­sion. Later in the week, Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Ken­tucky shared a flight from D.C. to Dal­las — and then bumped in­to each oth­er out­side the of­fice of one of the city’s GOP donors whom they were both woo­ing.

“Rand and I are good friends,” Cruz said, “and we run in­to each oth­er a lot.”

Two years be­fore any primary votes will be cast and long be­fore any of­fi­cial cam­paign launches, Cruz, Paul, and oth­ers are already cris­scross­ing the coun­try to win the hearts and wal­lets of the wealth­i­est Amer­ic­ans.

The race for a 2016 su­per-PAC sug­ar daddy is on.

“If I were run­ning, I would think: Who is likely to want to fund a su­per PAC?” said Roy Bailey, a Dal­las Re­pub­lic­an who served as na­tion­al fin­ance chair­man of Rudy Gi­uliani’s 2008 pres­id­en­tial run. “A lot of people are fin­an­cially cap­able. But who likes to play the sport? And who would be able to do it? I’d be all over ‘em.”

The rise of su­per PACs has amp­li­fied and ac­cel­er­ated the quad­ren­ni­al donor chase. Can­did­ates now know a single bil­lion­aire can make or break their for­tunes — as they saw in 2012, when mega-donors Shel­don Ad­el­son and Foster Friess propped up the can­did­a­cies of Newt Gin­grich and Rick San­tor­um.

“You may want to just wear lo­gos if you’re run­ning for pres­id­ent: ‘sponsored by so-and-so.’ I mean it’s go­ing to get to be like NAS­CAR where every­body should put lo­gos on your suit,” said Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham, R-S.C., who, of course, has a su­per PAC ded­ic­ated to reelect­ing him this year.

“Ba­sic­ally, if you can get an ideo­lo­gic­ally aligned rich per­son who be­lieves in you … and they want to be a play­er in polit­ics, you can keep a cam­paign go­ing as long as the guy’s will­ing to write checks,” Gra­ham said. “Which changes everything.”

GOP polit­ic­al fun­draisers and strategists said that Walk­er, Cruz, Paul, and Christie have been among the most act­ive and con­sist­ently ag­gress­ive in na­tion­wide donor out­reach in the last year. It is a mat­ter of sup­ply and de­mand: There are a lot of GOP pres­id­en­tial hope­fuls and not so many moguls with a his­tory of in­vest­ing in polit­ic­al cam­paigns.

“There are a very few num­ber of ma­jor fin­ance bund­lers and donors that can swing elec­tions,” said Jim Lee, a na­tion­al fin­ance co­chair­man of Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s 2012 pres­id­en­tial cam­paign. “You’re really talk­ing about less than 400 or 500 people in the coun­try who, in­clud­ing bund­ling, can ac­count for 80 per­cent of the money. It’s a very nar­row uni­verse.”

The Rick­etts fam­ily — in­clud­ing Joe Rick­etts, founder of TD Amer­it­rade, and his polit­ic­ally act­ive son, Todd — is in that uni­verse. Among those GOP politi­cians who have found time to meet with the Rick­etts fam­ily in the last year, ac­cord­ing to a per­son close to the fam­ily: Christie, Cruz, Paul, Walk­er, 2012 vice pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee Paul Ry­an, and former Flor­ida Gov. Jeb Bush.

One event that is penciled in­to many 2016 as­pir­ants’ cal­en­dars is the March lead­er­ship meet­ing of the Re­pub­lic­an Jew­ish Co­ali­tion, a gath­er­ing of some of the wealth­i­est GOP donors in the na­tion. The group’s board in­cludes Re­pub­lic­an rain­makers such as Ad­el­son, in­vestor El­li­ott Broidy, hedge-fund man­ager Paul Sing­er, and Wayne Ber­man of the Black­stone Group, among many oth­ers. The gath­er­ing is held at The Vene­tian, Ad­el­son’s Las Ve­gas hotel. Among the ex­pec­ted at­tendees: Bush, Christie, Walk­er, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

“It’s like the early bird al­ways gets the worm. The early court­ship usu­ally pays off,” said Ken Duber­stein, a former chief of staff to Pres­id­ent Re­agan and cur­rent chair­man of the Duber­stein Group, one of Wash­ing­ton’s lead­ing lob­by­ing firms. “People like be­ing cul­tiv­ated, be­ing reached out to, flattered.”

So there was Friess, San­tor­um’s biggest back­er in 2012, at­tend­ing the State of the Uni­on as Ted Cruz’s guest.

Had Friess flipped al­le­gi­ances? “I’m a Rick San­tor­um guy through and through,” Friess as­sured Fox News’ Neil Cavuto. When Cavuto asked if he ever tired of all the Re­pub­lic­ans “suck­ing up” to him, Friess let out a belly laugh. Then he rattled off all the prom­in­ent Re­pub­lic­ans with whom he had had a re­cent audi­ence: Cruz, Paul, Walk­er, In­di­ana Gov. Mike Pence, and Louisi­ana Gov. Bobby Jin­dal. The goal for all those Re­pub­lic­ans, if they run, is clear: to lim­it Friess’ will­ing­ness to spend against them, if San­tor­um is in the 2016 field.

The con­tours of the 2012 Re­pub­lic­an primary are fresh in the mind of every GOP strategist plot­ting a po­ten­tial 2016 cam­paign. They watched as front-run­ner Mitt Rom­ney was un­able to bury Gin­grich or San­tor­um be­cause su­per PACs fun­ded by Ad­el­son and Friess, re­spect­ively, paid for enough tele­vi­sion ads to keep those can­did­ates afloat.

“Those two men alone were single-handedly able to keep those can­did­ates’ cam­paigns alive longer than they would have been in 2008, when su­per PACs didn’t ex­ist,” said Sarah Hucka­bee Sanders, who served as polit­ic­al dir­ect­or for the 2008 pres­id­en­tial bid of her fath­er, former Arkan­sas Gov. Mike Hucka­bee, and as a seni­or ad­viser to Gov. Tim Pawlenty dur­ing his short 2012 run.

These days, Hucka­bee Sanders is help­ing lead the Amer­ic­an Prin­ciples Fund, a su­per PAC seeded with nearly $400,000 from Sean Fieler, a New York hedge-fund man­ager. There is talk the group could morph in­to a pro-Hucka­bee su­per PAC, if he were to run again.

Hucka­bee Sanders said her su­per PAC “wasn’t set up and cre­ated for the pur­poses of try­ing to es­tab­lish re­la­tion­ships with donors for a po­ten­tial 2016 cam­paign” but to sup­port so­cially con­ser­vat­ive can­did­ates now. “We feel like a lot of Re­pub­lic­ans have avoided so­cial is­sues be­cause they think they are los­ing is­sues,” she said. “We dis­agree.”

Cash short­ages plagued Hucka­bee in 2008, and the former gov­ernor told The New York Times in Decem­ber that the rise of su­per PACs would be a factor in his de­cision to run again. “I’ve jumped in a pool without wa­ter be­fore and it’s a hard hit at the bot­tom,” he said.

Oth­er po­ten­tial 2016 can­did­ates have set up fun­drais­ing ap­par­at­uses that keep them in touch with the donor class. Al­lies of Perry, who is wind­ing down his time as gov­ernor, have es­tab­lished a 501(c)(4) non­profit, Amer­ic­ans for Eco­nom­ic Free­dom, that could be a vehicle to sup­port a Perry 2016 run.

Can­did­ates crave any kind of pre­tense to meet with wealthy donors oth­er than overt (and na­kedly self-serving) 2016 politick­ing. Vet­er­ans say such am­bi­tions are best left un­said.

So when New York Jets own­er Woody John­son, one of Rom­ney’s biggest fin­an­cial back­ers, opened up his home for a Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee fun­draiser last fall, a huge por­tion of the po­ten­tial 2016 field — Christie, Ry­an, Paul, Walk­er, and Sen. Marco Ru­bio of Flor­ida, among them — made sure to show up to schmooze.

Ru­bio said his donor out­reach is about rais­ing money to in­flu­ence “three or four” key 2014 races. “We cer­tainly meet with a lot of people that are in­ter­ested in lim­ited gov­ern­ment and free en­ter­prise from the per­spect­ive of our PAC and the ef­forts we’re un­der­tak­ing,” Ru­bio said. “So I’m meet­ing with people as part of that.”

GOP strategists say Christie, even with the on­go­ing traffic-jam scan­dal, has an ad­vant­age in woo­ing the donor class as the chair­man of the Re­pub­lic­an Gov­ernors As­so­ci­ation this year. It’s his job to court big GOP con­trib­ut­ors. So when Christie in­vited Har­lan Crow and Paul Sing­er, among oth­ers, to his Su­per Bowl suite, he could le­git­im­ately ar­gue he was do­ing so for the good of the Re­pub­lic­an Party. Christie also re­cently com­pleted an RGA fun­drais­ing swing through Texas and Illinois.

“The gov­ernor’s clearly-stated pur­pose for 2014 is fun­drais­ing for the RGA,” said Bill Pal­atucci, a Christie con­fid­ante and former law part­ner, who was at the Su­per Bowl suite him­self. As for 2016, Pal­atucci de­clined com­ment. Christie is “very clearly stick­ing to his knit­ting, and the fu­ture will take care of it­self,” he said.

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