The fight for Mitt Romney’s donors is on

Mitt Romney knows how to raise money. He collected more than $1.1 billion in the 2012 campaign, relying  on contacts he built during his time as Massachusetts governor, head of the Salt Lake City Olympics, years working in private equity, and as chairman of the Republican Governors Association. And now, with Romney insisting that he will not run again in 2016, literally hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of Republican money is up for grabs -- and donors say that they are already being courted by several potential presidential candidates.


Mitt Romney. REUTERS/Richard Carson

During a series of interviews this week, we asked several major Romney donors as well as several of his current and former advisers how the race for the former governor's financial team is shaping up. Before we go any further, a few caveats. As with any presidential campaign, the Romney donor base is composed of a large, diverse set of people who will undoubtedly be siphoned into numerous Republican (and some Democratic) presidential campaigns.

“There is no such thing as ‘Romney people.’" explained Ron Kaufman, a former Romney adviser. The donor base "is not something you can hand off, per se.”

Second, as with any 2016 chatter, it's worth a reminder that much will change between now and then. The 2014 midterm elections could drastically alter the national political climate, and as we saw in 2008, candidates considered shoo-ins years in advance do not always pan out -- or else we would have seen a Rudy Giuliani vs. Hillary Clinton showdown. As one prominent Romney fundraiser described it: "It's absolutely absurd" to expect donors to have settled on a candidate of choice with more than two years before voters hit the polls.

Still, the early inclinations of big-money donors could be instructive as we think about the quickly developing 2016 field. So with that, here are the candidates who currently have the Romney donor world buzzing:

1. Jeb Bush

Every single Romney donor we spoke with this week listed the former Florida governor as their top choice.

The donors said that -- like Romney -- Bush's time as governor proved he can be an effective leader and manager. His willingness to tackle (or attempt to, at least) tough policy initiatives such as education and criminal justice reform remind them of Romney's work on health care at the state level.

Also, with solid name recognition and the Bush political machine behind him, Romney donors believe Jeb is the most electable of the potential Republican candidates. For Romney donors, electability is the single most important trait.

"If Jeb Bush is in the race, he clears the field," said one major Romney donor. "You would have someone who has the talent that is equal to Mitt. The natural inclination for Mitt supporters would be to gravitate toward Jeb Bush because he’s a candidate that can win a national race."

Another huge factor that would help Bush -- who has contacted some donors about their receptiveness to a presidential bid and is believed to be seriously considering throwing his hat in the ring -- is that his current gig as a senior adviser to Barclays Capital has helped him meet many of the Northeastern private equity types who filled Romney's campaign coffers.

His weakness: Is the country "Bush-ed out?"

2. Scott Walker

"Scott Walker is a name to watch," said one Romney donor in Boston, summing up the feelings of several of those who spoke with us this week.

Romney donors said they believe Walker, like Bush, has the right skill set to lead the country back to economic prosperity. These folks really like governors (more on that later). They like that Walker is from a Midwestern swing state, and they like the way he took on the unions there -- and lived to tell about it.

Walker's political resilience is the trait they most admire. He was elected in 2010 and then beat back a recall election that drew national attention. Walker faces a Democratic challenger in 2014 and if he is reelected, Romney donors say, he will likely have the powerful national brand that could attract big checks for a presidential run.

3. Paul Ryan

Several Romney donors said there are three things that come to mind when they think back to the 2012 election: how disappointed they were that Romney lost, how angry they were with Chris Christie, and how impressed they were by Paul Ryan.

Romney donors love Mitt -- that's why many of them are Romney donors, after all -- and they credit the Wisconsin congressman with revitalizing their guy on the stump during the final weeks of the presidential campaign.

"From a talent perspective, Paul Ryan should run," said one donor. "He's a very good communicator, and just an all-around smart guy."

So why Walker before Ryan? Several donors said that they cannot imagine both men running and, if one of them does, it's more likely to be Walker. "I'd love him to run," one donor said of Ryan. "But it seems he’s more interested in chairing the Ways and Means Committee and eventually being speaker of the House."

4. Chris Christie

Romneyland is split on Christie. As one major Romney fundraiser explained, 2012 GOP donors generally fall into one of two categories: donors who were angered by Christie's behavior with President Obama toward the end of the campaign and those who don’t hold a grudge against Christie from 2012 but question his electability after Bridgegate. The former group will never be for Christie; the latter group might be brought around.

“The vast majority of Romney donors are center-right, pro-business donors who want somebody electable and, right now there is a question of Christie’s electability based on these scandals,” the fundraiser said.

Several major Romney donors said that under no circumstance will they cut checks to Christie, and others argued that the New Jersey governor will have to weather this scandal before many Romney donors will give him a serious look.

That said, some Romney donors said that they like Christie's personality and respect that fact that Romney considers him a personal friend. He's a governor of a northeastern state, so that's also a plus.

Those Romney donors who would be willing to give to Christie won't be won over by phone calls from him. Rather, the way into their hearts (and check books) is for the governor to keep himself out of the national headlines for anything having to do with traffic jams.

5. Rand Paul

The only truly surprising name on the list, several major Romney donors say that the tea party hero and libertarian Sen. Rand Paul is a name that has been buzzing among former Romney supporters and fundraisers.

Initially seen as a conservative insurgent, Paul has been deliberately crafting a public image and potential national platform that can appeal to the GOP establishment.

While not initially inclined to take Paul seriously, several major Romney donors said that those appeals are working and that the Kentucky senator is getting a "surprisingly warm" reception as he moves around the country. In fact, one Romney donor in Boston went so far as to say that -- if Jeb Bush does not run -- Paul would be his top choice.

"Honestly, Rand Paul would be my number one guy," the donor, who described himself as a conservative, said. "He's a smart guy, he's from the south and I think he can win some establishment support throughout the process."

Honorable mention: Any other (center-right) GOP governor

If you're a governor, you are probably at least thinking about a 2016 presidential bid. And, if you're a Republican, you can take solace in the fact that the Romney donors are watching and waiting to be impressed.

Donors rattled off a number of names of governors who they believe could be a surprise candidate in 2016. Among them: Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez.

One person the Romney donors have no love for?  Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

Wesley Lowery is a national reporter covering law enforcement and justice for the Washington Post. He previously covered Congress and national politics.
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Jaime Fuller · February 28, 2014