“Hotel to the jet center?” said another. “How many minutes?”
Away from the populist-tinged events of the regular Republican convention is a far more exclusive set of gatherings tailored especially to the billionaires and other well-heeled donors who have become a defining presence in the 2012 elections.
Thousands of donors have flown to Tampa for special access to Mitt Romney and other GOP leaders, from billionaire oilman David Koch — seen chatting with Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) — to casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who has been holding court in a nearby Cuban restaurant and will be hobnobbing with Romney and his aides.
But it’s not just favorable policies and access: Many mega-donors, it seems, just want to feel special.
Thus an elite group of top donors gathered at a St. Petersburg marina Wednesday for a reception aboard the “Cracker Bay,” a 147-foot yacht owned by Florida developer H. Gary Morse, whose companies and relatives have funneled more than $1.5 million to Romney and his allies. The ship was flying the merchant flag of the Cayman Islands, the tax haven where Romney has investment holdings, according to ABC News, which first reported on the event.
The floating soiree featured a speech by Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) and was attended by shopping center magnate Mel Sembler, energy billionaire Wilbur Ross and several dozen others who have raised more than $1 million each for Romney’s presidential effort, officials said.
The donors are part of Romney’s elite “Victory Council,” above and beyond the “Stripes” bundlers who have raised $500,000 and “Stars” who have brought in $250,000. Many are ensconced at the Vinoy Renaissance resort in St. Petersburg, amounting to a shadow convention of sorts, where access depends on how much you bring in.
The most senior bundlers — none of whom have been officially identified by the Romney campaign — will get a two-hour private luncheon on Thursday with Romney and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), his running mate, according to an event schedule. Lower levels, including “Founding Partners” couples who have contributed $100,000, get a special “Green Room” retreat buzzing with GOP luminaries.
The atmosphere underscores the importance of major donors to the Romney campaign, which has outraised President Obama over the past three months and prides itself on special retreats and other pampering for its top benefactors. Many of the same donors have also given handsomely to a network of nonprofit groups and super PACs raising unlimited funds to defeat Obama.
Democrats pounced on the GOP donor access Wednesday as evidence of a party in thrall to the rich. The Democratic National Committee asked if “Mitt’s tax records for his Cayman accounts” were aboard the party yacht, while the Obama campaign pointed to “Big Oil Billionaire David Koch” on the convention floor as a reason for Democrats to donate to the president.
Democrats, of course, are planning their own lavish receptions for the party’s convention next week in Charlotte, including top-tier access to luxury suites and private briefings. But many Democratic donors have long complained that Obama has little time for the photo ops, special dinners and other niceties that they expect in return for their largesse.
“They are very, very conscious of who has been there for the governor,” said Dirk Van Dongen, a top Romney fundraiser who heads the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors, referring to the Republican fundraising operation. “We get appropriate recognition. The mood is very enthusiastic.”
The goodies in Tampa extend well beyond the official Romney campaign. Restore Our Future, a super PAC that has spent more than $50 million backing Romney’s candidacy, held a private breakfast meeting Wednesday featuring Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and others. A group with ties to Rep. Eric I. Cantor (R-Va.), the YG Action Fund, is host at a series of women-focused events this week under a pavilion named for Miriam Adelson, who together with her husband plans to give up to $100 million to Republicans this year.
Then there is the tide of lavish events sponsored by major corporations and lobbying firms. AT&T has commandeered an upscale bistro for much of the week, while the Distilled Spirits Council rented out the Florida Aquarium on Monday to dole out free liquor while scantily clad “mermaids” waved at patrons from inside a tank.
“Everyone wants to feel like a VIP,” said Liz Bartolomeo of the Sunlight Foundation, which tracks money in politics.
At the Hyatt event on Wednesday, donors ate from a buffet of chicken, tomatoes and mozzarella, and bean salad. Pollsters gave an encouraging view of their chances, pundit Bill Kristol talked about big ideas and Rove said the party needed to do a better job reaching out to Hispanics. In other words, not ground-breaking stuff.
“It’s a courtesy,” Kristol said of the event as he rode an escalator down to the lobby with donors.
In the lobby, Janice Reals Ellig, a New York headhunter, wore elephant earrings and a “Founding Member” pin identifying her as a donor of at least $50,000. She said that the campaign was keeping her busy. At dinner, Rove shared anecdotes about working with George W. Bush. (“They sparred to see who was reading more books.”) At a movie about education she met party grandees. (“Talking with Jeb Bush. . .”) Overall, she said, “it’s important to stay informed.”
Steven Law, who runs Crossroads GPS, a powerful GOP advocacy group, agreed: “It allows folks who are participating to feel like they got an opportunity to express their views and get real feedback in real time.”
He then rushed off to another confidential event.
The line between official campaigns and outsiders is often blurry. New Jersey congressional candidate Shmuley Boteach said at a Republican Jewish Coalition event Wednesday that Sheldon Adelson had promised $500,000 to “my super PAC,” a group that is legally supposed to be separate from the candidate. Boteach said the offer came during a private dinner between the two men in Ybor City, the entertainment district in Tampa.
At the same event, lawmakers including Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), mingled with donors. Referring to the “people who buy the skyboxes,” Graham said “these are the people who are putting their money where their mouth is.”
He then walked over to Singer, a billionaire who has given more than $2 million to GOP causes this year, and stood in the front of the room near a table lined with cookies, chickpea fritters and “Obama. . .Oy Vey!” buttons.
Singer would not discuss the fundraising portion of the convention. “I have no interest,” he said to a reporter who asked about it.
Graham then popped over and told the hedge fund manager: “I’ll see you in New York.”
Eggen reported from Washington.