Longtime Republican donor Edwin Phelps used to write five-figure checks regularly to the national party and the GOP senatorial committee.
Now he has a different political passion: being part of an elite roundtable program that has pumped tens of millions into the Republican Governors Association. In return, the program’s members are invited to quarterly seminars with governors — and potential 2016 White House contenders — such as New Jersey’s Chris Christie, Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal and Indiana’s Mike Pence.
“I’m concentrating on the governors’ group because that’s where I hope the future president will come from,” said Phelps, a private equity investor who splits his time between McLean, Va., and Palm Beach, Fla. “It’s a much more positive scenario than you see here in Washington.”
The early focus on 2016 by Phelps and other high-level donors has put the RGA on track to raise more than $140 million this cycle, a record-breaking amount that illustrates the extent to which governors have become the GOP’s center of political gravity. Even with the party intent on retaking the Senate, the RGA has been a hub of activity and early jockeying by prospective White House contenders such as Christie, who currently serves as the group’s chairman.
The RGA still faces tough odds expanding its ranks on Tuesday, when it has 19 incumbents up for reelection. But after raising twice as much as its Democratic counterpart by October, the group has enough resources to spend in blue states such as Massachusetts and Maryland while also defending Florida’s Rick Scott, Wisconsin’s Scott Walker and other embattled incumbents.
One key to the group’s fundraising prowess is the exclusive donor access effort, called the Executive Roundtable program, which gives wealthy contributors up-close access to governors at quarterly policy seminars. The initiative has helped create a permanent network of high-net-worth donors who augment the group’s funding from corporations, which give to both parties. This year, roundtable members have contributed $50 million to the governors association, according to details provided to The Washington Post.
RGA donors are “frustrated with the lack of progress in Washington, D.C., they’re frustrated with the dysfunction and gridlock, and they can see real progress being made on the state level,” said Phil Cox, the RGA’s executive director. The governors are “the future of our party in a very real way,” he said.
The roundtable program is open only to chief executives, entrepreneurs and wealthy philanthropists, who must donate a minimum of $25,000 a year to the governors association to participate. (Many give substantially more.) Lobbyists cannot attend.
It was first launched in 2009 under then-chairman Haley Barbour as a financial counterweight to Democratic-allied labor unions. Barbour brought in longtime Republican fundraiser Fred Malek to expand the fledging program, which has grown from less than dozen members to more than 600 this year.
It includes figures such as fashion executive Domenico De Sole; former defense secretary Frank Carlucci and his wife, Marcia; and Allen Questrom, who ran such retail companies as Macy’s and Neiman Marcus.
The high level of interest, said Malek, is due to “the performance of our governors, who have gotten phenomenally good results.”
“Businesspeople like to get a return on investment, and if they put money into something on a consistent basis and don’t see any gains, they’re going to look elsewhere,” said Malek, who is now the RGA’s finance chairman.
Executive Roundtable members are invited to intimate, Aspen Institute-style meetings held four times a year, where they get to mingle with both governors and top policy experts from a range of fields. Speakers this year have included former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, school-reform advocate Michelle Rhee and former general David H. Petraeus.
The most recent gathering, held in July in Aspen, Colo., featured a keynote session on global security headlined by former Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff. In between panels, donors were invited to go fly-fishing and hiking with governors, who also participated in small private dinners with them.
“This isn’t a setting where you just sit in an audience and you see people on a stage,” said Barbara Barrett, a member for several years who served as George W. Bush’s ambassador to Finland. “I’ve never been to a meeting where I didn’t have over a dozen substantial conversations with sitting governors, either one-or-one or in small groups.”
Barrett, whose husband, Craig, is the former head of Intel, said she has gained insight into the potential 2016 field by observing the governors up close — including seeing South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley with her family and encountering Ohio Gov. John Kasich while hiking.
“It really is an opportunity to look people over, and look closely,” she said. “I have a bias that says I would like to see presidential candidates who have actually run something. You don’t learn on the job.”
Cox said members know better than to use those moments to press their own issues. “It’s sort of an unwritten rule that you don’t show up to do business with these governors,” he said. “You show up to get to know them, to support them.”
He said the success of the program serves as a counterweight to labor unions that are focusing their efforts this fall on defeating Republican gubernatorial candidates who have eroded union power in states such as Wisconsin and Michigan.
The roundtable donors “are the reason we have the ability to spend over $20 million over the last four years on behalf of Scott Walker,” he said. “They are the reason we have the ability to spend more than $12 million in defense of [Michigan Gov.] Rick Snyder, who took the home of the UAW and made it a right-to-work state.”
Democrats maintain that they are in a strong position heading into next week’s elections, with a dozen gubernatorial races still up for grabs.
“Despite a difficult environment for Democrats and an RGA financial advantage that they love to tout, we are extremely competitive in a number of states currently held by Republican governors and are well-positioned to reelect our incumbents,” said DGA spokesman Danny Kanner.
At the RGA — which plans to put close to $125 million into races this year — Christie is playing a hands-on role in both fundraising and political strategy. He counsels the candidates with regular phone calls, often suggesting that they campaign outside their comfort zone in communities that Republicans usually don’t visit. He has also thrown himself into the mission of raising money, visiting 37 states since he became chairman in December 2013.
“We have a hard time as a staff just keeping up with him,” Cox said. “He’s the first guy I talk to in the morning and the last person before I go to bed, and I probably talk to him 10 times in between.”
The New Jersey governor’s intense travel schedule has also helped elevate his profile among activists and donors in advance of an expected presidential bid. Christie has made repeated trips to Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina — states that play pivotal early roles in the presidential contest. Together, the RGA has spent more than $6 million advertising in those three states this year, according to a person familiar with the media buys, even though they are not hosting tight governor’s races.
From Thursday through Monday, Christie is slated to campaign with governors and other Republican candidates in 19 states, including Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Cox said the bulk of Christie’s focus has been on states where GOP gubernatorial candidates are engaged in tough campaigns. “He’s been to Kansas, I think, more than he’s been to Iowa,” he said.
Christie’s potential 2016 rivals have also used this year’s governor’s races to elevate their standing, providing a glimpse at the tensions that could erupt once the White House race is in full force.
Jindal, the RGA’s vice chairman, campaigned earlier this month with the New York gubernatorial candidate Rob Astorino, who has complained bitterly about Christie’s lack of support for his race. And in Wisconsin, Walker recently said that the governors’ group wasn’t investing enough in his reelection.
Cox said that Christie’s only political objective this year is helping the RGA.
“It’s a very collegial operation,” Cox added of the RGA. “That’s not to say that a couple of months from now we won’t have a couple governors running for president, and maybe at some point that collegiality will wane, briefly.”
That moment could come as early as next month, when the Executive Roundtable gathers in Boca Raton, Fla., in advance of the RGA’s annual meeting. The governors are not supposed to raise money for their individual races at roundtable events, but are likely to use the Boca Raton gathering to begin locking down commitments of support for 2016, according to people familiar with the dynamic of the group.
The moves of potential candidates are going to be watched closely by roundtable members. Said one longtime participant: “They’re going to be saying, ‘I might actually get to know the next president, because he’s right here in this room.’ ”
Alice Crites contributed to this report.