Marco Rubio is benefiting from pockets of discontent in Jeb Bush’s sprawling money network, winning over donors who believe the 44-year-old freshman senator from Florida offers a more compelling persona and sharper generational contrast against Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Rubio is working to seize the moment by making an all-out push to lock down financial backers in the coming month, hopscotching the country in a nonstop series of fundraisers that are limiting his presence on the campaign trail.
While he faces stiff competition in the money race from Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, in particular, Rubio’s in-person courting sessions are starting to pay off. Longtime Bush loyalists and other big-money players on the right have emerged from the meetings raving about his abilities, according to people familiar with private gatherings he has had across the country.
“After meeting Marco and listening to him — he is almost astounding, he is so articulate and he has got such great vision,” said Anthony Gioia, a top GOP fundraiser in Buffalo. Gioia raised more than $500,000 for George W. Bush and then served as his ambassador to Malta, but he is supporting Rubio this time. “I hate to overuse the word ‘transformational,’ but I really feel he is,” Gioia said.
It is not just veteran bundlers coming aboard. Rubio has recently gained the backing of heavyweight players such as Oracle founder and billionaire Larry Ellison — who is hosting a campaign fundraiser in Silicon Valley on Tuesday — and Randy Kendrick, an influential Arizona donor and the wife of Arizona Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick, who hosted the senator at their Phoenix home last month.
“I’m looking for someone who is an inspiration,” said Kendrick, who plans to work her network to bring other donors aboard.
It remains to be seen whether the passion for Rubio will translate into huge financial sums. He has the support of billionaire Miami auto dealer Norman Braman, who has committed to putting as much as $10 million into a pro-Rubio super PAC, but allies concede that their efforts are dwarfed by Bush’s massive fundraising apparatus. The former Florida governor has been amassing tens of millions of dollars, a record amount, in his allied super PAC, in part by tapping into a national network of ambassadors and other senior appointees who served in the previous Bush administrations.
The Rubio strategy: Target less prominent donors and bring new ones into the fold.
“You’ve got the Bush family Rolodex that is, what, 50 years old or more?” said J. Warren Tompkins, head of the pro-Rubio super PAC Conservative Solutions. “The rest of these guys are small donors. You have to go and grind it out and do a lot of meet-and-greets.”
As a result, Rubio is spending less time than some other declared candidates in the early nominating states, making just one visit each to Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada since launching his campaign in April. Instead, his itinerary this spring includes stops in Oklahoma, Illinois, Texas, Florida, Idaho, New York, California and Pennsylvania, according to a person familiar with his schedule.
At every stop, the campaign is signing up new bundlers. And in some cases, Rubio has also made side appearances before clutches of potential super-PAC donors.
His repeat visits to the nation’s biggest money centers are helping him make inroads in places such as Texas, where Bush, Sen. Ted Cruz and former governor Rick Perry all have claims on state donors.
“You look at that and think, ‘Gosh, how can anyone else break in?’ ” said George Seay, a Dallas-based investor who is supporting Rubio. “But Marco has been very successful in Texas and will continue to be. I think the more people get exposed to him, they realize he’s not just a good background story — he’s a very, very deep talent.”
Rubio is benefiting in part from a growing uncertainty among some top fundraisers about Bush’s ability to resonate with the party base, particularly in the wake of his stumbling answers last month about the Iraq war and his brother, the 43rd president. A Washington Post-ABC News poll this week showed that Bush, who led the GOP field for months, has slipped into a two-way tie for third place.
At a gathering of the Republican Governors Association’s top donors last month in Dallas, one of the main topics of discussion was that Bush appeared less formidable as a candidate than he had a few months ago, according to several participants.
“One consensus seemed to be that, ‘Wow, Jeb is really raising lots of money, but he doesn’t seem to be striking a chord with voters,’ ” said one well-connected Republican who participated in the meeting and spoke on the condition of anonymity to detail private conversations.
Edwin Phelps, a private-equity investor who is a major GOP donor, said Bush “has not come on as strong as I would have thought.”
“I’m disappointed in how he handled questions on something he knew would come up,” Phelps said. “Jeb hurt himself, but it’s early enough in the cycle that he can right the ship.”
In the meantime, many donors are casting their support wide and giving to multiple contenders, still weighing who has the best shot in a general election.
“I don’t have conviction right now toward any candidate,” said Phelps, who has donated to Bush and plans to contribute to Rubio as well. “I think that’s how a lot of us feel who are mainstream Republicans. There is a strong, deep-seated sentiment that we want someone who can get elected.”
Rubio still faces skepticism in some donor quarters, however, particularly among those who are not eager for the party to field a first-term senator as its nominee.
He must also navigate his own policy and personal land mines. At her fundraiser last month, Randy Kendrick said Rubio got some hard questions on immigration, a fraught issue for the senator from Florida. He was a sponsor of a Senate bill that provided a path to citizenship for up to 11 million illegal immigrants, but he later backed away from the legislation.
But Rubio acquitted himself well, Kendrick said.
“He’s threading the needle on immigration, and he got several questions where he very honestly and skillfully answered those questions about the things that needed to be done first,” she said.
Before she signed on to help Rubio, Kendrick said she “was open and interested” in all the candidates, adding, “I just felt that Rubio rose above the others in his depth and knowledge about policy.”
Other veteran fundraisers described their conversion into Rubio supporters as more of a thunderbolt experience.
“I’ve been in politics a long time, since Ronald Reagan, and he is really unique,” Gioia said. “From my point of view, it’s like the movie ‘Jerry Maguire’ — he got me on ‘hello.’ ”