POLITICS

White House Wannabes Drawing 2016 Battle Lines In Furious Money Chase

03/28/2015 07:30 am ET | Updated Mar 28, 2015
Richard Ellis via Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- The 2016 presidential election’s “invisible primary” is in full swing as Republican candidates tour the country looking to secure donors for their real or potential campaigns and their super PACs.

“They’re all beating the bush as you’d expect,” said David Herro, a wealthy Chicago-based investor who has contributed $1.5 million to Republican super PACs since 2010.

It’s “way too early” to pick a candidate, according to Herro, but he does know which ones he won’t be backing. “I certainly don’t want any of these extreme people,” Herro said, listing Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who announced his presidential run on Monday, and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.).

While Herro may not have chosen a candidate yet, many other big-time donors to Republican presidential aspirants have. Though only limited details on those donors have leaked, the GOP primary campaign is already shaping up to be a clash between distinct groups of billionaires and millionaires.

The financiers, lobbyists and longtime major party donors are largely supporting former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Newer big-money donors aligned with the increasingly influential political machine run by the billionaire Koch brothers and those affiliated with more-conservative groups like the Club for Growth and Senate Conservatives Fund are lining up behind Cruz and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. The divide is evident in a review of super PAC contributions made so far by donors publicly associated with a 2016 candidate.

For their part, the presidential wannabes are aiming to attract support from those most amenable to their policy positions, whether it’s the right-wing bomb throwing of Cruz or the apostasies of Bush on issues like education and immigration.

Bush, who is only “actively exploring” running for president, is garnering donations for his Right to Rise Super PAC from Wall Street private equity investors Henry Kravis, Alexander Navab and Ken Mehlman, who attended a $100,000-per-person event in New York that brought in at least $4 million. Chicago-based financiers Muneer Satter, Craig Duchossois, Ron Gidwitz and John Canning have all contributed to Bush’s nascent campaign. Florida investor Mike Fernandez said that he would cut a $1 million check to the Bush super PAC as part of a multimillion-dollar fundraiser he hosted for the former governor.

Over the past three federal elections, these Bush backers all gave to mainstream Republican Party groups like Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, the pro-Mitt Romney Restore Our Future and the Congressional Leadership Fund, which is linked to Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).

On Wednesday, Jeb Bush was joined by his older brother, former President George W. Bush, at a fundraiser in Dallas. Attendees included such longtime Bush family backers -- and hefty super PAC check-writers -- as natural gas billionaire T. Boone Pickens, beer distributor John Nau, real estate developer Woody Hunt and oil producer Trevor Rees-Jones. The foursome were major supporters of the 2012 Senate campaign of Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, combining to give $475,000 to the pro-Dewhurst super PAC Texas Conservatives Fund. The establishment favorite lost to Ted Cruz, however, in an expensive runoff contest.

Now, Cruz is gunning for Bush in the race for their party’s presidential nomination. He's doing that with help from some of the same donors who lifted him into the Senate.

When Cruz ran in 2012, he received massive outside support from the ultra-conservative Club for Growth. A thorn in the side of the GOP establishment, the group regularly strives to elect the more conservative Republican in primary elections. It spent $5.5 million to help Cruz defeat Dewhurst, more than it has spent on any other race before or since.

Those hosting or scheduled to appear at fundraisers for Cruz since his Monday entrance into the White House race include some big Club for Growth donors. Immediately following his presidential announcement, the senator flew to New York, where he attended a fundraiser hosted by Rebekah Mercer, the daughter of hedge fund executive Bob Mercer. The daughter, who manages her family’s charitable foundation, has given only $15,000 to the Club for Growth’s super PAC, but her father, who has not yet declared for a 2016 candidate, has been a top electoral donor with $1.75 million contributed since 2010.

On March 31, Cruz will be the guest of honor at a Texas fundraiser where Club for Growth donors like Steven Pfeifer, Terrence Murphree, Graham Whaling, William Langston and Windi Grimes will be in attendance.

Those already backing Cruz have also supported various sectarian conservative groups causing headaches for the party over the past few years. They've donated to the super PACs affiliated with FreedomWorks, Senate Conservatives Fund and Tea Party Patriots.

These three groups and the Club for Growth intervened in numerous primary campaigns to challenge incumbents over the past three elections. One or more of them backed primary candidates against then-incumbent Republican Sens. Mitch McConnell (Ky.), Richard Lugar (Ind.), John Cornyn (Texas), Thad Cochran (Miss.), Pat Roberts (Kan.), Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Bob Bennett (Utah).

In nearly every case, Bush-backing donors were on the other side. Pro-Bush donors in Texas funded a super PAC called Texans for a Conservative Majority to help Cornyn beat back a challenge from hyper-conservative Rep. Steve Stockman in 2014. Lobbyist Richard Hohlt, a Bush supporter, gave $15,000 to Indiana Values SuperPAC, a pro-Lugar group, in 2012. And many Bush donors contributed liberally to both the pro-McConnell Kentuckians for Strong Leadership and the pro-Cochran Mississippi Conservatives super PACs in 2014.

Balancing atop this donor divide, though, is Scott Walker. Thanks to his frontal assault on labor unions, the greatest perceived enemy of the wealthy conservative donor class, and the three very expensive elections he has survived in the past five years, the Wisconsin governor has built relationships with nearly every major conservative donor in the country. His known big-money supporters range from financial industry billionaires to private business owners to tea party activists, albeit with an emphasis on those involved in the political empire of Charles and David Koch.

Speaking recently in New Hampshire, Walker indicated how he leans, however -- and it's not toward the establishment side.

“What we’re hoping going forward are not donors of obligation but donors of passion, people who are passionate about the reforms we bring to the table,” Walker said.

Donors to Freedom Partners Action Fund, the main super PAC of the Kochs, are already some of the biggest backers of Walker’s pre-presidential campaign. Wisconsin roofing billionaire Diane Hendricks, who wrote a $1 million check to the Koch group in 2014, is in Walker’s corner. So is Minnesota-based cable television broadcaster Stanley Hubbard, who gave $450,000 to Freedom Partners and is actively recruiting donors to give to Walker’s campaign.

Hendricks, the owner of the largest roofing supply company in the country, told Bloomberg that she was being courted by nearly every Republican presidential aspirant but, “If [Walker] goes out here and he keeps doing what he’s doing, he’s going to be the person that I will support.”

Walker is currently raising money for a political nonprofit called Our American Revival, which can receive unlimited campaign contributions. It has attracted contributions from Hubbard and many others.

Among those is Chicago-based hedge fund executive Ken Griffin. While he's said he has not decided which 2016 candidate to ultimately back, he has written a $100,000 check to Walker’s group. Griffin, who once publicly mused that billionaires like himself have “insufficient influence” in politics, is a more mainstream Republican donor, having given millions to American Crossroads, Restore Our Future and Ending Spending Action Fund, the super PAC founded by TD Ameritrade billionaire Joe Ricketts. At the same time, Griffin is a more recent entrant to political giving with less direct connection to the old fundraising networks.

On the tea party side, Walker supporter Andy Miller, a Tennessee health care venture capitalist, previously gave more than $100,000 to a super PAC supporting Joe Carr, last year's tea party challenger to incumbent Sen. Alexander. Miller, chairman and executive director of the Tennessee Freedom Coalition, has also donated to Tea Party Patriots and USA PAC, a super PAC that attempted to oust Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn.) in the 2012 primary election.

Many big fish are still on the loose -- casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and vulture capitalist Paul Singer, among them -- and other expected GOP candidates like Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) look to hook at least one donor willing to write large super PAC checks. They will have to move fast as the wealthy are already sorting out their loyalties.

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