By Fred Schulte and Peter H. Stone, iWatch News
For the last three presidential elections, mega bundler Rudy Boschwitz has helped raise millions of dollars for Republicans running for the White House.
But this time around, the former U.S. senator from Minnesota says he is "conflicted" and has yet to put his fundraising skills to work for a Republican challenger to face President Barack Obama next year.
"I want to endorse the person who is most likely to make a change in the White House and I'm not sure who that is," Boschwitz said.
Boschwitz has plenty of company among his fellow elite Republican fundraisers, an analysis of campaign finance reports by iWatch News shows.
The party's most loyal presidential fundraisers are 46 people who "bundled" at least $24 million for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004 and for John McCain in 2008. Of those triple hitters, nearly half have yet to tap their networks to back a candidate to head the Republican ticket in 2012, the analysis shows.
The Republican candidates themselves have not disclosed their bundlers, as President Obama has. So iWatch News assembled the data to illustrate the powerful moneymen still on the sidelines.
Bundlers are ambitious fundraisers who agree to "bundle" large numbers of $2,500 contributions from friends, colleagues and family in exchange for getting credit from the campaign for their largesse. Indeed, of these 46 GOP super bundlers, 21 were appointed to positions in the Bush White House. Three became ambassadors, and others served in a range of posts in Washington, both ceremonial and substantive.
Obama, who as a candidate pledged to diminish the role of special interests in Washington, has also come under fire for rewarding bundlers. Nearly 200 from his 2008 campaign have received various perks, including ambassadorships, appointments to governmental boards or federal contracts, an earlier investigation by iWatch News found.
Of the three-cycle GOP bundlers who are supporting a candidate, just 16 are in former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's camp to date.
Eight have contributed to Texas Gov. Rick Perry, including one who turned to Perry after former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty dropped out.
Three others have written checks to former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, while a fourth is supporting his candidacy but not yet donated any money.
Most of the remaining three-time Republican bundlers are missing in action on the presidential front, according to the iWatch News analysis. The 22 super bundlers in that category raised at least $10.3 million in the last three races.
Several of them are pumping money into Senate and House races and committees. Some also could be supporting newly formed 501(c)(4) groups whose donor lists aren't disclosed. Others are waiting to see who emerges from the primaries that commence in January.
Munr Kazmir, chief executive officer of Direct Meds, a pharmacy company in New Jersey, said he had hoped New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie would enter the race. But when that didn't happen, he was left without a favored candidate and has been pondering whom to back ever since.
"I'm still debating. I didn't make a decision yet," he said. Kazmir said he has heard from dozens of other George W. Bush bundlers from the 2000 and 2004 elections and many, like him, have yet to commit to anyone for 2012. "They haven't decided yet," he said.
Fred Zeidman, a Houston-based private equity investor who backs Romney, said, "Many of the big bundlers I've spoken to have a familiarity with the major candidates. They all feel like the goal is to beat Obama and a number are waiting" until there is a nominee.
Dan Schnur, who directs the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, agreed that major donors won't stand on the sidelines once it's clear who will be heading their team.
"This is the first Republican primary fight in a generation in which there hasn't been an obvious establishment-backed front runner. Without that clear direction a lot of the donors are sitting on their wallets until they see some clarity," he said.
Julie Finley, a veteran GOP fundraiser in Washington, D.C. who is serving as general chairman of the Jon Huntsman campaign, said that some of the heavyweight bundlers are concentrating on U.S. Senate races for 2012, though she conceded that "there's another group who are just not sure who they want to support" for president. Finley is a fundraiser who was appointed ambassador.
And some of the warhorse Republican bundlers may simply be burning out, or reaching the age where they would rather do something else than badger friends and acquaintances for donations.
"It's a game that requires a lot of energy and effort. It takes an enormous amount of time," said David F. Girard-diCarlo, a Philadelphia lawyer and super bundler, who is now supporting Huntsman.
While he's in his "seventh presidential go round," Girard-diCarlo, who served as ambassador to Austria near the end of Bush's second term, said some of his fundraising peers "may not be willing to expend the time and effort because of where they are in their lives."
Others are actively financing party causes just as they did in past elections.
At least seven of 22 mega donors who have yet to write a check for a presidential candidate have been pumping thousands of dollars or other resources into helping Republicans gain seats in the House and Senate. Others have made smaller contributions to local candidates, state Republican parties and a handful of nationally-watched Senate races, campaign finance records show.
These seven donors have plowed at least $185,000 in the Republican Party groups so far this year.
Boschwitz, for example, said he plans to hold as many as 10 fundraisers for Senate candidates in coming months, even as he mulls over his choice to head up the ticket. Boschwitz began the political season with a choice of two fellow Minnesotans, Pawlenty and Rep. Michelle Bachmann. Boschwitz said he likes and admires both, but neither has inspired him the way Bush did, leaving him without a clear pick.
Others have made a clear choice and show no signs of switching. Most of the Romney supporters, for instance, came on board early this year and have stuck with the former Massachusetts governor as a host of challengers appeared to pick up steam in the race and at some points even eclipse him in public opinion.
Mega bundler Bobbie Kilberg, who heads the Northern Virginia Technology Council but donates as a private citizen, is unshakably behind Romney--and expects to see others come aboard. "We are supporting him because he understands the economy and knows what we need to do to establish growth. We think he can win the general election. I'm not sure about any of the others," Kilberg said.
Though he has yet to write a check, South Carolina surgeon Eddie Floyd said he made his choice after meeting Rick Perry during a tour of a hospital in Florence, S.C. "Some people when they come into a room they have that presence about them...he just seemed to be very presidential," Floyd said.
Still, Floyd, 77, said he worried about Perry's recent debate gaffes. "His performance at the debate bothered me. He has to have a good performance against Obama. Obama has a wonderful stage presence and is very impressive," Floyd said.
Some of the most diehard bundlers said this is as strange a political season as they've ever witnessed, with so many candidate ups and downs and no clear sense of who can go the distance.
"Many people run for president but not everybody runs to be president. Some people are sitting on the sidelines to see who's really serious," Girard-diCarlo said.
All of these Republican bundlers first emerged in 2000 when Bush cleverly anointed his loyal fundraisers as "pioneers" for raising at least $100,000. Democrats then followed suit.
The practice disturbs public interest groups, who argue bundlers too often are granted White House access, government posts or other spoils.
Once Obama took office, several bundlers were installed in pivotal positions in agencies such as the Energy Department, which showered billions in taxpayer-backed stimulus dollars on alternative energy firms such as now-bankrupt Solyndra. The still-unfolding controversy is the focus of Republican-led investigations in Congress.
Despite that, neither party shows any sign of turning their backs on bundling as a fundraising tool. The 2012 Obama campaign, for example, has raked in more than $55 million from some 350 bundlers so far this year.
Campaigns don't report exactly how much each bundler raised, but list categories ranging from at least $50,000 to $500,000 or more, so the bundler totals are minimum estimates.