Big-city Republican donors are already lining up to attend Jeb Bush’s fundraisers, throwing their support behind the former Florida governor even as he trails in polls in Iowa and faces deep challenges convincing conservative voters in the GOP that he is not too moderate.
While making few public appearances, Bush has attended at least 14 private fundraising events in St. Louis, New York, Los Angeles, and other major cities over the last six weeks, with a slew in Washington and Chicago scheduled for next week, according to a list compiled by the non-partisan Sunlight Foundation. And the attendees and hosts of these events, some of whom have donated up to $100,000, are unknown to most Americans but influential within the Republican Party.
Several have the title "Ambassador," appointed to those posts by either George H. W. or George W. Bush, such as Craig Stapleton (France) and Mel Sembler (Italy). Others, such as Atlanta lobbyist Eric Tanenblatt and New York private equity titan Henry Kravis, were courted aggressively by other candidates, including Mitt Romney in his aborted run, but opted for Bush.
Bush's strength among party donors was a barrier to Romney's potential for a third campaign and shows a disconnection between the GOP's rank and file and its elite: the former governor appears to have a huge edge in support among the party's donors but only a narrow lead over most of his rivals in public opinion polls.
In interviews, these donors say they view Jeb Bush as the best candidate in the GOP field and are determined to push him forward, regardless of wariness about both Bush’s policy views and a third Bush presidency in the rest of the party.
“The polls don’t mean anything at this point,” said one longtime party fundraiser who served on Mitt Romney’s finance teams in 2008 and 2012 but has already signed on with Bush and is encouraging other party donors to do so as well.
“I think right now, the general electorate, when they think of Jeb Bush, they think the former governor of Florida and he was George H.W. Bush’s son and George W. Bush’s brother,” added the donor, who like several others, did not want to discuss his support publicly. “Over the course of the campaign, as people see him and learn more about him, they will like what they see.”
The events, particularly one in New York this week in which Politico reported that some attendees donated $100,000 to attend, suggest Bush could raise tens of millions in the first three months of 2015.
To be sure, strong fundraising numbers may have limited impact in today’s political fundraising environment, in which a single donor can bankroll a candidate’s Super PAC and allow them to run a credible campaign.
And the party’s big-city donors are not all going to Bush. Bobbie Kilberg, a longtime party donor who lives outside Washington and was a White House aide to George H.W. Bush, received a personal e-mail from Jeb Bush in December encouraging her to join his campaign. She instead opted for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Wayne Berman, a New Yorker who was a national finance co-chairman for Romney in 2012, praised Jeb Bush but said he committed to supporting Marco Rubio long ago and was going to stick with the Florida senator.
“He’s young and articulate and represents a new generation for the Republican Party,” Berman said of Rubio. “I think Jeb’s team is superb as well. He’s got a lot of very talented and capable people and he’s a talented and capable guy. I’m not against any Republicans, I’m just for Rubio.”
Not all Bush donors are shelling out six figures at this early stage of the campaign.
In fact, some of the events that Bush is attending, like one in Chicago next week, offer entry for guests for as little as $1,000. One donor told NBC News that he will attend that one but will also pay to attend upcoming events hosted by Christie and Rubio in Chicago to compare their pitches to Bush’s.
“The governor has a lot of education to do as to what his positions are among the conservative public, and I think that’s reflected in the polls. I don’t think they understand the Common Core issue."
But Bush will also attend an event in Lake Forest in suburban Chicago, according to the Chicago Sun-Times, with attendees expected to pledge to contribute or raise at least $25,000.
These kinds of events will help Bush raise money, but also serve as de-facto endorsements from some of the most influential figures in Illinois’s GOP establishment. These donors are unlikely to give huge sums to Rubio or Christie as well, and will instead encourage other friends to get behind Bush.
“The governor has a lot of education to do as to what his positions are among the conservative public, and I think that’s reflected in the polls. I don’t think they understand the Common Core issue,” said Juleanna Glover, a Washingtonian who served as Vice President Dick Cheney’s spokesman and is now raising money for Jeb Bush.
But she added, “I came of age under Reagan and my personal and professional ideal is to elect great conservative presidents and Gov. Bush represents that opportunity.”
This support in urban areas among donors suggest Bush could be strong in an often-ignored bloc of the GOP: blue-state Republicans. While most Republicans in Congress hail from the increasingly-conservative South and West, many of the votes for the GOP nominee will be cast by Republicans living in states like California, Illinois, New York and New Hampshire.