Romney donors scatter ahead of 2016

Park City, Utah CNN —  

It once seemed plausible that one of the 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls would sweep in and scoop up a sizable bloc of the donors who helped Mitt Romney raise a billion dollars for the 2012 cycle.

But the reality this year is far messier.

As some 200 top GOP donors and six likely presidential contenders gather here for Romney’s annual “E2 Summit,” the furious race for campaign cash behind the scenes is surprisingly fluid.

“This is the courting phase. Donors are in the driver seat,” said Spencer Zwick, Romney’s former finance chairman and partner at the private equity firm known as Solamere, who was presiding over the annual “E2” conference for “experts and enthusiasts” at this ski retreat at the edge of Park City.

“You see campaigns raising significant money, but I would say the great majority (of former Romney donors) have not yet aligned with a candidate,” Zwick said. “This is really a chance for donors to get to know and ultimately pick the candidate they want to support.”

As they assess the field, Zwick said, they are trying to determine: “Can that candidate win? Can he win a primary and can he win a general? Because more than anything else,” he said, “a donor is making an investment in what they hopefully see as a winning campaign.”

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Many of Romney’s one-time donors are still candidate shopping, warily eyeing the enormous GOP field and trying to determine the long term viability and strength of the 16 presidential hopefuls.

Hedging their bets, some donors are giving to multiple candidates or holding their pledges in reserve. And those who are signed on with a campaign have mainly scattered among the camps of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

For the six hopefuls here – Walker, Rubio, Graham, former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Ohio Gov. John Kasich – that means major opportunities.

Many of the candidates were in town by late Thursday on the lush grounds of the Stein Eriksen Lodge ready to entertain and charm their prospective suitors. Mitt Romney circulated among his friends and former donors at a barbecue and cocktail hour in the cozy environs of the lodge, with its huge leather armchairs and roaring fireplaces.

Romney, who was considering a third bid for the White House until early this year, has insisted that he is acting more as the neutral arbiter rather than kingmaker — attempting to introduce his donors to as many potential candidates as possible.

Before 6am on Friday morning, Rubio – in shorts and a T-shirt – led a large group of donors off campus for a flag football game at a nearby field. To guard against the morning chill, conference organizers were handing out long sleeved blue T-shirts emblazoned with the E2 logo. (The annual gathering is hosted by Solamere, the private equity firm co-founded by Zwick, Tagg Romney and Eric Scheuermann).

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In keeping with the outdoor spirit of the gathering, guests were also offered a chance to hike or join Ann Romney on a horseback ride, among other athletic activities.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham will lead a skeet shooting expedition Saturday morning. Though the senator is known as a good shot, he joked that it was not a good idea to give him a gun that early in the morning.

Showing the interest of donors in many different candidates, participation in Graham’s outing and Rubio’s flag football game were in such high demand that the conference organizers used a lottery system to determine which donors would join them.

Slater Bayliss, a Republican who is raising money in Florida for Bush — who has spent the week in Europe — said the intense interest from donors among multiple candidates was partly a product of a very different dynamic in this race compared with 2012, when Romney had locked down many voters by this point.

“The strength of the Republican field this cycle compared to last cycle – it really is like night and day,” Bayliss said. “A lot of them see it as they’re investing in different messengers. Rather than giving to one candidate for they first time, there are people who are giving to multiple candidates.”

But Bayliss added: “Nine out of 10 people I talk to are Jeb people.”

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For donors – who will question the candidates after their speeches throughout Friday and Saturday – the vetting process is vigorous. They often ask pointed questions to determine a candidate’s longtime viability.

When Christie was here last year, for example, he was drilled by several donors about the long-term damage that had inflicted by the scandal over the George Washington Bridge closures.

Christie tried to reassure donors then that the debacle would blow over. He will be back at the conference this year to push that message again, at a time when he has seen many once-interested donors drift toward other candidates.

But as many donors noted in interviews here — with GOP debates on the horizon and the field so unsettled — there is plenty of time for a fresh leader to break out from the pack.