Bush donors weigh other options in GOP field

Zachary Mider
Bloomberg News

New York – — With Jeb Bush’s departure from the presidential race on Saturday, a mighty fundraising army scattered. The question the troops face: pick another side or retreat?

Bobbie Kilberg chose quickly. A top Republican fundraiser in Virginia, she got the news of Bush’s withdrawal Saturday night over text messages at a dinner. By the next morning, she was giving interviews about her support for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. She used the word “coalesce” twice when describing how the GOP’s moderates need to rally behind a single candidate.

The same morning, Andy Sabin picked up the phone and declared that all the remaining candidates are flawed. “The Marco people have been after me a lot, but I’m going to sit back,” said the 70-year-old Long Island fundraiser. “I’m so confused at the whole way this thing is going.”

This “thing” starts with Donald Trump, who won two of the first three Republican nominating contests with virtually no support from party elites and the donor class. Bush’s withdrawal came after he and his allies spent more than $100 million through January and failed to achieve a top-three finish in Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina.

Over the weekend, Rubio’s team started cajoling Bush’s huge pool of big-money donors ahead of Nevada’s GOP caucuses on Tuesday.

An influx of cash would be particularly welcome to Rubio, who lagged in early fundraising despite the support of some high-profile donors such as the hedge-fund manager Paul Singer. That’s partly because of a crowded GOP field and the fact that Bush dominated support in their mutual home state of Florida. Bush’s super PAC, Right to Rise, raised about a quarter of its record $118 million haul from the Sunshine State, helped by relationships forged during his two terms as Florida governor.

Most Bush loyalists contacted said they were preparing to support Rubio, or no one in particular. All of them said they want to stop Trump.

“I doubt very much any serious supporter of Jeb is going to get in the Trump clown car ...,” James Wareham, a Washington litigator and Bush fundraiser, said in an email. “Not a chance I could ever vote for him, never mind support him.”

Looking forward, many Bush supporters are going to look closely at Rubio and Ohio Gov. John Kasich and determine where their loyalties belong, according to Bobby Schostak, a former Michigan Republican Party chairman who donated to Bush and had not decided whom to support instead.

The Detroit News reported Sunday that Bush raised more money in Michigan through the end of 2015 from donations of $200 than any other presidential candidate on both sides of the aisle. He amassed $978,760 in Michigan donations compared to Democrat Hillary Clinton’s $917,733 and Republican Ben Carson’s $792,701 as of Dec. 31, according to recent campaign fundraising reports.

Rubio had $5.1 million of cash on hand as of Jan. 31, compared with $13.6 million for Ted Cruz, the Texas senator. Trump, a billionaire entertainer and real-estate mogul, is mostly funding his own campaign.

Rubio and Cruz, a senator from Texas, have corralled high-profile Nevada supporters to vouch for their conservative purity. Unlike Trump, they’ve hired top Nevada campaign consultants to build strong get-out-the-vote networks — often crucial in low-turnout caucuses.

But Trump has built a huge following in Nevada with his combative rhetoric on illegal immigration and economic unrest. The breadth and intensity of his support could offset any shortcomings in organization.

“I just don’t know how you stop the raw enthusiasm behind Trump,” said Zachary Moyle, the Nevada state director for Kasich.

Carson, a Detroit native, was making stops in Reno and Las Vegas on Sunday, but his base of evangelicals is nowhere near large enough to make him a serious contender in Nevada.

Barely 1 in 10 Republicans voted in the last two Nevada GOP caucuses, but party leaders expect a higher turnout this time, largely because of public interest in Trump.

“It looks like it may very well be epic this year,” said Ed Williams, the Clark County Republican Party chairman. “At least by our standards.”

With Bush out of the way, the Florida picture may reverse, according to John Rood, a Jacksonville, Fla., real estate executive who serves on the executive committee of Right to Rise. He’s already backing Rubio after speaking with the candidate Saturday night.

“This is very emotional for a lot of people who gave it their all for Jeb,” Rood said. “But now it’s time to go to Plan B.”

One unknown is the fate of Right to Rise’s leftover cash. The group reported having $24 million on hand as of Jan. 31, although it has spent plenty since then. Some other candidates’ super PACs have returned leftover contributions to donors, but this is not required under the law. A Right to Rise spokesman did not respond to inquiries.

Not everyone thinks Rubio is the one. On Feb. 11, Ken Langone, a New York fundraiser and the billionaire co-founder of Home Depot, threw his support behind Kasich, saying “he can win.” Langone’s support had been in play since his previous favorite, Chris Christie, withdrew from the race a day earlier.

Los Angeles Times contributed.