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 Senator 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, after completing a 25-mile morning bike ride. ”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.
Most Bush loyalists contacted Sunday 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 with that orange-haired fool,” James Wareham, a Washington litigator and Bush fundraiser, said in an e-mail. ”Not a chance I could ever vote for him, never mind support him.”
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.
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.
With Bush out of the way, the Florida picture may reverse, according to John Rood, a Jacksonville, Florida, 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, he said in an interview.
“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.”
Another top Florida fundraiser, Al Hoffman, said yesterday he’s still “in mourning” over Bush but will probably end up backing the state’s junior senator.
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 a call and e-mail Sunday.
Even before Bush withdrew from the race, a few top donors were drifting away as he languished in the polls. They include Bruce Berkowitz, the Florida money manager who put $250,000 behind Rubio after an early bet on Bush; and Harlan Crow, the Texas real-estate developer who supported Right to Rise last year and whose family partnership sent $250,000 to Rubio’s super-PAC in January.
Another super-PAC donor who didn’t wait for Bush to drop out was Brian Ballard, a Florida lobbyist who switched to Rubio, saying that the party needs to rally behind a candidate who can beat Trump.
“At some point this will become a three-man race, then a two-man race, and a different dynamic will emerge,” Ballard said over the weekend.
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 the Ohio governor John 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.
Rubio’s and Kasich’s official campaigns each have picked up more than 100 contributions from donors who had given to Bush earlier, according to Federal Elections Commission records that are current as of Jan. 31. Those contributions were worth $265,000 for Rubio and $167,000 for Kasich.
Campaigns compete aggressively for top donors and fundraisers. Sabin, who runs an East Hampton, New York-based precious metals company, gave $95,000 to Right to Rise and also rounded up other donations for Bush. He said Rubio’s staff emails him each day, and Cruz supporters call him regularly. He’s not enthusiastic about any of his options, and says he fantasizes about a scenario in which the general election is inconclusive and Congress appoints Mitt Romney president. “That’s my dreamworld,” he says. Kilberg has been raising money for Republicans since 1987, when she aided Jeb’s father, George H.W. Bush. In 2012, she said, her network rounded up $4.1 million in campaign contributions for