Billionaire Wilbur Ross invited Paul Ryan over for lunch. Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Wells Fargo & Co. bankers met with Rand Paul at a fundraiser in Atlanta. Investor Rob Arnott dropped in on Ted Cruz.
Wall Street Republicans have begun their White House dance less than halfway into a second Barack Obama term they tried to prevent with record donations to Mitt Romney. As investigations slow Chris Christie, whose backers have included a troop of billionaires, donors are looking for a candidate who can replace the constraints they detest with appreciation they think is due.
That’s led to fervor for Jeb Bush, admiration for Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and even flirtation with Tea Party senators, according to more than a dozen interviews with fund managers, bankers and investors who open wallets for politics.
“It’s kind of like dating,” said Jack Oliver, a senior adviser at Barclays Plc and a former national finance vice chairman for George W. Bush. “Everybody has a good time, but people are not ready to get married.”
Christie was the early favorite. More than half a dozen billionaire investors, including hedge-fund managers Paul Singer and Daniel Loeb, had rallied around the New Jersey governor for years, with Home Depot Inc. co-founder Ken Langone urging him to run in the last White House race. Another, Stan Druckenmiller, called him “a once-in-a-generation leader” even after e-mails showed Christie aides arranged to close lanes to the George Washington Bridge for political revenge.
The governor’s approval ratings plunged only months after his landslide re-election victory in November, when he ran as a savior of “fiscal sanity” who curbed public-worker benefits and capped property taxes. Some Republicans have skipped appearances with Christie as he faces probes into the traffic jams and hurricane-relief funds.
Joseph Grano, chairman of New York-based Centurion Holdings LLC and a former head of UBS AG’s U.S. wealth-management arm, threw a fundraiser for Christie in July. Last month, he called the governor “the lead dog in the hunt” who now has “this huge negative PR issue.” Grano, 66, said he would hold off on another event until there’s clarity about the blocked bridge.
“The establishment is now looking for another favorite,” said Greg Valliere, chief political strategist for Washington-based Potomac Research Group, which analyzes policy for investors. “And by the establishment, I mean Wall Street.”
Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican who was Romney’s vice presidential candidate in 2012 and is chairman of the House Budget Committee, met last month with executives from hedge funds, private-equity firms and at least one bank at the lunch held in Ross’s New York office. Ross, whose private plane was grounded by mechanical trouble, participated by videoconference.
Kathryn Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, a business-backed group that organized the lunch, said Ryan understands that her members want the focus shifted away from social issues to taxes and regulation. She wouldn’t disclose the names of any of the people who attended the meeting, held just after President’s Day.
“Some of the Republican potential candidates play to the populist anti-bank sentiment as badly as the left wing,” Wylde said, pointing to a levy on the biggest banks proposed by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, a Michigan Republican, as the kind of plan that her members see as “punitive or ignorant.”
A belief among bankers that Obama is both persists even as the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index has doubled since he took office and the national deficit has been cut in half. Some executives see the White House’s lack of support for Wall Street jeopardizing nothing short of the American way.
John Taft, great-grandson of a president and chief executive officer of RBC Wealth Management in the U.S., likened his fear for the country to “hiding under my desk during air-raid drills because of the Cuban missile crisis,” when “literally the future of humanity hung in the balance.”
Taft, who’s also chairman emeritus of the Securities Industry & Financial Markets Association, a lobbying group, said he’s looking for a candidate who respects Wall Street’s crucial role and can halt the Dodd-Frank Act, passed to overhaul regulation after the 2008 global credit crisis.
“If I were God, I would say let’s stop, let’s assess,” said Taft, 59, who wouldn’t say whether he has found the right person. “We’re swinging too far into overdoing it.”
Taft and Grano both called Wall Street’s Washington priorities a matter of pragmatism, not ideology. They said they don’t see greed in an emphasis on regulation and prosperity.
“It’s about getting people back to work, getting the American Dream reestablished,” Grano said. “And that’s what Obama doesn’t understand, OK? He just doesn’t get it.”
Nate Morris, a Lexington, Kentucky-based entrepreneur, isn’t shy about wooing bankers on behalf of Senator Paul, who represents his state.
“We’ve built a pretty hefty network of Wall Street bankers,” said Morris, CEO of recycling-services firm Rubicon Global, who raised more than $50,000 for George W. Bush’s re-election. He said Paul, who sued Obama this year over surveillance, stayed focused on finance when he met with bankers in New York and at an Atlanta fundraiser in January.
“If it’s not about upward mobility, let’s just not talk about it,” Morris, 33, said about the banker chats. “I think they’re very open to the idea of having conversations. Everybody’s so frustrated.”
Paul won the Conservative Political Action Conference’s straw poll this month for the second year in a row, beating other potential nominees with 31 percent of the vote. A January Washington Post survey of Republicans and independents who lean to the party showed Jeb Bush and Ryan as top choices ahead of Christie. Paul placed fifth.
Bush, the son and brother of U.S. presidents, was Florida’s governor until 2007. That year he became a director of Orlando-based bank holding company CNLBancshares Inc. and a member of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc.’s private-equity advisory board. He’s now a senior adviser at London-based Barclays.
“If Jeb says ‘I’m in,’ I think all the Wall Street money goes to him,” Potomac’s Valliere said. “Like, immediately.”
The finance industry isn’t only a top political priority for bankers. It can color the way they see the electoral process itself, with references to some candidates as short-term trades and others as growth stocks. Oliver, the Barclays adviser, compared running for president to taking a company public and having to show a return on investment.
“You’ve got institutional investors which are going to fill up your book,” said Oliver, 45, who would like to see Jeb Bush run. “Wall Street people, they want to invest. They want to see an ROI.”
Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, who ran American International Group Inc. for decades, said he liked Jeb Bush’s experience with both governing and the private sector.
Greenberg, 88, said he’s looking for a candidate who can guide the country “away from the view that we should take from the rich and give to the poor.” He and hedge-fund billionaire John Paulson both said they’re impressed by Walker, who curbed Wisconsin public employees’ collective-bargaining rights and proposed cutting taxes by more than $500 million.
Wall Street reaction to others tied to the Tea Party was less consistent. Cruz, Paul and Florida’s Marco Rubio were among Republican senators who opposed raising the debt ceiling in October, when banking groups said threatening a U.S. default was destructive or childish. Even so, Goldman Sachs employees as a group are among the top five career contributors to Rubio and Cruz, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Cruz’s wife is a managing director at the New York-based bank.
Rubio’s New York visit last year with Blackstone Group LP CEO Steve Schwarzman was memorialized by a photo of the pair grinning above two penguins from SeaWorld, owned by the firm. The billionaire, who wouldn’t comment, has made more than $500,000 in political donations, Federal Election Commission data show. Last year he contributed $10,000 to Rubio’s Senate campaign, his political action committee and a victory fund.
Arnott, 59, chairman of Newport Beach, California-based Research Affiliates LLC, said he and his wife met Cruz for a “wonderful” private talk late last year. The meeting in the Texas senator’s Capitol Hill office was arranged by the Club for Growth, an anti-tax group to which Arnott has given at least $1 million since 2010. Arnott said he was able to ask Cruz why he fought over the national debt.
“His basic answer was, ‘Because I believe in it, because it was necessary,’” said Arnott, whose firm has licensed strategies to institutional investors including Pacific Investment Management Co., the world’s largest bond manager.
With the 2016 election more than two years away, Wall Street hasn’t forgotten about midterm elections that will decide who controls Congress. The securities and investment industry has given $48 million to 2014 House and Senate candidates, more than any group besides retirees, and more than twice as much to the National Republican Senatorial Committee as the next-biggest donor, Center for Responsive Politics data show.
That doesn’t guarantee success. Donations topping $21 million to former Bain Capital LLC head Romney were the most the industry ever gave a candidate. Romney, now chairman of the executive committee of Solamere Capital, the private-equity firm co-founded by his son Tagg Romney and named for a Utah ski enclave, told CNN last month he won’t run in 2016.
Some Wall Street Republican donors expressed disgust for the Tea Party’s stance against gay marriage or unease about how hard it could be for politicians fueled by the movement to win a majority of national voters.
“I don’t have much time for Mr. Cruz,” said Dan Kirby, a Sioux Falls, South Dakota-based investor who has attended the private conclaves for donors hosted by billionaires Charles and David Koch.
If the Republican Party’s presidential nominee doesn’t share Kirby’s admiration for capitalism, he’ll consider voting for Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton.
“I could be turned,” he said, calling her support for the Republican nominee 50 years ago a plus. “Mrs. Clinton was a Goldwater girl, you know.”