Dirk Van Dongen has raised money for Republican presidential candidates for three decades and will be a financial force for Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign –- if Jeb Bush doesn’t run.
He’s not the only fundraiser parked in neutral. Bush’s indecision is keeping Republican money and operatives on the sidelines much the way former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s possible bid is blocking her would-be Democratic opponents from making inroads with the party’s donor class.
“Both of them effectively freeze in place your fundraising cadre on both sides,” said Van Dongen, president of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors. “They are both the 800-pound gorilla in their respective field.”
The 2016 presidential race at this stage is an inverse of the 1988 election, said Anthony Corrado, a professor specializing in campaign finance at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.
Back then, Vice President George H.W. Bush entered the Republican primary with a dominant political and fundraising apparatus -- his Christmas card list included 250,000 names, Corrado recalled -- while Democrats waited in vain for New York Governor Mario Cuomo to enter the race.
When Cuomo opted not to run, the party was left with the “Seven Dwarfs,” a nickname for the second-tier candidates who competed for a nomination that eventually went to Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. Dukakis lost to Bush, 426 to 111 in the Electoral College and by about 7 percentage points in the popular vote.
The Democratic nomination race “shaped up late, and the way it did, because of the waiting to see what Mario Cuomo would do,” Corrado said.
The danger for Republicans in 2016 is that an establishment freeze brought on by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s bridge scandal and Bush’s reticence could leave the party’s eventual nominee lagging in preparation behind Clinton, whose supporters already are building voter and donor lists.
It’s the e-mail lists that count in modern politics, said Nicco Mele, a lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and former web strategist for Democrat Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential run.
If Clinton runs, she’ll have access to the names of more than 2 million supporters through Ready for Hillary, one of several super-political action committees backing her.
Ready for Hillary had raised more than $4 million by the end of 2013, including a check from billionaire financier George Soros, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission. Another big-money group, Priorities USA Action, is packing its board and staff with former Clinton hands such as Hollywood liaison Andy Spahn.
Clinton also has a traditional donor network, having raised $230 million for her 2008 Democratic primary race against President Barack Obama.
Ben Barnes, the former lieutenant governor of Texas and a top Democratic donor for congressional and presidential campaigns, said the challenge for other prospective Democratic White House contenders, including Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, who want to build their war chests is that they, too, must remain patient.
“I’m sure Governor O’Malley recognizes there’s an obvious wait-and-see on what Secretary of State Clinton’s going to do,” Barnes said.
Clinton, 66, said yesterday that while she is contemplating a presidential candidacy, she isn’t in a hurry to decide. “I’m not going to make a decision for a while because I’m actually enjoying my life,” she said at an appearance in San Francisco.
Mark McKinnon, who was a top media adviser for President George W. Bush, said Clinton’s speedy start won’t stop Republicans from catching up.
“While Hillary Clinton’s super-PACs certainly will have an advantage by organizing and raising money early, I don’t think in the end it will make that much difference,” McKinnon said in an e-mail. “Whoever the GOP nominee ends up being will have more than enough financial support to wage a competitive campaign.”
Jeb Bush, who left the governor’s office seven years ago, has stoked speculation with some of his recent travels. Late last month, the son of one president and brother of another was in Las Vegas at an event where he spent time with billionaire Republican donor and casino owner Sheldon Adelson -- something Rubio did a year earlier. Christie also attended this year’s gathering.
Rubio recently said he’d decide on a presidential run early next year and that Bush’s path wouldn’t affect his own, although he considers the former governor a mentor.
“I think people make decisions based on themselves, not on what someone else is going to do,” Rubio, 42, said during a Reuters Health Summit in Washington.
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a former member of the House Republican leadership in Washington, said Bush, 61, has the luxury of time because of his universal name recognition and deep ties to a national network of contributors.
“There is a broad swath of donors who are waiting to see what Jeb’s decision is,” Putnam said.
There are Republican candidates who stand to benefit from Bush putting everyone else in a holding pattern.
If Christie, 51, can extricate himself from the George Washington Bridge lane-closure investigation, he may gain from donor idling in these early months.
As chairman of the Republican Governors Association, Christie is meeting with contributors and raising money for the party’s statehouse candidates. Christie generated a record $23.5 million in the first three months of this year for the RGA.
Last month, he attended a fundraiser for Governor Rick Snyder in Grand Rapids, Michigan. During the event, billionaire Richard DeVos, founder of Amway Corp. in Ada, Michigan, and owner of the National Basketball League’s Orlando Magic in Florida, expressed support for a Christie 2016 run, according to a person in the room not authorized to speak to the media.
Nick Wasmiller, an Amway and DeVos spokesman, declined to comment.
“Smart money” is going to wait on what Bush or Christie decide about making a run, said Julian Zelizer, a history professor at Princeton University in New Jersey, “so it’s hard for anyone else to make a real pitch at this point.”
That could be a good thing for the party, said Scott Reed, a political strategist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a Washington-based business trade group, and manager of Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole’s 1996 campaign.
“A good, healthy fight on the Republican side will create a strong candidate,” he said.
Among other prospective candidates, Senators Rand Paul, 51, of Kentucky and Ted Cruz, 43, of Texas have made the most progress in building support, Mele said. Those two leveraged legislative fights -- Paul on National Security Administration surveillance programs and Cruz on repealing Obama’s Affordable Care Act -- as e-mail-list boosters, he said.
Representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah, who is close to 2012 nominee Mitt Romney, said calls for Indiana Governor Mike Pence, 54, to join the field will grow in the coming months.
“There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes chatter and not yet a whole lot of attention about him,” Chaffetz said, arguing that Bush isn’t the best candidate, in part because of his name.
“That ‘Bush’ hurdle is a big one,” Chaffetz said. “I think he’d probably actually be a very good president, but I shudder to think that we’re going to go back and have another Bush-Clinton discussion. Can’t we move on?”