Behind a garden modeled on Monet's, Jeb Bush addressed a lawn-full of chief executives and hedge-fund managers at an East Hampton, New York, estate Saturday morning. While the candidate is no stranger to courting wealthy donors, this time was different: about half the attendees were Democrats.
"This guy sells well," said Kenneth Lipper, the money manager and registered Democrat who hosted the event, after Bush left. Virtually the only one who left without writing a check, Lipper said, was a buck deer that wandered past the group assembled on the wooded grounds.
The wealthiest donors are playing an unprecedented role in the early stages of the 2016 race. For the first time ever, most candidates are raising more money through super-PACs, which can accept donations of up to $1 million or more, than through the traditional campaign accounts that are capped at $2,700 per donor.
No one has raised as much in this new environment as Bush, who had amassed about $103 million in his super-PAC and another $11 million for his campaign by the end of June. The Lipper event shows how widely Bush is ranging in his quest for donors.
The race for money adds to the importance of places like the Hamptons, Wall Street's oceanside playground, where Lipper remarked that it's become fashionable to spend more than $100 million on a vacation home. The entire annual income for the median U.S. household—$50,000—wouldn’t cover more than 900 of the summer rentals here listed on one brokerage's website.
After answering questions for an hour at Lipper's event, Bush left for two more gatherings at a pair of mansions near the beach.
"People with money like him," said Andrew Sabin, 69, a top local Republican fundraiser and a co-host of one of the Bush events. "I'm sure there's a lot of poor people that like him too. It so happens there's not a lot of poor people in the Hamptons."
Bush's schedule took him to the six-bedroom beachside mansion of Clifford Sobel, a former ambassador and entrepreneur, who served crab cakes and bruschetta. Then there were cocktails at the home of Emil Henry, a former Treasury official and now the CEO of an infrastructure fund.
The Bush campaign wouldn't comment on the events or say how much was raised, but Lipper said his event alone raised about $230,000.
Over a salad on the deck at the South Fork Country Club prior to attending two of the fundraisers, Sabin said donors appreciate the way Bush's staff keeps in touch.
"We get a rundown every week—they're very transparent," said Sabin, who runs a precious-metals refining business with offices from China to Dubai. "Some guys take your money, you don’t know what they're talking about until you read it in the newspaper."
During a course of the lunch with his girlfriend, Kathy Qian, Sabin passed out copies of a magazine that features him and his 60-foot fishing boat, Above the Ground; said he gave to 256 charities; and mentioned the climate-change center he created at Columbia Law School ("a big one"). An ardent environmentalist, Sabin said he's encouraging Bush to become "the Teddy Roosevelt of this century." He said he's indifferent to the rise of big money in politics.
"I believe in free enterprise," Sabin said. "You earned that money, you can do what you want with it. I don’t have a problem with it at all."
In some ways, the Hamptons are Hillary Clinton territory. The Democratic candidate and her husband have often rented summer homes here, and it's popular with movie stars and entertainers who tilt liberal. Suffolk County favored Democrats in the last three presidential races.
But Lipper estimated that the crowd of about 70 at his event was almost evenly split between the parties, and virtually every one of them donated to Bush. Lipper, 74, said he introduced Bush as the candidate who will "bring unity and civility to the process." He was impressed when Bush started his visit by introducing himself to Lipper's kitchen staff.
Lipper's career in finance includes creating the Lipper & Co. investment management firm and advising Oliver Stone on the film Wall Street. He was also a key fundraiser for New York City Mayor Ed Koch, and later served in his administration.
Despite the opulent surroundings, the Hamptons hosts couldn't spend much on food and drink without running up against limits on in-kind campaign contributions, Lipper said. So he limited his expenses to about $2,000. That meant a simple brunch of berries and melon, mini-bagels, and cheese quiche.
"It was kind of spartan, he said, "but it was fine."