GOP donor eyes 2014 push to expand diversity

Francis Rooney, a major Mitt Romney donor and George W. Bush bundler, is planning to spend big on the upcoming elections to expand the GOP’s diversity, and he's already set his sights on two competitive Republican primaries.

Rooney told The Hill in an interview Wednesday that he’s already contributed to the campaign of Oklahoma House Speaker T.W. Shannon, who running for the open Senate seat there, and is planning to back state Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto over three other Republicans vying for the open seat in Florida’s 19th Congressional District.

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He has deep Oklahoma ties through his family’s construction business and gave $1 million to Romney’s 2012 presidential bid and $150,000 to GOP group American Crossroads last year. Though he wouldn’t put a price tag on the Senate race or other 2014 elections, he did say he’s planning to invest heavily in “compelling” races.

The Oklahoma race is on his radar, he said, partly because he believes the African-American Shannon can help grow the GOP.

“This is a compelling situation to me because of T.W.’s unique background,” he said, noting Shannon is both black and a Chickasaw. “I’m completely sold on the need for diverse Republican role models, and his family background and struggles make for a compelling story.”

Shannon is facing Rep. James Lankford (Okla.) and former state Sen. Randy Brogdon in the GOP primary for retiring Sen. Tom Coburn’s (R-Okla.) seat, and the candidates are competing to lay claim to the conservative mantle Coburn has long carried.

Conservatives have largely panned Lankford’s candidacy, while Shannon already picked up one big endorsement with that wing of the party from Sarah Palin on Wednesday.

But asked whether he felt Shannon was more in Coburn’s mold than Lankford, Rooney demurred.

“You can’t compare them, it’s not apples to apples,” he said, noting the two operate at different levels of government.

Rooney said he’s given the legal maximum to Shannon’s campaign, hopes to host a fundraiser for him and is “in talks” to support the group Oklahomans for a Conservative Future, which recently began airing positive television advertisements on Shannon’s behalf.

His investment in the race will be geared toward expanding Shannon’s reach to Eastern Oklahoma and to “make sure that he can get his message out and not be misunderstood,” noting that state legislative issues were often too complicated for 30-second sound bites.

In addition to Oklahoma, Rooney said he’s planning to invest in the Senate races in North Carolina, Arkansas and Louisiana, held by Democratic Sens. Kay Hagan, Mark Pryor and Mary Landrieu, respectively. They’re all expected to face tough races this fall in their GOP-leaning states. 

Rooney cited North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis and Reps. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Bill Cassidy (R-La.) as “compelling” candidates he thought were worth supporting in their races, an indication he may go to bat to boost either Tillis or Cassidy ahead of their Republican primary opponents.

Ultimately, he said, his investments are meant to prevent the GOP from dying out.

“This party is going to become a fossil if we don’t embrace immigration reform and show the diverse people of our country that the Republican Party is open to them, and we have proactive, constructive solutions, rather than rolling up the carpet behind us,” Rooney said. 

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