Sen. Marco Rubio hauled in a load of cash from Washington business interests during the first three months of the year, building out a donor network that could propel a White House run in 2016.
Other potential 2016 candidates tallied larger fundraising totals during that same time span. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), for instance, raised $1.6 million during 2014’s first quarter.
But Rubio’s extensive fundraising support from Washington’s business class could give him a leg up in the shadow money primary that has long been central to the presidential process.
“Over the time he's been in town, he's established a network of folks in the downtown community who would consider themselves Team Rubio,” said one longtime GOP fundraiser.
Rubio’s donor rolls read like a who’s who of the business community. In the first three months of the year, the political action committees of corporate heavyweights such as Microsoft, American Airlines and Verizon have chipped in donations.
Donations also came from a PACs linked to the Koch brothers and the chief executive of the Palm Restaurant Group.
Despite the show of support from the business community, Rubio is in the middle of the pack when it comes to possible 2016 contenders.
Paul and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who have both indicated White House ambitions, are more popular than Rubio among the conservative grassroots.
Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Scott Walker of Wisconsin — as well as the party’s last vice presidential nominee, Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) — are said to be mulling presidential bids as well.
Rubio’s fellow Floridian, former Gov. Jeb Bush, has also said he’ll take until the end of the year to decide whether to run. Many doubt that Rubio would run against Bush, who was a mentor for him in Florida politics.
Still, if Rubio’s fundraising operation is any indication, he could emerge as one of the strongest contenders for the GOP nomination.
Wayne Berman of the Blackstone Group, Bill Paxon of Akin Gump and Dirk Van Dongen of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors — three veteran GOP fundraisers — are among the prominent Republican figures helping to drum up contributions to Rubio’s operation.
Lobbyists and corporate PACs are getting on board.
In just the last three months, Drew Maloney of Hess Corp., Sam Geduldig of Clark Geduldig Cranford Nielsen and Stephen Schwarzman, Blackstone’s chief executive, also opened up their wallets for Rubio.
So did at least five staffers at BGR Government Affairs, the downtown powerhouse founded by Haley Barbour, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee and Mississippi governor, and two lobbyists from Capitol Counsel.
The longtime GOP fundraiser said, at least for now, the breadth of contacts that Rubio was making downtown are as important as the money he's bringing in.
“It’s as much about building up infrastructure as it is about how much gold you're putting in the bank,” the fundraiser said. “They have done a very sophisticated job of building that infrastructure up, and then using it on behalf of other Republican candidates.”
But the fundraiser also said Rubio will have to employ a delicate touch to avoid being cast as too establishment.
“I’m not trying to spin anyone. They’re conscious of that reality, and we’re respectful of that reality,” the fundraiser said. “They’re very mindful of it.”
Rubio’s political operation declined to comment.
One of the unanswered questions from Rubio is whether he can recover from the political damage caused by his work on immigration reform.
The senator’s political stock took a dive after his role in crafting the Senate’s comprehensive immigration bill, which is loathed by many grassroots conservatives.
And there remains tension between elements of the Republican coalition in Washington. Pro-business Republicans have split with party members who consider themselves more pro-free market on issues like reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank and extending a slew of expired tax breaks for businesses.
Jeff Birnbaum of BGR Public Affairs, who covered lobbying extensively as a journalist, cautioned not to read too much into Rubio’s first-quarter haul, saying he had yet to see K Street coalesce behind one potential GOP candidate.
“In the money primary, it doesn’t really matter where it comes from, except that any candidate would like to show that they get money from a wide range of sources,” said Birnbaum, whose books included Lobbyists and Showdown at Gucci Gulch.
“Getting money from D.C. is an indication that there are serious political and policy people who are supporting that candidate. But it’s just one part of the picture."
Birnbaum added that there would be plenty of ways for Rubio — and other candidates, for that matter — to accept money from lobbyists without being seen as too establishment.
“No one wants all their money to come from registered lobbyists,” he said. “But no one wants all their money to come from any particular place in general.”
—Megan R. Wilson contributed.