Republicans battle for Bush donors
© Greg Nash

Now that Jeb Bush has dropped out of the presidential race, the fight is on between Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioDem scores upset over Republican in Florida county commissioner race GOP senators introduce bill to prevent family separations at border McCain, Coons: Trump should withdraw controversial refugee nominee MORE and Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzConservatives express concern over House GOP immigration bill GOP senators introduce bill to prevent family separations at border Senate GOP tries to defuse Trump border crisis MORE for the most valuable asset in Republican politics: The Bush family donor network.

Bush’s exit frees up some of the biggest donors in conservative politics, who banded together to give $118 million to the super-PAC Right to Rise, which spent most of its money in a failed attempt to make the former Florida governor the Republican nominee.

Freed from their obligations to the Bush family, many of these wealthy donors will likely gravitate toward Rubio, given his closer attachment to the establishment wing of the GOP. But sources in the Bush donor network caution that some will stay on the sidelines, while others will be drawn to Cruz, either through Texas connections or because of an admiration of his ground game.

John Kasich appeals to many Bush supporters, but his fifth place finish in South Carolina, with just 7.6 percent of the vote, will not leave many with confidence he can defeat Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpConservatives express concern over House GOP immigration bill Poll: McSally holds 14-point lead in Arizona GOP Senate primary Trump defends Nielsen amid criticism over family separations MORE.

“I think the majority [of Bush donors] are going to see Rubio as someone who can unify the party and win,” said Fred Malek, the finance chairman of the Republican Governors Association and one of the best-connected fundraisers in conservative politics.

Malek, who remains neutral in the GOP primaries, is a useful proxy for pro-Bush establishment donors because he would prefer a governor win the nomination — and he still likes Kasich — but he is also realistic after South Carolina’s results.

“If [Kasich] had finished with 23 percent instead of 7 or 8, or Bush finished with 23, they would be the ones that [donors] are gravitating towards. But they didn’t,” Malek said in a Sunday telephone interview.

Malek acknowledges some bad blood remains between the Rubio and Bush camps after a brutal primary contest, but he believes many establishment donors will “rise above that, suck it up and support Rubio” to serve the larger purpose of nominating a Republican who can win a general election against Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonLewandowski says 'womp womp' at story of young girl being separated from mother at border Giuliani: FBI asked me about tease of a 'surprise' before election Republicans tear into IG finding on Clinton probe MORE.

Meanwhile, Rubio fundraisers are claiming Bush’s money spigot is opening to them.

“I think the vast majority of Jeb folks will join Marco,” said Brian Ballard, a Florida lobbyist and former Bush fundraiser who is now raising money for Rubio. “I'm not having to sell hard. The case is clear and people want to join. They are joining as we speak.”

Rubio’s fundraisers and donors say they’ve immediately started hitting the phones to pick up the pieces from Bush’s failed campaign.

“Yes, completely, 100 percent,” Peter Brown, a Rubio fundraiser in South Carolina, said of his expectation for Bush’s money to be redirected to Rubio.

Rubio’s team may not find the going entirely easy, though. Some influential Bush supporters are taking a breath after Saturday night’s loss; one of the governor’s best-connected younger donors, Jay Zeidman, said he and his network were so loyal to Bush and believed so deeply in him that they will not immediately jump to another candidate.

“I have talked to a lot of my friends … and at this point everyone wants to take a break, catch their breath and see how things go,” Zeidman said in a telephone interview Sunday.

Zeidman is close to Jeb’s sons, George P. and Jeb Jr., and he is a senior player in the young professionals fundraising network Mission: Next, which the Texas businessman says raised more than $2 million in hard campaign dollars for Bush.

“We can have more impact going together,” Zeidman said of his young donor network, adding that it will likely take until Super Tuesday to see whether Rubio or Cruz has the better ability to win against Trump. “Nobody wants to coalesce around one person and a week later it stops and then you go to the next person.”

Austin Barbour, a Bush adviser who has strong ties to the GOP donor community, said he thinks the majority of Bush donors will go to Rubio — some because to their historical Florida ties — but he also believes the Cruz campaign is making a strong case for support.

“The Cruz campaign is very organized, very smart, and I think they have a strategy to go after as many of the Jeb finance and political people as they can,” Barbour said.

“I can’t imagine one Jeb Bush supporter is going to Trump. Not one,” he added.

Barbour also believes, like Zeidman, that many Bush donors will, at least for the short term, remain on the sidelines. Some of these donors, who have spoken to The Hill, gave more than $1 million to Bush’s super-PAC and truly believed the former Florida governor stood head and shoulders above his rivals. Some have been loyal to the Bush family for decades, and the full weight of their support will not shift easily.

As for Barbour himself, he says it is too early to say whom he will support. His more immediate plan is to do whatever he can to ensure Trump is not the Republican nominee for president.

A major topic of discussion Sunday within Republican donor circles is what will happen to the money remaining in the Right to Rise super-PAC. There were reports last week that there is $15 million left in the account.

A leading and unaligned Republican fundraiser, who spoke on condition of anonymity to be candid about Right to Rise, said he hoped the remaining Bush super-PAC money is used to support Rubio and defeat Trump and Cruz.

But another senior Republican operative, who has experience advising a major super-PAC, says there are only two options in his mind: The first is to give the money to charity, and the second is to return it to donors on a percentage basis.

Right to Rise spokesman Paul Lindsay did not immediately return a call for comment.

If Rubio does win the lion’s share of Bush’s support, it does not come without risks.

Brown, the Rubio fundraiser, acknowledges there are dangers inherent in having claimed the establishment mantle from Bush, noting it’s not something they asked for.

Rubio, he noted, ran as a Tea Party conservative as he sought his first term in Congress in 2010.

“I don’t know how this happened,” said Brown. “Marco was Tea Party guy, a Jim DeMint guy. 

"The concept of who is or who is not establishment is off. We got tossed into the establishment lane, we didn’t select it. It’s all relative, I guess. If you’re running against Cruz and Trump, by default you’re in establishment.”