By Alexander Bolton - 06/06/13 09:00 AM EDT
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has assembled a team of heavyweight Washington insiders to raise money for his future political ambitions.
A group of well-connected lobbyists and fundraisers met with Rubio at the National Republican Senatorial Committee headquarters two weeks ago to discuss the senator’s fundraising strategy.
The powwow had the feeling of a presidential-style steering committee, according to people in the room.
A lobbyist who attended the gathering said the purpose was “to engage people on a more full-time basis to raise money for Rubio’s campaign and for his leadership PAC.”
“It’s mostly for his leadership PAC. He’s going to be very engaged in helping others around the country and getting the message out,” said the source, who requested anonymity. The source estimated more than two dozen “downtown folks from all different industries” attended the meeting.
The unspoken assumption in the room was that the fundraising group would help launch Rubio’s presidential campaign if he decided to aim for the White House.
“I took it as preparation, to be prepared to run for the White House,” said an attendee.
The heads of Rubio’s K Street money machine are Dirk Van Dongen, president of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors, and former Rep. Bill Paxon (R-N.Y.), a senior adviser at the lobbying firm Akin Gump.
Van Dongen bundled $1.4 million for GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a group that tracks fundraising. Paxon bundled $543,500 for Romney.
Wayne Berman, a senior adviser at the global investment firm Blackstone; Michael Zarrelli, manager of federal affairs at Amway; Matt Keelen, president of The Keelen Group; and tax lobbyist Patrick Raffaniello were some of the attendees. Paxon was absent, but was represented by Geoff Verhoff, according to a source.
Berman bundled $478,000 in contributions for Romney in 2012, and Zarrelli bundled $106,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
A spokesman for Rubio declined to comment.
The 42-year-old senator has already begun to collect political chits by helping out colleagues with his fundraising network and popularity among Republican donors.
Rubio’s leadership fund, Reclaim America PAC, recently spent a six-figure sum on an ad to defend New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) from attack ads funded by a gun control group backed by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
“I’m certainly appreciative of his help,” Ayotte said. “Any ad that presents the truth, which is what his ad did — given that Mayor Bloomberg is spending millions of dollars on false ads against me — is very helpful.”
Ayotte, whose state plays a huge role in deciding presidential nominees, is expected to be a major player in the 2016 race.
People familiar with Rubio’s fundraising operation say he hasn’t yet made a decision to run for president, but wants to lay the groundwork so he can have that option two years from now.
Rubio plans to travel to New York in the near future to hold a fundraiser for Gabriel Gomez, the Republican who is running against Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) in a special election to replace former Sen. John Kerry.
Rubio’s political action committee recently sent a fundraising email to his supporters touting New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as a conservative leader. Christie is up for reelection in November and could be one of Rubio’s rivals in three years.
Earlier this year, Rubio visited Kentucky to help raise more than $200,000 for Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.).
Rubio wants to help his party win the majority in 2014, when Democrats have to defend seats in conservative-leaning states across the country. But these political favors could also help him if he runs for president and needs to expand his donor network and recruit staff in primary states around the country.
A group of D.C. insiders with strong track records for raising money could help Rubio put together a sophisticated campaign operation in 2015.
Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), who won the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, relied on K Street haymakers to build his war chest.
Berman and Van Dongen each bundled more than $500,000 for McCain five years ago, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Zarrelli raised almost $1 million for former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s 2008 presidential bid.
Van Dongen, who raised more than $200,000 as a “Ranger” for former President George W. Bush, initially supported Giuliani in 2008.
Rubio raised $2.29 million through his Senate campaign committee, leadership PAC and a joint fundraising account during the first three months of 2013.
He reported $1.49 million in his Senate account and $565,500 in his leadership PAC at the end of March, according to the Federal Election Commission.