It may not be only the right flank of the Republican party that’s crowded in 2016. Mitt Romney is more open to a third presidential bid than ever before, according to friends and top donors of the former Massachusetts governor, which means there might be a bloody battle on the establishment side of the field as well.
“The governor is preserving his options — that’s the message I’ve gotten from Boston,” says Robert O’Brien, a Los Angeles lawyer who served as a foreign-policy adviser on Romney’s 2012 campaign. When I spoke with O’Brien in December, he told me that Romney was not considering a 2016 run but that “circumstances could change.”
In Romney world, the thinking about a 2016 bid has ratcheted up, and his top donors, most of whom remain quite loyal, have gotten the signal. O’Brien tells me that the shift in his own language reflects what he’s hearing from Romney and his team in Boston, which right now consists only of Spencer Zwick, who served as finance director on both of Romney’s presidential campaigns, and Zwick’s deputy, Matt Waldrip. Both Zwick and Waldrip work with Romney’s eldest son, Tagg, at the Boston-based private-equity firm Solamere Capital. O’Brien has spoken with a number of key donors who have relayed their hope the governor will run; they are sending him the message, either directly or through former staffers, that they want him in the race.
The renewed speculation about Romney’s intentions comes as former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who is likely to kick off his presidential bid in the spring, is beginning to raise money for his newly launched political-action committee. Bush and Romney, both former Republican governors, would occupy the same space in a Republican primary and compete for many of the same donors. A source close to Bush says he is spending the week fundraising in New York City before departing for Boston.
Romney’s money men, for their part, are dismissing any concern that Bush might pick off enough of their top-dollar donors to deprive him of the money — about $75 million — that he’d need to propel him through the primaries. A top Romney bundler says that losing some of 2012’s largest donors to Bush “wouldn’t be a problem,” because Romney could mount a White House bid with “a fifth of the core group that we had before.”
That confidence speaks to the breadth and depth of Romney’s 2012 fundraising operation. Romney, who, like Barack Obama, raised more than $1 billion, did so by bringing new people into the fundraising world. They were acquaintances from his days at both Bain & Co. and Bain Capital who had gone on to start their own businesses. Meg Whitman is one example, in addition to the corporate chiefs who came to know him through his work as the turnaround artist of the 2002 Olympic games in Salt Lake City. In states such as Idaho, Utah, Nevada, and California, he also tapped a lot of Mormon wealth from donors who had contributed to races on the local and state level but not on the presidential level.
Bush isn’t being bashful about raising money or tapping his family connections. On Wednesday he attended a fundraiser in Greenwich, Conn., which was organized by Craig and Debbie Walker Stapleton, a Bush cousin. Craig Stapleton served as ambassador to France and the Czech Republic under George W. Bush.
Donors and political strategists alike were buzzing about the optics of sending Bush to Greenwich, a haven for wealthy New York City financiers and a city where the Bush family has long had ties; the governor’s grandfather, the late Connecticut senator Prescott Bush, was born in Greenwich. Skeptics argue that the optics and symbolism run counter to Bush’s effort to make clear to donors and voters alike that he is his own man.
“It made sense because Craig Stapleton is family,” says a top Republican donor. “But it could also be perceived as a sign of weakness that the only person he could get to do a major fundraiser was a family member who was in the prior administration.” Bush took some heat, too, for announcing the formation of his PAC in a video filmed on the streets of New York in front of the financial behemoth BlackRock.
The former Florida governor is taking the flak in stride. A source close to him says that he has and will continue to raise money and meet with voters across the country and that in fact his first fundraising was done not in Greenwich but in Miami, Chicago, and Dallas in December. One Republican strategist speculates that Bush’s week-long New York City stint could be an attempt to capitalize on the weakness of another potential 2016 rival: New Jersey governor Chris Christie. Securities and Exchanges Commission rules forbid employees of financial firms who do business with state governments (or who may seek to do investment-advisory business with them) from contributing to Christie or other state officials. Donors have openly expressed their concerns about the effect those rules could have on a Christie campaign.
The Romney 2016 buzz, which has waxed and waned for months now, popped again yesterday with a Washington Post report that Romney was dining in Palo Alto, Calif., on Wednesday evening with a handful of advisers to his 2012 campaign, including policy director Lanhee Chen, campaign lawyers Ben Ginsberg and Katie Biber Chen, and spokeswoman Andrea Saul. Chen, who is teaching a class at Stanford University on American presidential campaigns, invited Romney to address his students.
Two sources close to the governor say that Wednesday’s dinner was not a 2016 strategy session. Romney spent a year at Stanford as an undergraduate before departing for Mormon missionary work in France, and he remains a Cardinal fan. Chen has done policy briefings for both Texas governor Rick Perry and New Jersey governor Chris Christie. Ginsberg is representing Perry against charges that he abused his office; Biber, who worked for Ginsberg at the lobbying firm Patton Boggs, is considered his protégé.
The two advisers whose views Romney will weigh most heavily are his son Tagg and money man Zwick, who has worked as an aide to Romney since his undergraduate days at Brigham Young University. They have remained conspicuously silent.
“Is Mitt telling anybody he’s going to run? No,” says the Romney bundler. “Are the people around him suggesting that he’s open to it? Absolutely. They would just love it.”
— Eliana Johnson is Washington editor of National Review.