At this point in the 2012 presidential race, Terry Neese was in hot demand.
“Gosh, I was hearing from everyone and meeting with everyone,” said Neese, an Oklahoma City entrepreneur and former “Ranger” for President George W. Bush who raised more than $1 million for his reelection.
This year, no potential White House contender has called — not even Bush’s brother, Jeb. The only emails came from staffers for two other likely candidates; both went to her spam folder.
“They are only going to people who are multi-multi-millionaires and billionaires and raising big money first,” said Neese, who founded a successful employment agency. “Most of the people I talk to are kind of rolling their eyes and saying, ‘You know, we just don’t count anymore.’ “
It’s the lament of the rich who are not quite rich enough for 2016.
Bundlers who used to carry platinum status have been downgraded, forced to temporarily watch the money race from the sidelines. They’ve been eclipsed by the uber-wealthy, who can dash off a seven-figure check to a super PAC without blinking. Who needs a bundler when you have a billionaire?
Many fundraisers, once treated like royalty because of their extensive donor networks,are left pining for their lost prestige. Can they still have impact in a world where Jeb Bush asks big donors to please not give more than $1 million to his super PAC right now? Will they ever be in the inner circle again?
“A couple presidential elections ago, somebody who had raised, say, $100,000 for a candidate was viewed as a fairly valuable asset,” said Washington lobbyist Kenneth Kies. “Today, that looks like peanuts. People like me are probably looking around saying, ‘How can I do anything that even registers on the Richter scale?’ “
Consider the scene last weekend in South Florida, where top supporters of the Republican National Committee gathered for their spring retreat at a luxury resort in Boca Raton. In the past, members of the RNC’s Regent and Team 100 donor programs attracted the focused attention of presidential aspirants. But this time, there were distractions.
A number of White House contenders in attendance — including former Texas governor Rick Perry and Govs. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Chris Christie of New Jersey and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana — devoted much of their time to private meetings with high rollers, according to people familiar with their schedules. Bush came to Boca Raton after an afternoon super PAC fundraiser in Miami.
Then on Sunday, the governors made a pilgrimage to Palm Beach for a private Republican Governors Association fundraiser hosted by billionaire industrialist David Koch at his 30,000-square-foot beachfront mansion.
In the words of one veteran GOP fundraiser, traditional bundlers have been sent down to the “minor leagues,” while mega-donors are “the major league players.”
The old-school fundraisers have been temporarily displaced in the early money chase due to the rise of super PACs, which can accept unlimited donations. This year, White House hopefuls are rushing to raise money for the groups before they declare their candidacies and have to keep their distance.
The VIP treatment for bundlers will still arrive, of course, but later in the cycle, when candidates become official and turn their focus to those who can raise money in smaller increments. Since campaign committees can only accept donations up to $2,700 per person in the primary, they will need teams of wired fundraisers who can bring in checks to fill their war chests.
“I don’t think you ever take the place of folks out trying to generate funds,” said David Wilkins, a South Carolina lawyer who became ambassador to Canada after bundling more than $200,000 for George W. Bush. “You’ll never supplant that, because it all adds up.”
But there is a palpable angst among mid-level fundraisers and donors that their rank has been permanently downgraded. One longtime bundler recently fielded a call from a dispirited executive on his yacht, who complained, “We just don’t count anymore.”
“It feels like a more confined world,” said Bobbie Kilberg, a top Republican fundraiser in Northern Virginia who with her husband raised more than $4 million for Mitt Romney. “Bundlers felt they were part of the process and made a difference, and therefore were delighted to participate. But when you look at super PAC money and the large donations that we’re seeing, the regular bundlers feel a little disenfranchised.”
Bundlers – and the donors they rely on – could also be more difficult to motivate than in past years. Raising $100,000 takes a lot of work: repeated phone calls and coffee meetings, cajoling donors to give $500 or $1,000. But to what end?
As one former Bush Ranger put it: “What about when I get to the convention? Last time, I was sitting in a box. This time, I may not even get a ticket!”
It’s quite a shift since the bundler system was elevated by advisers to then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush, who rebranded the laborious work of dialing for low-dollar contributions into an elite effort that showered top performers with perks. The Pioneer program, launched in the run-up to Bush’s 2000 White House campaign, gave fundraisers four-digit tracking numbers to measure their performance, with regular reports to show how they stacked up.
“If you put a structure on it, you’re not really trying to raise big money, you’re trying to raise a lot of fundraisers,” said Texas consultant James B. Francis Jr., one of the strategists who came up with the idea. “It created an urgency among money-raisers to get their job done.”
In return, those who delivered got special titles and tokens: pins, belt buckles, an engraved Louisville Slugger baseball bat, a “W” branding iron. They received invitations to receptions at the Bush ranch and telephone updates from campaign principals – including the candidate and members of his family. Many went on to receive ambassadorships and other high-level appointments.
Bush’s network of bundlers brought in tens of millions for his campaigns. Ever since, top fundraisers have been the first targets for any White House hopeful.
This year, some are still getting the early calls — but most attention is lavished on people who can write the really big checks. Jeb Bush, for instance, is asking top supporters who want to be part of his “National Executive Committee” to contribute or raise $500,000 by April 17 — a presidential-style goal before he is even an official candidate.
“The fundamentals of being a bundler have not changed other than with these super PACs, the amounts have gotten a lot larger,” said Gaylord Hughey, a lawyer in Tyler, Texas, who was a George W. Bush Pioneer and is now raising money for his brother. “Because of the dollars they’re asking for, I really limit my efforts to major donors. They are overrun. Everyone targets them.”
The hunt for big money is off-putting to some high-level players.
“I am not going to support the super PACs,” said Michael Ashner, chief executive of a Boston-based real estate investment trust who has fielded multiple GOP requests for large donations. “I just think it’s morally not right. It’s corrosive on our democracy.”
Ashner, who is leaning toward Jeb Bush, said he still plans to get involved in the race — but, as he did for Romney and John McCain, by raising money as a bundler one check at a time.
Other bundlers, on the left and the right, are turning their attention to congressional races, where they can get more personal attention.
“Senate candidates will call asking for $2,700, and they are eager to talk,” said David Rosen, a longtime Democratic fundraiser. “When they come to town, they’ll meet with you one-on-one. But $2,700 won’t even get you a parking spot at a super PAC event.”
Some say they might stay out of the White House race altogether.
“At this moment, I’m going to be on the sidelines,” said Neese, who after helping George W. Bush became a major fundraiser for Romney in his two White House bids.
“I’m sure I will miss being at the heart of the campaign,” she said, adding: “But I will have a lot more free time on my hands.”