A week after Election Day, three Republican governors mentioned as 2016 presidential candidates -- Bobby Jindal, John Kasich and Bob McDonnell -- each stopped by the Venetian Resort Hotel Casino to meet privately with its owner Sheldon Adelson, a man who could single-handedly underwrite their White House ambitions.
Planning a presidential campaign used to mean having coffee with county party chairs in their Iowa or New Hampshire living rooms. The courting of Adelson, a full four years out from 2016, demonstrates how super PAC sugar daddies have become the new must-have feature for White House wannabes.
And prospective candidates from both parties are wasting little time schmoozing potential super PAC funders.
Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley is meeting with big donors in Los Angeles this week and has a fundraiser scheduled for next Monday in the Washington suburbs. Vice President Joe Biden, Republican Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) have been meeting with big donors, leaving the impression that they're ready to run.
"A group of five people could contribute $10 million each and finance a substantial primary campaign for a candidate," said former South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges. "So there is probably more of an effort right now focused on trying to look at those people who are capable of being very large donors, rather than soliciting or developing the network of bundlers that were out there in the past."
Hodges, a Democrat, is co-hosting the fundraiser for O'Malley's leadership PAC in Chevy Chase, Md., on Monday. He also raised money earlier this year for the PAC fronted by Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, and said he'd probably help other Democrats "who want to get out there and test the waters" by meeting with donors. "It's an important part of a process."
And it's becoming more important, as demonstrated by the 2012 Republican primaries -- the first since federal court decisions allowed super PACs to accept unlimited cash -- which proved that a single super-rich supporter can essentially float an entire campaign. While the GOP establishment desperately tried to rally around eventual nominee Mitt Romney, super PACs funded by Adelson, Foster Friess and Jon Huntsman Sr. extended the challenges of Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Jon Huntsman Jr. respectively, before a pro-Romney super PAC obliterated the field.
And in 2016 -- with open primaries in both parties and the power of super PACs firmly established -- the biggest donors are being courted earlier than ever. Not only are entreaties coming before most of the donors are anywhere close to choosing sides, none of the suitors are willing to discuss their plans publicly.
Santorum is privately telling friends that he's running again, POLITICO has learned. Friess, a retired mutual fund guru who donated $2.2 million to a pair of super PACs credited with helping lift Santorum to a surprise win over Romney in the Iowa caucuses, said, "Right now, I'm certainly still in his camp, but four years is a long way away."
While he hasn't indicated a favorite for 2016, Adelson has told people close to him that he prefers a candidate with "executive experience" -- potentially ruling out support for possible campaigns by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who visited Adelson days after being tapped as Romney's vice presidential running mate, and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).
POLITICO has learned that Govs. Jindal of Louisiana, Kasich of Ohio and McDonnell of Virginia ventured over to the Venetian for separate private meetings with Adelson while they were in Las Vegas for the Republican Governors Association winter meeting, held last month at the rival Wynn Resort.
So, too, did a pair of governors not considered presidential aspirants -- Rick Scott of Florida, who is up for reelection in 2014, and Jan Brewer of Arizona, who will be term-limited out of office.
The RGA and its Democratic counterpart, which begins its annual winter meeting Monday in Los Angeles -- with attendees including O'Malley and other prominent governors -- are considered prime perches from which governors can build relationships with big donors.
Several GOP governors believed to have national ambitions -- including Jindal, Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Susanna Martinez of New Mexico -- arrived in Vegas before the RGA conference for a gathering of the association's high-dollar Executive Roundtable, which is open to donors who give a minimum of $25,000 a year.
The roundtable's chairman, top GOP fundraiser Fred Malek, met with Jindal, the incoming RGA chairman, on the sidelines of the RGA conference and was said to be impressed. Malek wouldn't comment on the Jindal meeting or the 2016 field, but his extensive connections in the GOP big-money world would be a major boon to any presidential hopeful. In addition to his work at the RGA, Malek helps lead a pair of unlimited-money John Boehner-linked outfits, Congressional Leadership Fund and American Action Network.
Walker, whose efforts to limit union collective bargaining rights became a cause cel?bre among rich Republicans, has stayed close to donors in the Koch brothers' network, including billionaire media mogul Stanley Hubbard, who talked to Walker after Election Day.
"He's not going to win a beauty contest, probably, but he's a down-to-earth real person who is able to communicate solutions to people," said Hubbard, who wrote big checks to the super PAC backing Romney, the Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity and Karl Rove's Crossroads outfit. "And the one thing that Mr. Romney wasn't was a communicator. He couldn't communicate with anybody."
Hubbard said he would raise money for a Walker presidential campaign and would consider donating to a pro-Walker super PAC, but he also expressed discomfort with the role of super PACs in the 2012 Republican primary. "Look at how they trashed each other, it was ridiculous," he said.
Democrats are already fretting about the possibility of that happening on their side in 2016.
"I don't think that there would be any way to prevent that," said Paul Begala, a top strategist for the Priorities USA Action super PAC, which supported President Barack Obama and reported spending $65 million attacking Romney. "The next time around will be an open seat, and you are almost certain to see a proliferation of these things."
But one of Begala's top donors, Houston trial lawyer Steve Mostyn, who along with his wife and their law firm donated $4.2 million to liberal super PACs, predicted Democratic donors could avert a nasty and expensive super PAC primary war.
"Democratic donors already have a distaste for super PACs, and I believe that an agreement not to use super PACs in the primary or at least not to be used in an attacking manner is something big donors on the Democrats' side will push for and get," Mostyn said. Otherwise, "there is a possibility of the same type of demolition derby on both sides."
Mostyn says he's not ready to commit to a 2016 candidate. "I have not thought about it, and at this time I have no desire to," he said.
Among the prospective 2016 Democratic presidential candidates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has by far the greatest potential for a megadonor network that could compete with the deeper-pocketed outside groups that emerged on the right over the past few years.
The donor base that she built during her New York Senate bids and her 2008 presidential campaigns -- combined with the philanthropic network her husband has cultivated in his post-White House years and her appeal to newly active female donors -- could take Democratic outside money to a new level.
Take Amy Goldman. The New York author and philanthropist burst onto the big-money scene this year with $4 million in donations to Priorities USA Action, Planned Parenthood and other super PACs. She said she plans to keep giving and added, "I've been a fan of Hillary's for a long time and would support her candidacy in 2016." But she also said it was "premature" when asked if she'd support a pro-Clinton super PAC.
Even the possibility of Clinton running has frozen big Democratic money, said another top donor.
"It's been made clear that evidence of early support before Hillary decides will be remembered if she decides to go," said the donor, who described New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, another oft-mentioned possible contender for the Democratic nomination as "thoroughly intimidated that someone will announce that he is being 'active' before Hillary decides -- New York is hers until she decides otherwise."
But O'Malley and other Democrats considering the race have been quietly meeting with donors to lay their own groundwork, said Mike Stratton, a Denver political consultant and fundraiser. Stratton is closely allied with O'Malley, who he said "has the right stuff" and is "poised to come out of the chute early."
Still, he cautioned "at this stage of the game in the fundraising game, you're not just trying to collect dollars, you're more in the meet-and-greet phase, prospecting phase."
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