NEW YORK -- Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is moving swiftly behind the scenes to lock down some of Wall Street's biggest donors ahead of the 2016 presidential race.
In recent weeks, the rising GOP star and possible 2016 hopeful has quietly met with some of the most powerful GOP backers in the world of high finance. The roster includes Blackstone Group Chief Executive Officer Stephen Schwarzman, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. CEO Henry Kravis and senior executives at Goldman Sachs and Barclays Capital, among others.
Rubio has gotten backing from big Wall Street titans before, notably hedge fund manager and billionaire Paul Singer. But the fresh round of private meetings with top names has Wall Street buzzing about Rubio's future plans.
"It was a first date. And he's doing lot of them," said a person familiar with Rubio's meeting with Schwarzman, who heads one of the biggest private equity firms on Wall Street. The person, who asked not to be identified because the meeting was private, said Schwarzman was "favorably impressed" with Rubio but remains uncommitted for 2016. "Rubio has a very strong sense of himself and positioned himself very early on immigration reform, which Republicans desperately need," this person said.
Rubio's early trips to Manhattan are only logical, campaign finance experts say. And they are likely to continue over the next three years.
"I cannot see any downside to Rubio moving this early. I can only see the pitfalls of not moving fast enough and having people moving ahead of you," said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. "And this is the first big stop on the fundraising trail. Support in the financial industry is key for any viable run for the White House."
Rubio is not the only prospective Republican 2016 hopeful making the rounds in New York, sources said. Every major candidate will likely get a hearing at some point with major donors and bundlers in New York before the Wall Street giants choose sides and the primary begins. Many will even host fundraisers for multiple candidates before backing one. Singer, like many others, has also supported other potential 2016 candidates in the past -- New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie among them -- and took a while before settling on Mitt Romney in the 2012 primary.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul was in New York City on Monday, meeting privately with a range of donors and political operatives before an appearance at The New York Meeting, a conservative gathering in midtown where candidates have a chance to network.
Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin is expected here in the coming weeks, sources said. The former vice presidential nominee and current House Budget Committee chairman has continued to work his donor contacts, but he's been less visible in part because of the fiscal fights in Congress. Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, in his role at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, has also been in New York meeting with donors. And Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal is due here for a Republican Governors Association fundraiser in a few weeks.
Rubio's aggressive early Wall Street outreach comes as yet another potential 2016 GOP hopeful, Christie, is limited in his ability to raise money from his many supporters in the financial world. Strict federal "pay-to-play" laws ban contributions from those who might seek bond underwriting and some other forms of business from New Jersey.
Sources close to Christie said he is putting together a campaign for his reelection bid this year that could easily morph into a presidential operation. But he is restricted in his freedom to stock that operation with cash and has yet to come up with a contingency plan for raising Wall Street money if he decides to run for president.
When Christie was under consideration to be Romney's running mate, Romney believed that to take the slot Christie would have to resign his office so the campaign could raise money from banks, according to sources familiar with the process. The pay-to-play rules could also hamper other sitting governors considering White House bids in 2016, including Jindal on the GOP side and New York's Andrew Cuomo and Maryland's Martin O'Malley on the Democratic side.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a Rubio mentor, could change the dynamic if he decides to enter the race. Bush could draw on a deep well of Wall Street support from his years as governor and his longstanding family connections. But fundraising sources say Bush has given no indication yet that he is considering a run. And several said Wall Street is hungry for a fresh face.
"Just from an age and demographics standpoint, I'm not sure Jeb is what the party is looking for right now," a top GOP bundler said.
Rubio is jumping into the fundraising void.
Marco Rubio and Steve Schwarzman pose with penguins at Blackstone.
A January photo of the Florida senator visiting Schwarzman at Blackstone headquarters on Park Avenue -- joined by some penguins that were in the office as part of a promotional event for Blackstone portfolio company SeaWorld -- quickly went viral among the political classes. But the photo did not come from Rubio or his staff. And the senator's office declined to discuss any of the recent Wall Street meetings. After repeated emails and phone calls for comment, Rubio spokesman Alex Conant emailed: "I don't have anything on this for you. Sorry." Rubio political strategist Todd Harris did not respond to requests for comment on the meetings.
Republican fundraisers said the silence was not surprising given the low public regard for Wall Street, including among many in the conservative tea party base that helped drive Rubio into power and prominence. Rubio needs big-time financial industry donors. But getting cast as the candidate of Wall Street could hurt him in a primary almost certain to include candidates to Rubio's right such as Paul, who could hammer the Florida senator for being too cozy with bankers.
"You have to go up there and you have to raise money and make friends, but you don't have to talk about it," said a GOP bundler who also asked not to be identified by name to avoid irritating Rubio. "And Rubio has a very compelling message on growth for people in the financial community. He knows how to deliver a message and connect with people, which is something we haven't really had in a couple of cycles. Just by virtue of his youth and his verbal gifts, he get's people excited."
But this fundraiser and a half dozen others interviewed by POLITICO noted that it is far too soon to declare Rubio the dominant Republican among the deep-pocketed Wall Street crowd for what could be a highly competitive and hugely expensive 2016 GOP primary.
Rubio is already a remarkably prodigious fundraiser on Wall Street, especially given his lack of focus on issues directly impacting the industry.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the Florida senator raised $937,463 from the securities and investment industry for his campaign committee from 2007 through 2012, the third biggest source of cash behind retired individuals and conservative ideological groups. Rubio raised $353,891 over that period from the Club for Growth, which draws significant money from Wall Street donors. And he raised $121,476 from Elliott Management, run by Singer, and $85,842 from Goldman Sachs executives.
At Goldman, Rubio has met with John Rogers, top consigliere to chief executive Lloyd Blankfein and before that to former Goldman CEOs Hank Paulson and Jon Corzine. Rogers has deep connections throughout Wall Street and the political world. Rubio has also met more recently with a broader swath of Goldman executives, a person familiar with the matter said.
He has also spent time with former Goldman and New York Federal Reserve Board chairman Stephen Friedman, who served as chairman of the National Economic Council under President George W. Bush from 2002 to 2005. At KKR, one of Wall Street's biggest private equity firms, Rubio sat down with Kravis and other executives at the firm as well people from outside KKR. The gathering focused on the current legislative agenda in Washington, a person familiar with the session said. There were people with both Republican and Democratic leanings at the meeting, this person said.
Rubio is going to need as many deep-pocketed friends as he can find. In the 2012 campaign, Romney and allied groups raised and spent more than $1 billion, a figure likely to be easily eclipsed in 2016. In addition, the Republican nominee could face one of the most powerful fundraisers in Democratic Party history: former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Clinton, a former New York senator, is considered a strong favorite for the Democratic nomination if she decides to run and has enthusiastic backing among top Wall Street Democrats. "She has pretty much frozen things on the Democratic side until she decides," said one prominent Democratic fundraiser in New York. "She would be able to raise pretty much whatever she wants." Said another: "She did pretty well the last time out. And she is certainly going to do no worse the next time."
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