At this time in the last presidential election cycle, top donors for Mitt Romney were quietly building the invisible network that would vault him to the nomination and raise more than $1 billion for his 2012 effort. Nothing like that is happening this year, as the 2016 contest looms.
While a few potential presidential candidates have quietly met with major party donors over the last year — and five of them mingled informally last week with potential bundlers at Romney's annual three-day political retreat in Park City — a number of donors say they are surprised that their phones haven't been ringing.
"Usually people get out early. But it's not happening," said Al Montna of Yuba City, Calif., a rice farmer who was an early member of Romney's 2012 finance network. And in many cases, donors here in Park City said they were fine with that — because they are in no rush to take sides.
Donors "want to make the right choice," Montna said. "It's a very important time. People want to be successful, and I think that's why they are waiting to see what's going to develop."
The early fundraising vacuum is being driven in part by Republicans' intensive focus on winning back the U.S. Senate in 2014 and by quirks in the 2016 GOP field.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is holding off on a decision whether to run, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is pinned down by investigations into his administration, delaying any moves to lock down donors. Sen. Rand Paul is among the most organized of the would-be candidates but lacks natural ties to establishment donors. The rest of the candidates are still viewed as the second string, making their future organizing efforts more important but more difficult as well.
That stands in stark contrast to the last two cycles, when Romney's campaign was already locking down state and regional finance organizations and lining up early donations.
That money not only gave Romney positive early attention but also helped him build the team that assembled his ground forces in crucial primary states and mastered the arcane laws of ballot access that tripped up other candidates. In 2016, Republican candidates' need to create a financial juggernaut may be even more important because of the potential fundraising machine that would be in the hands of Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton, were she to decide to run.
In the absence of early organizing for a presidential candidate, some donors have turned their efforts toward raising money for the party's data and ground games — which were no match for the Democrats in 2012 — as well as giving to super PACs that are active in congressional races this year.
Ray Washburne, a major Romney bundler who is now the Republican National Committee's finance chairman, says every room of donors greets him with queries about who the GOP nominee will be in 2016. He says he often urges them to not to "take their eye off the prize — and the prize is winning the Senate."
In such an uncertain midterm year, Washburne said, there could be retribution for a presidential candidate or major donors who divert attention to 2016. "Believe me, word gets around real quick; it is not a big community of major donors," he said. "So I think most of them are really laying low, at least until this fall."
But former Romney finance chairman Spencer Zwick says that while many of the potential 2016 candidates are helping midterm nominees raise money for their races — as Romney did before his — he doesn't see "their own organizations developing."
Zwick added that he could not think of a past presidential candidate who had leaped into the race without a strong organization and "been able to coalesce all the money around him or her."
"So what does that mean [for 2016]? I think you'll have more candidates chasing the same number of donors and dollars, and less time to do it," Zwick said. "It's basic supply and demand."
The race for dollars could be particularly frantic if Christie and Bush both decide to run. There was keen interest among the Park City retreat attendees in the former Florida governor, who declined an invitation because of other commitments. But donors here said in interviews that there was no stampede in his direction.
"Any potential candidate would make a mistake to assume anything from Romney supporters," said Mark DeMoss, a Romney donor from Georgia. "Because I really think there is just a huge group of people who thought he was a rare breed."
Bush and Christie clearly would have the greatest advantage in fundraising next year. Bush has a ready network of donors who supported his brother and father, both former presidents; one donor said that a core group of past Bush donors "can't wait to get the band back together." Christie's team aggressively courted Romney donors last year under the auspices of raising money for his gubernatorial race, and he already had an expansive donor network in New Jersey and New York.
But investigations into his administration's traffic-jam-creating closure of the George Washington Bridge last year have created palpable uneasiness about Christie that he has yet to quell. In a private meeting with donors when he arrived Friday night and in a speech on Saturday which was closed to the media, Christie kept his focus squarely on his efforts to raise money for the Republican Governors Assn., which he heads.
According to people who were in the room, Christie did not outline his potential 2016 plans, but tellingly thanked Romney for being his "strongest defender" during the bridge scandal and said the last five months had "not been a picnic."
"Whenever you're under attack in a significant way that we have been, it's really difficult," Christie told the group. "What you find out is who your real friends are."
When a donor had asked him about the scandal earlier in the session, he said he was confident no new information would emerge. He joked lightly about its long-term damage by saying he was not that worried about it.
"I hope none of you are worried about it, though I expect some of you are. But you'll get over it," he added to laughter. "It will be fine."