Long before the caucus attending and baby kissing starts in early primary states, another decisive political contest is playing out among 2016 presidential contenders in resort towns like Las Vegas; Rancho Mirage, California; and Sea Island, Georgia, where candidates are taking their cases to exclusive gatherings of wealthy donors, The New York Times reported
Six candidates were invited to the Club for Growth's event in Palm Beach, Florida, where they discussed an array of economic issues ranging from reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank to cutting taxes, according to Politico
A total of 11 Republicans weighing a White House run are traveling to the Midwest to attend the Iowa Agriculture Summit organized by businessman and "Super Pac" donor Bruce Rastetter, who says his goal is to persuade candidates to educate themselves on agriculture policy.
High season on what the NYT dubbed "the shadow campaign trail" began in California's Coachella Valley near the end of January, when the Koch brothers hosted their yearly seminar for libertarian-leaning donors, and continues through the early spring when the Republican Jewish Coalition, backed by casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson
, holds its annual meeting in Las Vegas.
In between are a number of other gatherings of donors, which include informal events such as a daylong meeting last Tuesday near Jackson Hole, Wyoming hosted by TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts and his son Todd, and featuring several Republican donors who hold more moderate views on gay marriage and immigration reform.
The high-dollar donor trail has taken on far more importance in recent years because of the Citizens United case. Candidates attend "knowing that just a handful of donors can lift them from the second or third tier into the first," the Times noted.
For former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Rastetter's Iowa meeting will mark his first official trip to the Hawkeye State, a critical caucus state.
One critical goal of these events is to bring candidates in line with policy positions of donors. For example, although Rastetter's Iowa agriculture forum will cover an array of issues, one event, a "VIP press reception" featuring the state's Republican governor, Terry Branstad, is aimed at pushing candidates to support the Renewable Fuel Standard backed by the ethanol industry
The Club for Growth pointed out that donors attending the organization's Palm Beach event — among them hedge-fund executive Robert Mercer and Florida-based investor John Childs – had helped defeat numerous Republican lawmakers deemed weak on issues like free trade or taxes and spending.
The season of donor events poses huge logistical hurdles. For example, Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas all worked to ensure they would be in attendance at both the Palm Beach gathering and the overlapping Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), held just outside Washington in Prince George's County, Maryland.
Walker's meetings with donors have had him moving back and forth across the United States for much of the winter.
Sometimes the donor gatherings turn into veritable command performances. At the Ricketts event, for example, the candidates did not attend, but six of them, including Bush, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, were invited to send senior representatives. They were allotted a half-hour each to make their case to assembled donors including Connecticut wrestling magnate Linda McMahon
, investor Paul Singer, and Charles H. Schwab, founder of one of the largest financial services companies in the United States.
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