Forget Des Moines. The epicenter of the 2016 Republican presidential campaign last week was in Dallas.
Harlan Crow, the real-estate magnate and conservative financier who calls the city home, arrived there fresh from watching the Super Bowl in New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's private box. On Tuesday, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker flew into town for a reelection fundraiser at Crow's $24 million mansion. Later in the week, Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky shared a flight from D.C. to Dallas—and then bumped into each other outside the office of one of the city's GOP donors whom they were both wooing.
"Rand and I are good friends," Cruz said, "and we run into each other a lot."
Two years before any primary votes will be cast and long before any official campaign launches, Cruz, Paul, and others are already crisscrossing the country to win the hearts and wallets of the wealthiest Americans.
The race for a 2016 super-PAC sugar daddy is on.
"If I were running, I would think: Who is likely to want to fund a super PAC?" said Roy Bailey, a Dallas Republican who served as national finance chairman of Rudy Giuliani's 2008 presidential run. "A lot of people are financially capable. But who likes to play the sport? And who would be able to do it? I'd be all over 'em."
The rise of super PACs has amplified and accelerated the quadrennial donor chase. Candidates now know a single billionaire can make or break their fortunes—as they saw in 2012, when mega-donors Sheldon Adelson and Foster Friess propped up the candidacies of Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum.
"You may want to just wear logos if you're running for president: 'sponsored by so-and-so.' I mean it's going to get to be like NASCAR where everybody should put logos on your suit," said Senator Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who, of course, has a super PAC dedicated to reelecting him this year.
"Basically, if you can get an ideologically aligned rich person who believes in you ... and they want to be a player in politics, you can keep a campaign going as long as the guy's willing to write checks," Graham said. "Which changes everything."
GOP political fundraisers and strategists said that Walker, Cruz, Paul, and Christie have been among the most active and consistently aggressive in nationwide donor outreach in the last year. It is a matter of supply and demand: There are a lot of GOP presidential hopefuls and not so many moguls with a history of investing in political campaigns.
"There are a very few number of major finance bundlers and donors that can swing elections," said Jim Lee, a national finance cochairman of Texas Governor Rick Perry's 2012 presidential campaign. "You're really talking about less than 400 or 500 people in the country who, including bundling, can account for 80 percent of the money. It's a very narrow universe."
The Ricketts family—including Joe Ricketts, founder of TD Ameritrade, and his politically active son, Todd—is in that universe. Among those GOP politicians who have found time to meet with the Ricketts family in the last year, according to a person close to the family: Christie, Cruz, Paul, Walker, 2012 vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.
One event that is penciled into many 2016 aspirants' calendars is the March leadership meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition, a gathering of some of the wealthiest GOP donors in the nation. The group's board includes Republican rainmakers such as Adelson, investor Elliott Broidy, hedge-fund manager Paul Singer, and Wayne Berman of the Blackstone Group, among many others. The gathering is held at The Venetian, Adelson's Las Vegas hotel. Among the expected attendees: Bush, Christie, Walker, and Ohio Governor John Kasich.
"It's like the early bird always gets the worm. The early courtship usually pays off," said Ken Duberstein, a former chief of staff to President Reagan and current chairman of the Duberstein Group, one of Washington's leading lobbying firms. "People like being cultivated, being reached out to, flattered."