The rat race to court D.C.'s political class is on, and Jeb Bush is off to a head start.
The former Florida governor will meet Tuesday with some of the Beltway's most prominent lobbyists, CEOs, and thought leaders in hopes of shoring up top political talent and elbowing out other establishment candidates still on the fence about following through with their presidential ambitions.
Bush is expected to make his opening campaign pitch at the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors on Tuesday during two private meetings with dozens of high-profile potential allies. The meetings are Bush's first opportunity to convince GOP stakeholders he has a fresh enough vision for the country, even if he comes with a legacy last name.
While D.C. is not the prime place to rake in major campaign cash, candidates seriously considering the presidency know putting in face time with Washington influencers early will pay dividends down the road when they need expansive Rolodexes to build up their grassroots campaigns in early primary states.
"This is where the intellectual firepower of the conservative movement houses itself," says Vin Weber, a former Mitt Romney backer and Minnesota congressman who will attend the meet-and-greet with Bush on Tuesday. "The whole process is moving faster this time than it has ever been. That means the Washington piece of it has to be accelerated too."
Many of the people Bush will see Tuesday are longtime supporters with ties to his family, but that does not mean the competitive pressure is off. After blistering back-to-back losses in 2008 and 2012, Republican strategists say power players are taking a closer look at the deep bench of potential GOP candidates, ensuring they pick a forward-looking leader who can actually win the GOP's primary brawl as well as the general election.
"This is going to to be a conservative Disneyland," says Fred Malek, the finance chairman for the Republican Governors Association, who expects to see a slew of of his GOP governors in the mix. "Obviously 2012 was a wake-up call and every Republican leader understands we need to do a much better job reaching out to minorities and women. Everyone is looking at that."
Unlike the 2012 cycle, when Romney was the inevitable choice for the establishment, the political space for the middle ground is quickly eroding. Since Bush announced his interest in December, other potential candidates have been forced into making a quick choice. On Friday, Romney appeared before GOP elders at the Republican National Committee's winter meeting with a retooled message, a sign he is seriously considering a third presidential campaign. Sen. Marco Rubio, meanwhile, recently announced his family is on board with a presidential run and vowed not to let Bush's entrance deter him. Govs. Scott Walker and Chris Christie both barely concealed their national ambitions in their recent State of the State addresses.
The array of relatively mainstream choices is forcing many strategists and lobbyists who have close ties with multiple candidates into awkward positions. Top D.C. talent is now in a game of primary musical chairs.
Dirk Van Dongen, the president of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors and a GOP fundraiser who has done significant work for Rubio's leadership PAC and also raised $1.4 million for Romney in 2012, is hosting the event for Bush on Tuesday. At the same time, just outside of the District, powerhouse Republican fundraiser Bobbie Kilberg, a former staffer in the George H.W. Bush administration, will host a 92-person lunch roundtable discussion on technology with Christie in Virginia. Kilberg insists the meeting is for university officials and CEOs of major technology companies, not lobbyists and donors, but it underscores how competitive the environment is for potential 2016ers hoping to attract the attention of the Beltway's top influencers.
A few months ago, Kilberg says she felt strongly that the center-right clear the field early instead of having three or four candidates running to outdo each other. Now, as more candidates crop up and get to work, she says she believes the tryout is a positive exercise for a party that has often—as the adage goes—fallen in line instead of fallen in love with its presidential contenders.
"This enhances the dialogue," Kilberg says of Bush, Christie, and Romney likely setting up bids. "All three of them will be able to raise enough money and I think the pod is big enough that all three of them will have the money they need to run."
Still, there is an underlying fear that the early scramble could divide allegiances enough to give an unexpected conservative candidate a boost.
"What makes Beltway Republicans nervous is, what if a hardliner conservative wins the primary process, is the nominee and has a difficult time winning the presidency?" says Tom Reynolds, a K Street lobbyist and former National Republican Congressional Committee chairman.
Still, while the 2016 drama ramps up, many top donors are staying on the sidelines until candidates make it official. Even in 2012, when Romney was on track to become the lead candidate, there were plenty of donors and influencers who were reluctant to jump in. Many now say there is no gain to be made by pouncing too early to support a candidate who may just be testing the waters.
"I have three very good friends in Mitt Romney, Chris Christie, and Jeb Bush," Kilberg said, while also mentioning others who may run. "I have made up my mind, but I am not going to say what I am going to do unless these people actually declare they are running for president."