No Respect For the Poor Bundler

WaPo’s Matea Gold and Tom Hamburger draw attention today to an inequality problem that no one from Thomas Piketty to Marco Rubio has discussed, so far as I know: a sudden, terrifying gap in power and prestige between billionaires and multi-millionaries in Republican donor circles.

Better get the Kleenex box at hand before reading their piece, because the bathos is overwhelming. The key heartstrings-tugger is the plight of contribution bundlers who were in hot demand as recently as 2012, but who are now being ignored as proto-presidential candidates focus on potential SuperPac donors, particularly in the pre-announcement period when they are allowed to make direct pitches.

At this point in the 2012 presidential race, Terry Neese was in hot demand.

“Gosh, I was hearing from everyone and meeting with everyone,” said Neese, an Oklahoma City entrepreneur and former “Ranger” for President George W. Bush who raised more than a million dollars for his reelection.

This year, no potential White House contender has called — not even Bush’s brother, Jeb. The only e-mails came from staffers for two other likely candidates; both went to her spam folder.

“They are only going to people who are multi-multi-millionaires and billionaires and raising big money first,” said Neese, who founded a successful employment agency. “Most of the people I talk to are kind of rolling their eyes and saying, ‘You know, we just don’t count anymore.’ ”

It’s the lament of the rich who are not quite rich enough for 2016.

Bundlers who used to carry platinum status have been downgraded, forced to temporarily watch the money race from the sidelines. They’ve been eclipsed by the uber-wealthy, who can dash off a seven-figure check to a super PAC without blinking. Who needs a bundler when you have a billionaire?

Many fundraisers, once treated like royalty because of their extensive donor networks, are left pining for their lost prestige. Can they still have impact in a world where Jeb Bush asks big donors to please not give more than $1 million to his super PAC right now? Will they ever be in the inner circle again?

Toldja it would make you weep, didn’t I?

While some of the bundlers talking to Gold and Hamburger are fearful they’ll have to go to the GOP convention in Cleveland and sit in the galleries with regular folks, the article suggests they’ll eventually get some love once campaigns are rolling and the long hard slog of raising hard money in $2700 increments–the post-Citizens-United equivalent of hoovering up change from beneath the sofa cushions–begins.

One of the reasons to read this piece is that it explains something a bit mysterious to me: the extraordinary nostalgia of so many GOP fundraisers for the 2000 and 2004 George W. Bush campaigns:

It’s quite a shift since the bundler system was elevated by advisers to then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush, who rebranded the laborious work of dialing for low-dollar contributions into an elite effort that showered top performers with perks. The Pioneer program, launched in the run-up to Bush’s 2000 White House campaign, gave fundraisers four-digit tracking numbers to measure their performance, with regular reports to show how they stacked up.

“If you put a structure on it, you’re not really trying to raise big money, you’re trying to raise a lot of fundraisers,” said Texas consultant James B. Francis Jr., one of the strategists who came up with the idea. “It created an urgency among money-raisers to get their job done.”

In return, those who delivered got special titles and tokens: pins, belt buckles, an engraved Louisville Slugger baseball bat, a “W” branding iron. They received invitations to receptions at the Bush ranch and telephone updates from campaign principals — including the candidate and members of his family. Many went on to receive ambassadorships and other high-level appointments.

Bush’s network of bundlers brought in tens of millions for his campaigns. Ever since, top fundraisers have been the first targets for any White House hopeful.

Until this year, it seems.

It’s unclear whether the natural attraction of GOP bundlers to W.’s younger brother will be harvested by Jeb before they lose heart in a system that treats them so coldly and cruelly. But I suspect that in his inner circles this, not the struggles of poor and middle-class families, is the inequality problem getting the most attention.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.