For GOP mega-donors, a convention of their own
Forget the rah-rah speeches to the pin-swapping, confetti-covered delegates on the convention floor in Tampa.
The real action will be with the Republican mega-donors gathered in arena skyboxes, closed-door hotel ballrooms and pricey restaurants around town.
They're holding a sort of convention of their own in Florida next week.
Some of the party's biggest names - Marco Rubio, Nikki Haley, Karl Rove, Haley Barbour and Condoleezza Rice - will deliver personalized briefings, pep talks and fundraising appeals. And no need to hang out with delegates or the media - bundlers who have committed to raising $250,000 or more for Mitt Romney's campaign also get access to a VIP lounge and treated to special performances by Don Felder, the former lead guitarist for The Eagles, and the Oakridge Boys country band.
The pro-Romney super PAC Restore our Future, the Rove-founded Crossroads groups and the Koch brothers-linked Americans for Prosperity also have their own events feting big donors, with Americans for Prosperity planning a celebration of billionaire industrialist David Koch, one of its founding benefactors.
It's a fitting celebration of the new big money politics, where a relatively small group of rich backers are providing more cash, mostly through super PACs and 501(c)4 nonprofit groups, than all the grassroots activists combined.
In years past, conventions were a chance to rally the faithful, reward maxed out donors and raise some cash for the national party committees, but that was about it, as the public financing system meant the presidential campaign money race essentially ended at the convention.
Nowadays, there's more incentive to butter up an emerging class of super donors, who have already given massive sums and will be asked to keep giving clear through Election Day.
"There are more ways for big donors to give more money to help the nominee," said Matt Schlapp, a former political director for President George W. Bush, who advanced the craft of big donor fundraising with cool nicknames and perks for bundlers.
"In the 2004 general election, our big donors were still important to the extent that we needed them to give to the [Republican National Committee], but we were basically done fundraising by the time the convention rolled around because we accepted public financing," Schlapp said. "Whereas now, it's important for the campaigns, the super PACs, the 501(c)4s and the national parties to shepherd the big donors all the way through the elections, because they're going to be getting asked for big checks right up until Election Day."
The exclusive and sometimes secretive big donor events in Tampa are being organized by super PACs, Romney's campaign and even some of the biggest donors, themselves, who, POLITICO has learned, have organized their own series of dinners and panels that are expected to draw big names as well.
The Romney campaign has designated two waterfront hotels -- the Westin Tampa Harbour Island and the Marriott Renaissance Vinoy Resort & Golf Club -- for its bundlers. Those who have committed to raising $250,000 or more - "Stars," in the campaign's parlance -- get to attend briefings with Jeb Bush, Rice, Haley, Tim Pawlenty, Bob McDonnell and other big names, according to an agenda obtained by POLITICO.
American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, which were founded by Rove, have lined up some high-powered names for a Thursday morning breakfast briefing for donors and prospective donors. In addition to Rove and Barbour, the former Mississippi governor who has been raising cash for Crossroads, speakers are expected to include Florida Sen. Rubio and Jeb Bush.
The event is closed to the press, said spokesman Jonathan Collegio, who a few months ago had said Crossroads wasn't planning to have any kind of presence at the convention.
Restore Our Future, the super PAC devoted to boosting Romney, is holding a briefing Wednesday, though officials from the group declined to comment on it.
And Americans for Prosperity - the nonprofit that last week announced a $25 million ad campaign expressing disappointment in President Barack Obama - is planning a Thursday reception honoring Koch, and fellow big donor Art Pope, a North Carolina businessman.
The reception, which is open to journalists, is being billed as "A Salute to Entrepreneurs Building America."
In a prepared statement announcing it, Americans for Prosperity president Tim Phillips praised Koch and Pope -- who each chair an arm of Americans for Prosperity -- as "two remarkable businessmen who are dedicated to the principles of economic freedom, and have done so much to advance its cause."
Koch and Pope both plan to partake in the actual convention - Pope as a delegate from North Carolina and Koch, who hosted a $50,000-a-head fundraiser for Romney this summer in the Hamptons, as an alternate from New York.
Pope, the CEO and chairman of Variety Wholesalers, reportedly has donated more than $28 million through his family foundation to a network of conservative think tanks. He is a regular attendee of the secretive donor summits held twice a year by Koch and his brother Charles Koch, and at one such summit last year, Charles Koch singled out Pope for donating more than $1 million to groups related to the Kochs' network -- which intend to steer nearly $400 million to conservative groups ahead of the 2012 election.
Pope has maxed out to the RNC, but it's not possible to know the totality of his giving 2012, because he gives much of his money through non-profit groups that don't disclose their donors, and his foundation only discloses its contributions months after giving them. But he said he's not sure how much more he intends to give this year. "I'm getting close to being tapped out. So, I don't know whether I'll be giving more or not."
Pope said that the 2004 and 2008 elections "were probably less oriented to big donors" than 2012, partly because the so-called McCain-Feingold campaign finance overhaul in 2002 restricted unlimited giving. But he said "big donors for both political parties have always been important."
A series of federal court rulings in the last few years - most notably the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision - expanded the role of unlimited money in politics and spurred super-rich activists, particularly on the right, to open their checkbooks wide.
The big-money focus in Tampa demonstrates how much GOP politics has come to revolve around the mega-donors and the groups they fund, said former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele, who presided over the 2008 convention.
"It shows just how much the PAC tail is wagging the party dog," he said. "There's nothing wrong with them doing their own thing," Steele said, as long as the super PACs and other outside groups don't infringe on the traditional role - or big donor base - of the party committees.
Liberals have scrambled to catch up, and the super PACs supporting Obama and his Democratic congressional allies are holding a host of fundraising events and parties at the Democratic National Convention next month in Charlotte.
But Romney's campaign has perfected the art of so-called donor maintenance, rewarding its biggest bundlers with an intensive three-day retreat in Park City, Utah and inviting prospective donors to his family's vacation home in New Hampshire last year for boating. And the campaign is expected to hold another retreat for big donors in October, according to a source familiar with the event.
"Romney has improved the Bush model," said one longtime GOP donor, who praised the personal "touches" of Romney's fundraising operation and said big donors have "full access" to campaign people and are able to talk to policy staff.
Schlapp, the former Bush political director, said conventions can also help build the donor base, asserting they're "a great opportunity to show appreciation to those supporting the cause."