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Jeb Bush pressing to lock in Mitt Romney’s donors

Jeb Bush (pictured) has been locking in former Mitt Romney contributors in the private equity and investment worlds.
Jeb Bush (pictured) has been locking in former Mitt Romney contributors in the private equity and investment worlds.Rebecca Cook/REUTERS

WASHINGTON — Jeb Bush has quickly and efficiently been locking in one of the most sought-after prizes of the early Republican presidential primary race: Mitt Romney's donor network.

In the two weeks since the former Massachusetts governor announced that he wasn't going to run again for president, Bush has aggressively scooped up key former Romney contributors in the private equity and investment worlds. That adds to Bush's own substantial network in place before Romney's brief flirtation last month.

"It's absolutely a kind of aggressive shock-and-awe strategy to vacuum up as much of the fund-raising network as you possibly can," said Dirk Van Dongen, the president of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors and a prolific Romney fund-raiser now helping Bush. "And they're having a large measure of success."

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Chicago investment manager Muneer Satter, who was cochairman of Romney's national finance committee, is hosting a fund-raiser on Wednesday for Bush in Chicago. Emil Henry, a senior treasury official in the George W. Bush administration who was among Romney's largest fund-raisers, recently agreed to raise money for Bush.

"I am certain that the majority of Romney's major donors and fund-raisers will line up with Jeb, whose early organization is impressive," Henry said.

Of Romney's top five lobbyist bundlers in 2012 — who each raised at least $1 million — four are supporting or likely to support Bush. The fifth is on the fence.

In conversations with nearly a dozen former Romney donors, many described Bush as the most mainstream with the best chance at winning in the general election. They also see in him some of the same strengths they saw in Romney: Someone with business experience who has been a governor.

Several are also intrigued by Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who has surged near the top of the polls in key caucus and primary states and is seen as a candidate with a fresh face and a track record built on fighting unions in his home state. Walker is meeting with potential donors next week in New York, including one being held Wednesday night at the 21 Club.

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Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey has also been aggressively trying to lock in top contributors and he has lined up several former Romney donors, including Home Depot cofounder Ken Langone and Bobbie Kilberg, a technology executive from McLean, Va.

"I think there's a little premature RIP on Christie," said a donor involved in Christie's fund-raising operation. "Somehow he's not even in the conversation. I think it's premature to say the least."

But there is a growing consensus, even among his opponents, that Bush has the fund-raising edge.

Last week he was in New York for a dinner fund-raiser that required $100,000 per person to attend. He will be in Washington on Tuesday for two fund-raisers, followed by a trip to Chicago for two more, according to invitations obtained by the Globe.

Since at least November, Bush began reaching out to potential donors and tapping into the networks that his father and his brother built during their presidential campaigns, as well as his own Florida-based donors.

"I think he caught a whole lot of people off guard'' with his assertive moves, said Bill Graves, who is president of the American Trucking Associations and raised more money for Romney than any other lobbyist in 2012. Graves, a former Kansas governor whose ties to the Bush family stretch back to 1980, said he would probably support Bush.

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As Bush prepared for his campaign, he began reaching out to many of the mainstream and business-minded Republicans that Romney tapped in 2012. Those moves spurred Romney to action.

In early January, Romney told a group of his former contributors at a meeting in Manhattan that he was thinking about running again. Some of the donors at the meeting had already committed to Bush and began second-guessing their decision to join with Bush.

But Bush didn't let up. He continued calling members of Romney's network. He recently told a group of lobbyists, chief executives, and trade association representatives that he would have 60 fund-raisers — almost one every day — before April 1.

When Romney announced on Jan. 30, after three weeks of flirtation, that he was not going to run, he encouraged his supporters to join whatever campaign they wanted.

"Once Mitt got out, you could feel the dominoes fall Jeb's way," said one donor.

David Beightol, a lobbyist and prolific fund-raiser who was on Romney's national fund-raising team in 2008 and 2012, had nearly committed to Bush and was deeply conflicted during the three week period when Romney was considering a third campaign. A few days after Romney announced he wouldn't run, Beightol committed to Bush.

"The majority are going to Jeb," he said. "He's signed up the best talent. And a lot of them are former Mitt people."

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Charlie Spies, who formed the super PAC that raised nearly $154 million in support of Romney, is now helping run the newly formed super PAC supporting Bush.

Lisa Wagner, Romney's 2012 Midwest campaign finance director and one of the top Republican fund-raisers in Chicago, signed up with Bush. So did Allison McIntosh, who was Romney's finance director in Texas, the state where he raised more money than anywhere except California.

Spencer Zwick, who was Romney's financial director, has met with several campaigns but has yet to join one.

Donors in Massachusetts, who have supported Romney since he ran for governor in 2002, have been slower to commit, according to Republican insiders. Ed Conard, one of Romney's former partners at Bain Capital who donated $1 million to a pro-Romney super PAC, said he has been receiving a stream of calls. But he has yet to commit.

"From my perspective it's too early," he said in an e-mail. "I would like to see indications of who can truly withstand the scrutiny."


Matt Viser can be reached at matt.viser@globe.com.