The first two Republicans to declare their presidential ambitions—Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky—will most likely battle each other for a limited pool of funds donated by true-red conservatives. Marco Rubio, the third Republican to declare his candidacy, has a much better shot at corralling serious corporate money.
Rubio, the junior senator from Florida, isn’t well-known among ordinary Americans. Though he delivered a well-regarded speech at the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, his greatest claim to fame may be the awkward reach for a water bottle during his 2013 response to President Obama’s State of the Union address—duly satirized by Saturday Night Live.
But business leaders aiming to anoint a Republican president have been paying attention to Rubio for a while. As a 43-year-old Cuban-American, Rubio is a fresh face able to appeal to Hispanic voters deemed essential to winning key states like Florida.
Politically, Rubio has been migrating from the limited-government, Tea Party edge of the GOP toward the mainstream, aligning himself with business interests seeking modest reforms rather than the radical downsizing of government. “Rubio has positioned himself as an establishment candidate with appeal to grass-roots conservatives,” says Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist who advised the McCain presidential campaign in 2008. “He knows he needs to keep the car between two white lines and appeal to the rank-and-file Republican voter.”
That way, money lies. Rubio has managed to raise nearly $31 million since he first ran for the Senate in 2010. Florida’s other senator, Democrat Bill Nelson, raised just $16 million during the same period of time. Rand Paul has raised just $14 million since his 2010 Senate campaign, and even Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, barely matches Rubio’s fundraising totals.
Rubio is known to be ambitious, and barring any disqualifying mistakes, he probably has a bright political future even if he doesn't earn the 2016 presidential nomination. He could end up as the vice presidential candidate for anybody other than Jeb Bush (since it's not advisable for both members of the ticket to hail from the same state). As VP, he’d be young enough to run for president again in 2020 or 2024 after serving as understudy. He could also run for Florida governor if his White House bid flops, which means many donors see him as a worthwhile investment even if he comes up short in 2016.
That probably explains why Rubio’s donor list to date includes many more corporate contributors than either Cruz’s or Paul’s. Here’s a list of Rubio’s top 10 donors since he first ran for the Senate in 2010, according to the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics. Keep in mind that these are mostly contributions from individuals affiliated with each group, rather than single-sum donations from the group itself:
Norman Braman, a billionaire who owns two dozen Florida car dealerships and once owned the Philadelphia Eagles football team. Braman has reportedly pledged to donate as much as $10 million to Rubio and a new "super PAC" supporting him, which unlike the candidate himself, can collect unlimited amounts of money.
Larry Ellison. The co-founder and former CEO of Oracle has helped Rubio raise money this year and could turn out to be a big donor himself. Ellison, worth an estimated $54 billion, donated $3 million to a super PAC backing Mitt Romney in 2012 and could easily pony up that much for Rubio.
Club for Growth, the conservative political-action group. Donations to Rubio since 2009: $362,826. That’s more than three times what the group has given to Paul (but only half as much as it has funneled to Cruz).
Elliott Management, the New York hedge fund run by billionaire Paul Singer: $117,620. Singer has given more than $14 million to Republican candidates and causes during the last two years alone, and could become a much bigger Rubio backer.
Senate Conservatives Fund, a private political-action group founded by former South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint: $105,494.
Goldman Sachs: $90,642. The Wall Street titan spreads its money around, with about 45% going to Democrats and 55% to Republicans like Rubio. (By comparison, Goldman has donated $69,000 to Cruz since 2011.)
Jose "Pepe" Fanjul, one of four brothers who control a sugar empire that includes Domino and Florida Crystals. Fanjul and his family have held at least two fundraisers for Rubio at Florida properties this year, while donors associated with Florida Crystals have given Rubio at least $81,100 since 2009.
MCM Corp., a Miami-based construction company: $58,400.
NextEra Energy, a clean-energy firm based in Juno Beach: $44,290.
Sun Capital Partners, a private-equity firm based in Boca Raton: $41,600.
GEO Group, a private prison operator based in Boca Raton: $41,500.
Koch Industries, the conglomerate run by conservative activist brothers Charles and David Koch: $37,200. (Koch has donated $17,000 to Sen. Paul since 2010.)
Other big Republican donors are likely to play it safe for a while, as Jeb Bush, the putative front-runner, jockeys with Rubio, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and perhaps a dark-horse candidate such as Ohio Gov. John Kasich. With 20 months still remaining until the 2016 election, there’s plenty of time for any given candidate to self-destruct, or for scandalous material to surface. Better to wait for a favorite to emerge than place your bets too soon.
Rubio, however, could end up richly funded if he survives the coming gauntlet of opposition research and severe press scrutiny. Bush is expected to have the biggest war chest, but “Rubio could end up with the second or third most money if he gains traction,” says O’Connell. “If Jeb stumbles, Marco will rise.” So will his value to campaign kingmakers.
This story was updated on June 8, 2015 to incorporate new information on Rubio's donors.
Rick Newman’s latest book is Liberty for All: A Manifesto for Reclaiming Financial and Political Freedom. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.