During the summer, Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin and Nisei Farmers League President Manuel Cunha both said they were working on bringing in Republican Jeb Bush for a Fresno-area fundraiser.
A few weeks ago was the perfect time for such a visit, with Bush in the state to attend a pair of Bay Area fundraisers. Or maybe mid-September might have worked, when he was feted at a Bakersfield fundraiser the morning after the second GOP presidential debate.
But so far, Bush hasn’t come anywhere near Fresno.
In fact, other than a modest Visalia fundraiser for Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina, not a single White House hopeful has visited the Valley. In early April, Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson delivered the keynote address at the annual Sunbird Conservatives Conference in Fresno, but that was before he was a candidate.
During the 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012 campaigns, the Valley had multiple presidential candidate fundraising visits, both small and large, as contenders looked to tap into the region’s agriculture and business wealth. A few candidates – Republican and Democrat – even came through for a rally or quick meet-and-greets, where they pressed the flesh with the locals.
The lack of presidential visits now could become permanent, some experts say, as campaigns move away from traditional, labor-intensive fundraisers and outside groups supporting certain candidates rise in their place.
Several political watchers as well as wealthy donors say it is still early in the campaign season.
I think people are just keeping their powder dry and holding on to their pocketbooks now. Nobody’s buying into anybody right now.
Fresno County Supervisor Debbie Poochigian
“I don’t think people have settled on any front-runner in their own minds,” says Fresno County Supervisor Debbie Poochigian, who was active in previous presidential campaigns, including serving as a regional coordinator for George W. Bush in 2000. “There’s five of them I could live with. I think people are just keeping their powder dry and holding on to their pocketbooks now. Nobody’s buying into anybody right now.”
With money at a premium in a region that was rocked hard by the Great Recession, even wealthy donors don’t want to waste their hard-earned cash.
But there may be something at play that goes beyond crowded candidate fields and the fact that the first primary is still more than three months away.
The fatigue factor
“I think many in ag are a little burned out with the whole campaign donation deal,” says prominent west-side rancher John Harris, a reliable donor who has also hosted presidential candidate fundraisers. “Since we don’t have a favorite-son-type candidate, I think folks feel we can stay on the sidelines for a while. This is not our first rodeo.”
Michael Der Manouel Jr., chairman of the GOP-supporting Lincoln Club of Fresno County, says the local political money traditionally has rallied around an establishment candidate. Outsider candidates such as Donald Trump, Carson and Fiorina don’t have a lot of relationships here among those donors.
I’m sure the fundraisers have put their toe in the water on potential events, and have had a very tepid response.
Lincoln Club of Fresno County Chairman Michael Der Manouel Jr.
“I’m sure the fundraisers have put their toe in the water on potential events, and have had a very tepid response,” Der Manouel says. “The establishment candidates, nobody wants to help, so that’s probably why they haven’t come. Not many people want to give to a candidate that is sitting at 4 to 7 percent in polls.”
It’s a far cry from the recent past.
In May 2012, presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney headlined a high-dollar fundraising lunch at Harris’ Sanger-area home. The event raked in more than $1 million, the first time a Valley fundraiser crossed that level. It shattered the previous high-dollar mark of $750,000 at an October 2003 fundraiser at the Fresno Convention Center for George W. Bush, then an incumbent president seeking re-election.
Romney found the Valley to be fertile fundraising ground. In September 2011, at a time when he was battling for the Republican presidential nomination, he raised around $140,000 at a breakfast at the home of two Fresno supporters.
That fundraiser also seems to refute the current “it’s too early” argument. It was in September of the year before the election year. It is now November of the year before the election year.
It was a similar story in July 1999, when George W. Bush, then a Republican presidential hopeful, flew into Fresno, raised $200,000, and returned to Texas.
By this point in the 2008 presidential election, six presidential hopefuls had visited the Valley. That list included both Republicans and Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, who held a rally on the street in front of Fresno High School.
But this year may signify a new normal in presidential fundraising, says Tim Orman, a local political consultant.
The rise of the super PAC
More focus is now on online fundraising, he says, citing the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont Democrat. The other big change is the rise of the super PAC. These political action committees, as well as other outside groups, can get massive donations in the hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars from multimillionaires or billionaires. The contributions make candidate fundraisers where donors are limited to $2,700 per election look like small potatoes, Orman says.
I don’t think $2,700-a-head fundraisers make as much of a difference anymore. Fundraisers are expensive to put on. You go through a lot of time and trouble getting hosts and sponsors and selling tickets.
Local political consultant Tim Orman
“I don’t think $2,700-a-head fundraisers make as much of a difference anymore,” he says. “Fundraisers are expensive to put on. You go through a lot of time and trouble getting hosts and sponsors and selling tickets.”
The super PACs and other outside groups can solicit unlimited donations. Bush’s campaign committee, for instance, has raised around $25 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. But outside groups have raised more than $100 million to help elect Bush. (This isn’t true for all candidates. Clinton and Carson have raised most of their money the traditional way; Sanders has raised all of it that way.)
These outside groups are not allowed to coordinate their efforts with a candidate’s campaign, but the Center for Responsive Politics says this election cycle they’ve been doing such things as voter outreach, which traditionally has been done by outside groups, and are often run by a candidate’s friends and former staffers.
It doesn’t mean candidates will never attend traditional fundraisers. Bush did the Bay Area events, where Silicon Valley wealth is producing enough big money that it can command his personal presence. In Bakersfield, there still is oil wealth.
And it doesn’t mean Bush doesn’t have local backers. He does. But in the current political wealth environment, the Valley might not measure up on these new money scales – at least for a candidate fundraiser.
“I just don’t see any compelling reason for Jeb Bush to come here,” says Fresno State political science professor Tom Holyoke.
Instead of coming to Fresno, Bush sent his son. On Oct. 22, Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush headlined a lunch fundraiser at the Bankers Ballroom in downtown Fresno’s Pacific Southwest Building.
About 15 people contributed the $2,700 maximum, which earned them a private reception and a picture with George P. Bush. The event raised around $50,000, one attendee estimated.
Jeb Bush’s absence – and sending the second team instead – didn’t go unnoticed locally. Der Manouel, the Lincoln Club chairman, says it’s another sign that everyone from voters to donors are tired of the political status quo.
“This is another component of the interesting year that we’re having,” he says, “where outsiders dominate and establishment candidates suffer from, frankly, their poor performance.”
John Ellis: 559-441-6320