Mitt Romney has proved to be a master fundraiser, but he's barely spent any time schmoozing with big donors gathered in Tampa ahead of his big speech Thursday night. Enter the governors. Many of the 29 Republican governors here have been working the big money circuit, appearing at closed-door fundraisers and donor appreciation events for both the Romney campaign and unlimited money outside groups, for which they have emerged as major donor attractions.
On Wednesday afternoon, one governor after the next pulled up in SUVs with police escorts to a discreet side entrance of the exclusive Tampa Club for a luncheon of the Republican Governors Association's top donor club, the Executive Roundtable. It provides special access to governors for folks who give $25,000 or more each year, more than 80 of whom came to hear speeches from Govs. Bob McDonnell of Virginia and Chris Christie of New Jersey, and to mingle with Govs. Terry Branstad of Iowa, Mary Fallin of Oklahoma and Scott Walker of Wisconsin.
"There are people who like to come and meet with the governors and talk about their companies or positions," Fallin told POLITICO outside the Tampa Club. "And I think it is important that governors have the opportunity to be able to visit with people that are out investing money, creating jobs, creating opportunities," she said, adding, "I don't think it's any special access at all because I'm out among the people all the time."
Hours after the RGA lunch, Govs. Jan Brewer of Arizona, Nikki Haley of South Carolina and Butch Otter of Idaho were set to appear with Branstad at a "strolling reception" at St. Petersburg's tony Vinoy Resort for donors who'd pledged to raise at least $250,000 for Romney's campaign.
And later in the evening, POLITICO has learned, Haley joined Bill Haslam of Tennessee at a reception at a building owned by mega-donor Mel Sembler, which also featured in-person testimonials from several Olympic gold medalists backing Romney, including speed skaters Dan Jansen and Derek Parra, swimmer Rowdy Gaines and skeet shooter Kim Rhode.
Walker reportedly even agreed to appear at a dinner for mega-donors organized by Paul Singer, who has donated more than $3 million to unlimited money groups this cycle, including $1 million to the pro-Romney Restore Our Future super PAC, $500,000 to the RGA and $1.2 million to a pair of gay-rights political committees.
On Thursday afternoon, nine governors — Sam Brownback of Kansas, Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania, Gary Herbert of Utah and Matt Mead of Wyoming along with Branstad, Brewer, Fallin, Haley and McDonnell — were expected at a reception for the Republican Jewish Coalition.
And all that's to say nothing of big-name former governors pressing the flesh, including Haley Barbour of Mississippi, Jeb Bush of Florida and Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota.
Barbour and Bush attended a Thursday morning briefing for contributors and prospective contributors to the Karl Rove-conceived Crossroads outside spending groups. Barbour, regarded as perhaps the leading fundraiser in Republican politics, since leaving office in January has put his massive big-donor Rolodex to work for Crossroads, which aims to spend as much as $300 million attacking President Barack Obama and his Democratic congressional allies in the run-up to Election Day.
"The governors got their own political organizations in their states and they're energizing people — the Democratic governors do the same thing," Barbour said, as he walked to a waiting SUV after leaving the RGA luncheon at the Tampa Club.
He said the luncheon for the RGA is "what we call 'fulfillment.' They invite all the people that give for the Executive Roundtable. If they want to come to Tampa, they'll help them get credentials, help 'em get rooms. I mean, the donor pays for it. And then this is just a bunch of 'em having lunch with a bunch of governors."
Barbour added that "American Crossroads doesn't have any fulfillment. But the governors work very hard on that, always have."
Among the attendees POLITICO saw leaving Wednesday's RGA luncheon were energy consultant Chip Brady, Duke Energy executive Brett Carter, Houston energy executive Stephen Cox, medical technology consultant Rich Helppie, online education entrepreneur Ron Packard, Orlando real estate developer Tom Hutchison and Consumer Electronics Association president Gary Shapiro. Also in attendance was an official from the Israeli embassy in Washington, who declined to identify himself.
In fact, most donors refused to comment when asked why they attended and donated to the RGA or other unlimited money outside groups.
One exception was Foster Friess, the ever-loquacious GOP mega-donor, who said the "key message" from the luncheon was essentially celebrating its own success.