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Haley Barbour’s money juggernaut for 2012

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Gov. Haley Barbour delivers his eighth and final State of the State address last month. Barbour may have his sights set on a bigger goal: the White House.

Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

In a few weeks one of Washington’s political grande dames, Julie Finley, will host a fundraiser for Haley Barbour, who boasts a Midas-like rolodex of his own.

On March 2, the two-term Mississippi governor and prospective presidential candidate expects to raise big bucks for Haley’s PAC with lots of help from former K Street colleagues who have signed up to haul in $10,000 each.

“Haley has a terrific capacity to raise a lot of money, probably the broadest base of any Republican in the running,” Finley, a former ambassador, told the Center. The fundraiser will be held at Finley’s home in northwest Washington.

The event is yet another sign that Barbour is inching towards a run to secure the GOP nomination, a move that many of his old lobbyist buddies are eager to see him make. Barbour has said he won’t decide until spring.

Much of the fundraising for the bash is being spearheaded by lobbyist Kirk Blalock, who was a top aide to Barbour years ago when he ran the RNC’s successful 1994 election campaign—a campaign that put the GOP back in control of Congress.

Blalock is one of several prominent GOP lobbyists and operatives with long-standing ties to Barbour who have already begun to assist the Mississippian.

Over the last few months, a small group of Washington insiders and lobbyists have been laboring quietly to lay the groundwork for a potential Barbour campaign. They include: lobbyist Scott Reed, who ran Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign and was executive director of the RNC under Barbour; former RNC chairman Ed Gillespie; Don Fierce and Kirk Blalock of the GOP lobbying shop Fierce Isakowitz and Blalock; Ed Rogers, his former lobbying partner at Barbour Griffith & Rogers (now known as BGR Group); and pollster Ed Goeas.

These GOP insiders have been helping Barbour review and assess the process and deadlines for making his decision, and they have been grooming GOP contacts around the country as well.

“Haley is reaching out to finance teams, political operatives and policy experts across the country, emphasizing early states and right-of-center leaders,” Scott Reed told the Center. (Barbour is hardly alone in this exercise: he is one of a dozen or so Republicans who are weighing a White House bid in 2012.)

Barbour’s legendary fundraising prowess was demonstrated again in the last election cycle when he chaired the Republican Governors Association and helped corral a record-setting $115 million. The RGA, a 527 committee that can take unlimited donations, received seven-figure checks from such giants as Koch Industries, News Corp., the Las Vegas Sands and others, according to the independent Center for Responsive Politics.

The RGA’s record haul was instrumental in winning a net gain of six GOP governors and mounting a huge get-out-the-vote effort that helped federal candidates too, earning Barbour lots of political chits that he could call in if he runs.

“Barbour has a tremendous base of people who can raise $25,000, $50,000 and $75,000,” adds one top GOP fundraiser who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is helping another potential candidate. “He recruited them into the RGA. That’s an important category of fundraising.”

Other signs of a Barbour campaign:

  • Early this month Barbour took a trip to Israel sponsored by the influential Republican Jewish Coalition. The visit, which included a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other political leaders, followed recent visits by two other likely candidates: former governors Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Mike Huckabee of Arkansas.
  • On Saturday morning Barbour will address the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, a key GOP confab at which several other presidential aspirants are trying to cement connections on the right.
  • Barbour’s nephew and close adviser, Mississippi lobbyist Henry Barbour, was instrumental in ousting former RNC chairman Michael Steele and pushing the successful candidacy of Reince Priebus as the new chairman of the RNC. Further, Gillespie and Nick Ayers — who was No. 2 under Barbour at the RGA — have been advising Priebus about how to revamp the committee to lure back big donors who were upset with Steele’s management.

Barbour is likely to have enormous assets at his disposal, based on a long career inside the Beltway, as RNC chairman from 1993 to 1997 and as a powerful lobbyist. In 1991, Barbour helped found Barbour Griffith & Rogers, whose high paying clients included tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, energy titan Southern Company and other blue-chip corporations. He was instrumental in making the firm a K Street powerhouse.

Barbour has created several political action committees to keep his options alive and build early support in key states by contributing to potential political allies. (Other likely candidates, including Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty, have done so too.)

Barbour has a federal PAC, Haley’s PAC, which last election cycle raised $1.1 million. Further, Barbour has two state PACs, in Mississippi and Georgia, that can accept unlimited donations from corporations and individuals. Federal PACs limit individual checks to $5,000 a year.

Last year Barbour’s Georgia PAC raised $526,000, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, the lion’s share of which was dispensed quickly to candidates and vendors. Seven corporations and two individuals kicked in $295,000, or about 56 percent, of the Georgia PAC’s total take.

Among the mega donations received by the Georgia PAC, which has been run by Henry Barbour, was a $100,000 check from Jamal Daniel, an executive with Crest Investment Corp, a Texas energy and finance company, who has ties to a former affiliate of Barbour’s old firm. Daniel also gave the $5,000 limit to Barbour’s federal PAC.

The Mississippi PAC hauled in $366,676 and dispensed $282,889 in 2010, according to state records.

Barbour has a formidable money machine revved up and ready to go with a strong base of powerful GOP supporters if he opts to run.

“He’s done such a thorough and wonderful job of helping the GOP for so many years that I don’t think there’s any Republican who doesn’t owe Haley something,” Julie Finley told the Center. “He has an ability to raise money in a folksy way because people know him and love him.”

Nonetheless, Barbour has of late committed some costly political gaffes related to the turbulent civil rights era in his native South. In an interview last December with The Weekly Standard, Barbour seemed to pooh-pooh the tensions that existed when he was a teenager in Mississippi. “I just don’t remember it being that bad,” Barbour said. After facing a tidal wave of criticism, Barbour quickly backtracked, calling the period “a difficult and painful era.”

His lengthy and lucrative lobbying career could also pose some political problems for the governor given the public’s disdain for the pay-to-play culture of K Street and Washington.

“The scarlet letter L that is attached to high profile lobbyists will be a challenge for a potential campaign and a net negative with the public,” predicted Sheila Krumholz, the executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

When Barbour became governor in 2004, he promised that his lobbying career was behind him and that he had put all his assets in a blind trust to avoid conflicts of interest. But media accounts have since disclosed that Barbour’s assets include 50,000 shares in Interpublic Group, which purchased his old lobbying firm in 1999 — before Barbour left.

Documents filed with the Mississippi Ethics Commission peg the market value of that blind trust at $3.3 million and indicate that Barbour gets periodic payments from it. Documents from its initial 2004 filing indicate that the trust takes care of Barbour’s stake in BGR “profit sharing” and pension plans.

In recent years, BGR has witnessed a boom in work representing high paying foreign governments, political figures and businesses, some of which have unsavory or controversial reputations. For instance, BGR’s foreign clients have included: the Eritrean government, which has been allegedly linked to terrorism and human rights abuses; Iraqi opposition leader Ayad Alawi, who was trying to oust Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki; and the government of Kazakhstan, which has been ruled for almost two decades by strongman Nursultan Nazarbayev and has a poor record on human rights.

Barbour and his allies seem to recognize that his K Street background could create political headaches. In recent interviews, Barbour has tried to spiff up the image of his lobbying career and indeed cited it as a possible asset for a candidate for the White House.

“The first thing a president’s going to have to do when he takes his hand off the Bible is start lobbying” Congress, the bureaucracy, governors and others, Barbour told The Weekly Standard last December. “And I’m a pretty good lobbyist.”