Wall Street, big business start backing Mitt Romney’s Senate bid as GOP establishment seeks stronger leadership in Congress

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Mitt Romney, former Governor of Massachusetts, speaks during a keynote address at the Utah County Republican Party's Lincoln Day Dinner in Provo, Utah, Feb. 16, 2018.

Major names on Wall Street and in the Republican establishment are buying into Mitt Romney's run for Senate, particularly as Republican lawmakers are looking to him as a future leader within a congressional caucus that is struggling to find its identity.

According to first-quarter filings, Romney has been quietly receiving the financial backing of some of the most powerful names and donors in Republican circles, such as former Goldman Sachs CEO and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. The early contributions are not necessarily big, but they indicate a coordinated effort to push the former Massachusetts governor and presidential nominee into the Senate with hopes that he will quickly climb his way up the leadership ranks.

GOP lawmakers who spoke to CNBC on the condition of anonymity say that Romney's name recognition and his ability to galvanize the rest of the party would make him an ideal candidate to work with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., within the upper echelon of the Senate's leadership ranks.

If Romney wins Utah race, his entrance into the Senate will come at a time where new leadership could be necessary to counter emboldened Democrats. The GOP is considered likely to hold on or add to its slim majority in the Senate, but Democrats are favored to regain control of the House. Republicans may seek a household name like Romney to galvanize the party and move forward after what many experts say could be a blue wave this fall.

"Every senator is important, but Mitt Romney will enter the chamber with a lot of respect from other senators, which is important if you want to get things done," said Alex Conant, former communications director for Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio's 2016 presidential campaign.

A boost from the establishment

Two prominent names in traditional Republican circles, former President George W. Bush and Paulson, pop out in the list of Romney donors. Paulson and Bush both gave $8,100 to Romney, according to Federal Election Commission filings for the first quarter. Paulson, who now chairs the nonprofit think tank Paulson Institute, served as Bush's Treasury secretary during the financial crisis of 2008. He previously donated to Romney's losing presidential campaign in 2012.

"Mitt is a great American and I believe that he has the kind of leadership skills and experience that we need to tackle a host of issues facing the country," Paulson told CNBC. "I'm grateful he's decided to take those skills to the Senate."

On the business side, Romney also counts the support of John Willard Marriott Jr., executive chairman of hotel giant Marriott International, who also backed the would-be senator's presidential run. Marriott and his family, including his wife, Donna, and his brother, Richard, have given more than $24,000 to the Romney campaign throughout the early stages of the election.

Third Point LLC founder Daniel Loeb, whose firm claims nearly $18 billion in assets under management, is also backing Romney's latest efforts to get into public service with early contributions of $8,100. Spencer Zwick, Romney's former campaign finance chairman a co-founder of Romney-run hedge fund Solamere Capital, donated the same amount.

Romney has also appealed to big-name Utah donors, as well, including Harris Simmons, CEO of Zions Bancorp.

Romney's business background and his links to corporate America will likely help him emerge as a strong leader on Capitol Hill in filling the void left by the retirement of longtime Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, political experts and observers say.

"Everyone sees that if he's able to run the table in Utah, between his business background and his executive experience, he's going to be helpful if he gets back to Washington," Boyd Matheson, former chief of staff to Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, told CNBC. "Whether he officially becomes a leader, Mitt Romney will likely have outside influence regardless of him being a junior senator."

The Utah primary is slated for June 26, when Romney faces a potentially crowded field.

The Romney campaign declined to comment. Marriott, Loeb, Zwick and Bush did not return requests for comment.

An investment of sorts

Experts believe these big-name backers are looking at Romney as an investment and that all paths will likely lead to a crucial role for him in the Senate.

"There's no question Wall Street puts its money where they can get their biggest reward. It's like a dividend," political strategist Hank Sheinkopf said. "Mitt Romney could be their dividend as a fast moving leader in the Senate that Wall Street can look for help if he pulls off a victory."

Romney has long been a darling of the pro-business Republican establishment since he entered public sphere after he led the effort to bring the 2002 Winter Olympics to Utah. However, there may be even more urgency to crown a new leader of the party's congressional delegation as Romney's former vice presidential running mate, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., retires.

Romney and Ryan share the same donor pool.

In addition to donating to Romney, Paulson was backing Ryan's joint fundraising committee, Team Ryan, with a $44,300 contribution. Loeb, meanwhile, coughed up $50,000 for the same committee in 2017.

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