Republicans may be reluctantly coming to terms with the reality that Donald Trump is the new leader of their party, but that doesn't mean all major GOP donors will be opening their wallets in any significant way for the wealthy reality TV star.
“They’ve already spent a fortune and now they’re gonna shell out for a billionaire?” a Republican strategist familiar with the thinking of large money donors said. “Even if it wasn’t Trump, that would be hard.”
Ted Cruz's decision to drop out last week caught donors by surprise, and many are now in discussions about how to proceed. Top donors to Cruz's campaign have not yet publicly declared whether they will support Trump, though Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway, who ran a network of pro-Cruz super PACs, met with the Mercer family, which largely funded those PACs, on Tuesday.
Conway said Keep the Promise I is now going to be “a federal PAC supporting all types of candidates." A spokeswoman for the group confirmed that "all options remain open" on the presidential front. After Cruz dropped out, Conway came out in support of Trump.
Karl Rove-led American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS have already spent the past year investing in testing different messages against Hillary Clinton and are currently in discussion to see if they want to be one of the few outside forces boosting Trump. “Now that there is clarity at the top of the ticket,” said Ian Prior, spokesman for the groups, “we will be evaluating our role in what will be a very competitive general election.”
Even some of the donors who ultimately agree to pony up funds for Trump might only give largely symbolic donations to demonstrate their fealty to the party.
“Most donors probably fall in line, but what does 'fall in line' mean? I do not believe many donors are going to be writing million-dollar super PAC checks. A bunch of them probably write $2,700 checks,” the strategist said.
$2,700 is the maximum amount an individual can donate to a campaign committee.
A few former Romney backers, including hedge fund manager Anthony Scaramucci, media mogul Stan Hubbard, and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, have already signaled that they will support Trump, but it’s unclear whether they will spend as much as they have in past presidential elections.
Hubbard, who previously gave to an anti-Trump group, declined to disclose how much he will give, saying he is discussing his contributions with a pro-Trump super PAC for which he recently signed on as an adviser. “There’s no point in running around complaining about Trump,” Hubbard said. “He won fair and square, so let’s pull together and be a team.”
So far, Trump’s campaign has raised about $12 million from donors, but he’ll need significantly more if he doesn’t want to foot the bill for a billion-dollar campaign.
Frayda Levin, a major Republican donor who is involved with Koch-backed groups, said the decision many are debating on whether or not to get on board with Trump will depend on the type of donor they are. “You have to divide donors into those who are Republicans first and policy second and those who are policy first and Republicans second. Many who are policy first still aren’t comfortable with Trump.”
Several major GOP bundlers — well-connected donors who raise hundreds of thousands for a campaign instead of independently writing six- or seven-figure checks to super PACs — who were major players during Mitt Romney’s campaign said they are reluctant to fundraise for Trump.
"I’m waiting for the Second Coming," one said. Another said his decision might be tied to what Speaker Paul Ryan ends up doing. Ryan has so far said he is not ready to endorse.
Another top GOP donor to super PACs, billionaire Paul Singer, will focus on House and Senate races and does not plan on supporting Trump or Clinton, a source familiar with Singer's plans told BuzzFeed News. Singer, who has developed his own network of donors, made comments at a conservative think tank’s dinner in New York on Monday that indicated the depth of his opposition to Trump, according to a story in National Review.
The political network affiliated with the billionaire Koch brothers is expected to do the same.
To be sure, there have been some large donors and bundlers who are coming around and bringing their bank accounts with them — particularly those who know Gov. Chris Christie.
"I plan on being helpful when I can be," said David Tamasi, a GOP lobbyist and former bundler for Christie, who said he's still waiting on details from the campaign on how they are constructing their finance program. Tamasi said although for many donors Trump was not their first choice, the simple pitch of backing the GOP nominee will resonate.
Trump is slated to make an appearance at a New Jersey fundraiser later this month that will provide an opportunity for him to meet with donors and also help Christie pay off his presidential campaign debt.
A pro-Trump super PAC called Great America PAC, which has struggled to raise big money, recently brought on Amy Pass, a longtime fundraiser for Newt Gingrich.
But the campaign still lacks any sort of real fundraising operation in the traditional sense, a reality Trump’s advisers are keenly aware of.
A senior adviser to Trump, Barry Bennett, said in a recent interview that the campaign could use online fundraising to make up for a lack of a traditional fundraising network. “He’s got 16 million followers on social media, much like Bernie Sanders, and when we turn that on, you are going to see Bernie Sanders–like fundraising,” Bennett said on a Bloomberg Politics podcast.
But whether a small-donor-based strategy can raise the amount of money Trump will need to fight likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton is, at best, an untested theory, and Trump could find himself forced to pay his own way — in part because Trump’s repeated bashing of the donor class has not helped those making fundraising pleas on his behalf.
“The guy kept saying 'I don’t need your money,' now he’s asking for their money?” said another Republican operative with ties to donors. “What it’s about is, he kept pissing all over the idea of a donor class ... Trump kept making slights about how he’s not owned or controlled by these people.”