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Top Republican donors shopping for a candidate not named Donald Trump had high hopes that Ron DeSantis would be their savior. Then it was Tim Scott who caught their eye. More recently, Nikki Haley has left them optimistic they could avert their nightmare outcome.
But increasingly, it’s become evident to a large segment of the donor class that salvation isn’t coming. And in a lopsided primary, their money matters less than ever.
And so, many of these uber-wealthy donors are keeping their wallets closed.
“Trump’s like 50 points ahead,” said one New York-based GOP fundraiser, granted anonymity to speak freely about the state of play. “Who wants to get involved and waste money?”
The hesitation to give is already having an impact on Republican super PACs, which are not bound by the limits of regulated political campaigns. Across all such groups focused on the GOP presidential primary, only 66 individual donors made contributions of $250,000 or more through the end of June — the latest period covered by federal filing deadlines, according to a POLITICO analysis of committee filings from the Federal Election Commission.
That marks a 24 percent drop from this time in 2016, when the party last had a competitive primary. At this point in that cycle, 87 donors had given at least $250,000 to one of the candidates’ super PACs, the analysis found.
The sidelining of big donors, meanwhile, is doing nothing to hurt Trump, who has become the alpha by running a small-dollar fundraising campaign.
The super PAC supporting the former president has received relatively few major donations this year. But through the end of June, Trump’s joint fundraising committee reported raising $23.7 million from donors giving less than $200 — more than twice the grassroots donations of all other GOP candidates combined.
Despite the former president sitting seemingly immovably atop the polls, some big donors are still shopping. Ronald Lauder — a billionaire cosmetics heir who met with DeSantis and Scott as he surveyed the field after splitting from Trump — grew intrigued by Haley after the former South Carolina governor’s strong debate performance last month, according to a person close to him who was granted anonymity to freely discuss private conversations.
“He really likes Haley. He knows her,” the person said, noting he has no plans to meet with her yet. “It’s too soon to say who he’s supporting but [he thinks] she’s terrific on Israel and very impressive.”
But like much of the Republican establishment, many donors are becoming increasingly resigned to Trump’s dominance in a field they initially hoped to shape. They aren’t jazzed enough about any of his opponents to send them cash. They worry Trump will seek revenge if elected. And with DeSantis backsliding and no other candidate making significant movement in the polls, it is unclear who, if anyone, they would even back.
“Confusion. Is there a better word?” John Catsimatidis, the billionaire CEO of Gristedes supermarket chain, said when asked to sum up the mood of the high-end donor class. “Republican donors want a pro-business, no nonsense person and they want a person that’s capable of having the sex appeal to be able to win 51 percent.”
“A lot of them are worried that President Trump, even though he’s a superstar, won’t be able to achieve the 51 percent, so they're looking toward the next person,” Catsimatidis added. “It looks like Nikki Haley seems to be high on that totem pole right now, and [Florida Gov. Ron] DeSantis is there someplace, but DeSantis has been losing because of the sex appeal.”
Catsimatidis has contributed to Trump and said he would give to Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s longshot Democratic bid. Some other major donors and bundlers are committed to other candidates: New York lawyer Eric Levine, for instance, is bullish on Scott, while investment firm CEO Hal Lambert is raising for DeSantis.
But billionaire CEO Ken Griffin, who donated $5 million to DeSantis’ gubernatorial race in Florida, and mega donor Thomas Peterffy, have continued to stay on the sidelines as they have expressed frustration at the rest of the field.
“Twelve years ago and eight years ago, at this time of year, there were events going on every week in New York [during] September,” said the New York-based fundraiser. “And the only person I’m aware of having an event this whole month is Nikki Haley. It’s beyond unusual.”
The reluctance of many wealthy donors to give is compounding the difficulties of lower-polling candidates in the primary — desperate to gain traction but with limited resources. Without deep pockets to rely on for advertising, it is also increasing the stakes of Republican primary debates, including this week’s in California.
Bill Strong, an international investment banker and longtime Republican fundraiser, is among those looking optimistically at Haley. He pointed to numbers from a recent CNN/University of New Hampshire poll that he said shows there’s room for her to grow. The poll had Trump with 39 percent of the vote of likely GOP primary voters and Haley at 12 percent, nearly even with DeSantis, who months ago was seen as a front-runner in the contest.
Strong is confident that even a modest improvement like Haley’s in New Hampshire can impact potential donors, and a few of them have put money on her. They include billionaire WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum, who has donated $5 million to a super PAC supporting her campaign, venture capitalist Tim Draper, who gave $1.1 million, and million-dollar donor Steven Stull, another venture capitalist, according to Federal Election Commission filings.
But they are lone wolves among uber donors who are, for the most part, not yet spending money.
“This is a group that’s extremely conservative. Not politically conservative but conservative in actions. They want to research and know things before they flip a switch,” said Stu Loeser, a New York-based consultant who works with wealthy donors. “There’s no real argument that anyone can beat Trump yet. They’re sitting on their hands this cycle so far until someone proves viability.”