Republican donors who are still willing to give to Donald Trump are increasingly uneasy – not just about the constant controversy surrounding the presumptive GOP nominee but also the perceived total lack of infrastructure related to his nascent fundraising operation.
The list of problems, according to donors and party officials, is both long and not easy to fix over the course of a short period.
In many ways, it’s only natural. Trump rolled through the primary haranguing the donor community, including some of the party’s top money men and women by name, as he pledged to self-fund his campaign. Some notable top donors, including financier Paul Singer and Joe and Marlene Ricketts, are sitting out the campaign.
But interviews with more than a dozen donors, party, campaign and congressional officials make clear the concerns have moved beyond bruised feelings over personal slights – and even beyond the top donors who simply won’t give to the New York billionaire.
“This isn’t a triage-type of situation,” said one GOP donor who backed Jeb Bush during the primary, but is planning to give to Trump. “This is a massive, full body surgery type deal and we just don’t have much time for that.”
The anxiety is unfolding as a faction of Republicans is pinning a last-ditch effort to stop Trump at next month’s GOP convention. Trump himself doesn’t seem concerned, insisting he can fund his own campaign if the GOP doesn’t get in line.
Over the weekend, Trump didn’t seem to worried about the concerns surrounding his operation, insisting he can self-fund his campaign.
“If for any reason they get a little bit like they don’t want to help out as much, I’ll fund my own campaign,” he said at a rally Saturday. “I’d love to do that.”
But a major shakeup was underway Monday as Trump ousted campaign manager Corey Lewandowski.
Trump has ramped up his fundraising efforts in a recent swing through Texas and he had a helping hand by his side – RNC Chairman Reince Priebus (who one donor called “the most goddamn persistent fundraiser I’ve ever met.”) His almost non-existent operation has received a significant boost from a joint fundraising agreement signed with the RNC – with it comes an at-the-ready donor and digital infrastructure. The dividends of that were clear on Saturday, as the RNC’s digital operation fired out an e-mail with the title “Crooked Hillary drops $7 million in attack ads” that sought to meet an “emergency goal” of $100,000 in one day.
Yet the RNC agreement also brought old tensions between Trump’s team and the party apparatus back to the surface. Distrust – or, according to one official, general confusion inside Trump’s team – over how the joint-fundraising committee actually works (and who benefits most – Trump or the RNC) has riled an already unsteady relationship between the two entities.
Priebus shot down the persistent talk of problems on Twitter Thursday as he flew to Texas with Trump, noting that “reports of discord are pure fiction. Great events lined up all over Texas.” Trump, helpfully, retweeted the tweet.
Trump’s team has been clear – they believe they’ll have enough to win, something campaign chairman and chief strategist Paul Manafort told reporters after he emerged earlier this month from a major donor confab in New York. Trump himself has noted his ability to wrangle earned media (i.e. free time on cable television) puts him in a position where raising the amount of money party official suspects he really needs – north of $1 billion – is unnecessary. But nary a donor or party official can remember of a nominee starting at such a significant disadvantage.
Trump entered May with $2.4 million in the bank and, save for the $14 million he’d raised through largely unsolicited donations throughout the course of his primary campaign, had done little to set up an aggressive small-dollar or large donor operation. Instead, he’d floated his primary efforts through $44 million of loans from his own bank account.
To put that into perspective, Mitt Romney, the party’s 2012 nominee, had already raised nearly $100 million by the end of April of that election year – and he hadn’t even kicked his fundraising into high gear. Numbers aside, Romney’s team had spent the primary (and even the months and years prior to it in many cases) developing and implementing their small and large dollar operations. Fundraising chairs, bundlers and at-the-ready event hosts were identified in all 50 states – and none of that included the campaign’s own joint-fundraising operation with RNC, which pulled in more than $140 million in its first quarter of existence.
Or, another way to look at it: Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican facing a tough re-election in November, had more than $13 million in the bank at the end of the first quarter of this year. Senate candidates – even those as proficient in fundraising as Portman – shouldn’t be more flush with cash than their party’s presumptive presidential nominee.
While Trump’s “self-funding” pitch was clearly effective in the primary (throughout the months-long campaign, person after person at Trump rallies would rattle off Trump’s contention that he wasn’t beholden to special interests as one of his most appealing aspects), it has left him far behind Hillary Clinton and her allies. Clinton, through April, had pulled in $187.5 million and had more than $30 million in the bank. That money is already being put to work in the form of a multi-million dollar ad blitz in battleground states – an effort, advisers say, to define Trump to the general electorate before Trump has an opportunity to defend himself – a strategy that mimics what President Barack Obama’s campaign successfully deployed against Romney in the early summer months of 2012.
Even Trump’s first major foray into fundraising — ten events in nine days where he raised more than $8 million, according to one source— has been questioned as not good enough. Major donors who live in the cities where Trump is scheduled to stop say they have not even been contacted about the events. Invitations have been distributed with few local names listed as hosts. And Republican fundraisers have expressed alarm that his pace is not nearly grueling enough to close the massive financial deficit he will face, which is likely to exceed $500 million.
“At this stage, I think you got to be doing like ten events in two days,” said Spencer Zwick, one of the Republican Party’s most celebrated fundraisers, when told of Trump’s schedule. “You’ve got to go around and scoop the money up.”
Trump fundraisers have internally aimed to raise about $500 million, which would be about half as much as Zwick raised for the Romney campaign just four years ago. But even bundlers outside the Trump network agree that Trump could well survive in that financial position given his command of earned media that ensures he’ll be on television even without Clinton’s meaty advertising buys. And given the quick clip that Trump’s joint fundraising committee can raise cash — at about $450,000 per individual, thanks to fundraising laws not in place four years ago — Trump could barrel toward his goal should he recruit a few hundred donors who give the maximum.
Yet even that $500 million number is questioned as overly rosy should Trump not execute the basic blocking and tackling of campaign fundraising. His low-dollar operation is not set to launch until the convention. Some Republicans who have raised money for every previous presidential campaign say they have not received a single contact from Trump’s team. And even those who are paraded by the RNC as top financiers tell CNN that they haven’t made a single call to their networks for the Trump Victory Fund.
Charles Urstadt, who was named to the RNC’s Presidential Trust committee, said he wasn’t expecting to get his marching orders until the Republican National Convention next month.
“I’ve made contributions but no calls,” Urstadt said, a sentiment echoed by at least one other Presidential Trust member. “I can’t relay the efforts made because, frankly, I haven’t participated.”
It’s not just Trump’s fundraisers declining to make calls — it’s Trump himself. Republicans have expressed frustration both with how Trump wants to spend the cash in his bank account, but also his reluctance to do the wooing that is part and parcel of modern donor maintenance.
While Trump is described by those who have seen him as charming in these intimate receptions – he gamely signed a newspaper column in Sharpie that a donor in Houston wrote to endorse him – Republican fundraisers recognize that whether it’s disinterest, a poor work ethic or some combination of both, he’s undermining himself.
“There are very few people who like to do the ask, so I can understand why Donald Trump — first time at age 70 — doesn’t want to make the ask,” said one longtime RNC fundraiser. “He doesn’t want to make the calls. He’s just in a little bit better position to avoid it than I am.”
Trump himself appears to acknowledge his general distaste for the practice, telling NBC News in an interview last week: “I don’t ask for money. They come to me.”
Trump’s presence at the top of the ticket presents a challenge and an opportunity for Republicans. On the plus side, many Republicans are arguing to donors that it’s time to give money down-ticket to help save the House and Senate majorities – an argument that becomes much easier with Trump’s poll numbers flagging. Big-spending outside groups, like the McConnell-aligned super PAC Senate Leadership Fund, are seeing big donors move their way, having pulled in $39 million through March.
And the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity is expected to spend heavily in key Senate races this cycle – as it avoids helping Donald Trump.
Yet what concerns Republicans on Capitol Hill are Trump’s controversial comments, which could hurt their party down-ticket and imperil vulnerable GOP senators. If their poll numbers suffer, their money could dry up, as well, some fear.
For that reason, many Republicans have begun to make the case directly to Trump that he needs to pull together his campaign and avoid making controversial remarks that overshadow the GOP election-year message. Most recently, GOP leaders scoffed at Trump’s decision to renew his demand to temporarily ban Muslims entering the United States – a topic many believe hurts the GOP brand and its ability to broaden the party’s appeal.
“No,” Sen. Roger Wicker, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told CNN when asked if Trump’s comments were helpful to his Senate candidates. Many are already keeping their distance – either by avoiding outright endorsements or making concerted efforts to distance themselves or outright criticize the presumptive nominee. The possibility of the need to abandon Trump completely is a real, if early-stage conversation, inside several battleground state campaigns, according to two officials, even as the idea of ridding Trump from the ticket is largely scoffed at as a real thing.
Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, who is running in one of the most competitive Senate races in the country, won’t back Trump, who could turn off swing voters in suburban Philadelphia who Toomey is trying to court. Yet Toomey realizes he’s stuck with Trump, dismissing talk that he could be removed in the convention with a candidate who has broader appeal and could raise more money.
“I understand he has the majority of the votes, so I think the outcome is ordained by that fact,” Toomey told CNN.