Rival super PACs are pitching to donors at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland
Donors are concerned Donald Trump still does not have a group that has demonstrated an ability to win unlimited checks
The battle for supremacy among super PACs backing Donald Trump is intensifying as rival groups – almost all of which have struggled to collect top dollars – are making last-ditch pitches to the party’s moneyed elite before they split town.
In lavish hotel ballrooms and guarded private suites lining the mezzanine of the Quicken Loans Arena, donors expressed their concerns that Trump – 10 weeks after winning the nomination – still does not have a group that has demonstrated an ability to win unlimited checks. And they know he has little time to correct the situation, which has him being outspent by Hillary Clinton and her associated super PACs by tens of millions of dollars.
Two political orbits made power plays Wednesday: Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chairman, called into a group of about 40 donors to encourage the work of the super PAC Rebuilding America Now, according to two sources in the room, a blessing that he has not bestowed upon other groups. That call to donors meeting at the Ritz-Carlton, first reported by Bloomberg, gives the impression that this group is the place where campaign brass wants supporters to invest their money.
Hedge funder Steve Feinberg, top fundraiser John Rakolta Jr. and Los Angeles investor Tom Tellefsen were among those present, one attendee said. Also there was Mike Pence finance aide Marty Obst, who said Pence who attend the super PAC’s events in the future, according to an attendee.
But a Manafort rival, former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, has also begun speaking with donors about yet another Trump super PAC, according to a person familiar with the outreach. His efforts were first reported by BuzzFeed.
Lewandowski, a CNN contributor, denied that he has talked with anyone.
The developments come at a time when Trump is being pelted on television by pro-Clinton forces with virtually no support from outside Republican groups. The chief Democratic super PAC, Priorities USA, announced Wednesday that it had $142 million in donations, money that it is using to assault Trump as a greedy, misogynistic businessman on swing-state television.
Trump associates and allies had hoped that a super PAC would form by this point in the race. Yet every group that has promised big donations has failed, and wealthy Republicans this week expressed a growing fear that no group would take off in time to save their nominee and their majority in the Senate.
“In hindsight, or looking backwards, maybe it would’ve been nice to have somebody with some lead on the target,” said Dave Bossie, a well-connected conservative activist steering a new Trump super PAC. “Exiting the conventions – pivoting post conventions – that’ll be a critical time.”
The mood was unmistakably different this summer, veteran fundraisers say. Trump’s infant major donor program brought Trump loyalists to this convention, but much of the GOP’s traditional fundraising class stayed away. Some Republicans who have crunched the numbers and seen attendee lists said as few as 10% to 20% of the party’s moneymen ventured to Cleveland this week.
One man who did attend – and who could be the savior of Trump super PACs: Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate who is unabashedly pro-Trump. Nearly every pro-Trump super PAC claims to have the inside track on Adelson’s political warchest, but no group has yet disclosed a single check from the Las Vegas billionaire.
Asked by CNN a dozen times as he left an exclusive lunch meeting over brisket and salmon at the Republican Jewish Coalition whether he planned to support a Trump super PAC, Adelson stayed totally silent as a half-dozen security officers shuffled him from the curb to his car.
The picture wasn’t much clearer to Adelson associates at the RJC, many of whom are just as curious about Adelson’s thinking. Attendees said Adelson, who is known for his secretive political moves and rarely speaks to press, did not give any give any signals behind the closed doors of the Public Auditorium – similarly, not uttering a word.
Trump allies stress that his phenomenal command of earned media means that he can suffer and survive a paid media onslaught. And some Republican are confident that a Trump super PAC operation will mature on time, perhaps with a large Adelson check to his own group.
Yet unlike four years ago, when Mitt Romney’s Restore our Future was so successful that no other super PAC could compete, the lack of success in Trump’s financial world is blooming more groups and encouraging them to flex whatever muscle they have to gain credibility.
One budding organization, Bossie’s Make America Number 1 PAC, told CNN this week that it had received $2 million from its seed funder, GOP megadonor Bob Mercer, on Friday. That gives the group the cash to begin initial hiring and fundraising, but it is still hardly a financial juggernaut that can compete with behemoths like Priorities USA.
Another super PAC, Rebuilding America Now, claimed this week that it had more than $60 million in commitments – including a $20 million financier. Yet the group has failed to collect on its initial claims, raising skepticism in the donor community that the super PAC may be more bark than bite.
The blessing of Manafort – along with the attendance of Obst – could give the super PAC with newfound credibility. Donors were pitched on their new ads Wednesday, which began this week and that group officials say will air all the way until Election Day.
“I know that we’re the team,” said Ken McKay, the chief strategist and a former Trump aide, said in an interview at the downtown Westin, as fellow Trump advisers milled around.
Bossie, though, said it was his group that is “authorized” by the campaign.
“I can be very effective and efficient with a lot of less money than people who have more money,” Bossie said.
A Trump campaign spokeswoman, Hope Hicks, did not respond to a request for comment about whether the Manafort call meant the campaign had changed its hostile posture toward super PACs.
Not to be outdone, a third super PAC, Great America PAC, feted donors Monday afternoon also at the Ritz, which has been ground zero of donor outreach all week. Donors like Harold Hamm and Foster Friess were pitched on the group by prominent Trump surrogates like Ben Carson and Rudy Giuliani.
Yet given super PACs’ tendency to splice and dice the opposing nominee, it isn’t clear that Friess, for instance, is certain to support any super PAC this time around.
“I’m very leery of getting involved with super PACs where they come out with attack ads. I want to put a positive spin,” Friess said.
Asked if was still a smart investment to donate big money to super PACs in 2016, Friess – one of the party’s most generous donors – was less than sure.
“It depends,” he said, climbing into his SUV.