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The Romney who leads Trump's RNC
05:19 - Source: CNN

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Adelson has begun sounding out other contributors on forming a new super PAC

The White House sent no official emissaries to one of the GOP's A-list donor summits

Park City, Utah CNN  — 

Mitt Romney had barely disembarked from the Silver Lake Express lift when the glad-handing and ribbing began in earnest.

“All right, guys, the old man is here,” he whooped to Ron Kaufman, one of his close advisers, as Kaufman faked a limp ahead of a four-mile hike at dawn Friday.

“It’s just walking. Just walking,” said Romney, flashing the same mischievous half-smile that he would don 30 yards later, when the 70-year-old began to jog the Wasatch Mountains switchbacks – uphill. “We can handle that.”

If the former private equity executive is at home anywhere, it is here – among more than 200 of his donors and high-wattage friends.

The same can’t be said of President Donald Trump.

None of those hikers came from the Trump administration – and few, for that matter, even hear from them these days. The White House sent no official emissaries to one of the GOP’s A-list donor summits. And so the annual gathering of Romneyworld here at a ski lodge resort served as a vivid reminder of the chasm that persists between the Republican Party’s – and Romney’s – donor base and the leader of the GOP.

Where Romney revels in the admiration of his fundraisers, Trump appears to shirk it.

“I don’t think he spends his time reaching out to donors,” Spencer Zwick, a much-heralded fundraiser for Romney and House Speaker Paul Ryan, said in an interview. “The way they got elected was not the way Romney built his campaign.”

Trump has earned plaudits from Republican lawmakers for his heavy touch and willingness to call at all hours of the day to hear their thoughts. But that gameness does not extend the party’s well-heeled class of givers, whom Trump scorned during much of the campaign and still to this day see Trump as an imperfect vehicle for a number of policy wins that appear increasingly out of reach.

One person filling some of the fundraising leadership void left by Trump: Sheldon Adelson, the party’s largest contributor, who is preparing for possible headwinds ahead of 2018, according to a person with knowledge of his plans.

Adelson has begun sounding out other contributors, such as the Ricketts family, on forming a new super PAC that would focus on governors’ races and state legislative races ahead of the next redistricting cycle in 2020. Adelson would be willing to commit substantial resources to the group, which is still in early talks but is envisioned as a heavyweight GOP group similar to the Senate Leadership Fund or Congressional Leadership Fund.

Adelson has also been staying in close touch with Trump administration hands in Washington – last week, Adelson visited Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, one of the architects behind the White House’s plan to replace Obamacare.

Few other donors – except for the big whales like Adelson – have had as much contact from the White House. The donor-tending that Romney zealously embraced is missing.

But major GOP givers and their aides on the grounds of Romney’s annual ideas summit continue to insist that for all the chaos of Trump’s Washington – thrown into stark spotlight just this week – Trump is remaining palatable, even if, in the words one attendee, “the amount of chaos is pretty overwhelming.”

Top Republicans have abandoned hope that Trump would govern as a steadier leader, and have begun to succumb to the chaos that has defined Trump’s first five months. A recognition has taken hold, Republicans here said, that the drama is here to stay.

“His problem is not issues,” said Kaufman as he trekked through mountain shrubbery, at least 15 minutes behind Romney. “His problem is style.”

Some top givers maintain an “I told you so” air heading into 2018, observing that Trump had wrought the spectacle that discouraged them from supporting him in the first place. Yet a larger group eyes the midterms more humbly, recognizing Trump’s poor popularity endangers the GOP’s effort to retain the House.

“It’s going to be a herculean effort on fundraising for the House,” said one Republican involved, predicting a massive focus on outside money routed through groups like the Congressional Leadership Fund, whose president roamed the Stein Eriksen Lodge this weekend.

CLF, the main super PAC affiliated with Paul Ryan, is expected to consume much of the fundraising oxygen this cycle, no longer forced to compete with presidential super PACs in a midterm and with Republican donors seeing House races as higher fundraising priorities than Senate ones in 2018.

Ryan himself acknowledged the task before them, reminding some of the GOP’s most loyal supporters in a private session here about the statistical history of midterm losses for the party in power, according to two people in the room.

Other Republican fundraisers similarly worry about a cockiness taking hold now that they have unified control of Washington.

“We’re going to think: “Oh wow, look what we did. We won with Trump and we’re just going to sweep ’18’,” said one GOP donor. “I think we have to be very careful thinking that what Trump was able to pull off, Republicans can pull off.”

And Zwick, Ryan’s chief fundraiser, warned of trouble “if the end of 2017 happens and there aren’t some wins on the board.”

The turbocharged Democratic fundraising base, meanwhile, has even “overwhelmed” institutions like the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, one top Democratic fundraiser said in the last week.

Romney is described as eager to campaign in the midterms as well. But how much Trump would welcome someone like him in the 2018 campaign is one of the bigger questions hovering over their relationship.

Despite his fervent, personal criticism of Trump, Romney allies feel they have avoided any blackballing – successfully using chief of staff Reince Priebus and Ryan to get names in front of the president for administration posts, such as Andy Puzder for Labor Secretary and Jim Donovan for Deputy Secretary of the Treasury, Both of those Romney friends later withdrew from their confirmation processes.

But alas, Trump’s footprint at Romney’s star event remained meager.

Ronna Romney McDaniel, the new chair of the Republican National Committee and Mitt Romney’s niece, has earned early plaudits from GOP givers. But she was a late scratch here at her uncle’s retreat – she went to Georgia to campaign in that state’s special election – leaving Trump forces without a strong surrogate, never mind an official White House presence, on the premises.

Last year, then-RNC Chair Priebus strongly urged anti-Trump holdouts to jump on board, telling them that Trump would win in November with them or without them. The sole Trump hand on the scene this year was Trump fundraiser Anthony Scaramucci, who does not yet even technically work for the administration.

But for now, Romney appears willing to revel solely in the veneration from his network, even if not from Trump’s.

“This guy here – if you don’t know him – he’s done seven of the seven peaks on seven continents,” Romney regaled to the queue Friday morning, as the former governor awaited the turning chairlift. He pointed to his friend. “And he’s sailed the seven seas.”

“This guy here,” shot back the associate. “He ran for president!”

“And I lost,” Romney said, before his four-seater began to descend.