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The Trump Donors Come in From the Cold

Major Republican donors, whose interests and economic persuasions have defined the party since the Reagan era, are at a crossroads this week.
Major Republican donors, whose interests and economic persuasions have defined the party since the Reagan era, are at a crossroads this week. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Theodore Schleifer
January 24, 2024

Over the next week, some of the country’s wealthiest Republicans donors will gather behind closed doors at a pair of fancy hotels on opposite coasts for two prescheduled, high-minded conferences to compare notes and grapple with the question: How much more of their time and fortune are they prepared to bestow upon Nikki Haley’s long-shot presidential campaign? 

The first of these mega-donor confabs will be hosted by the Koch network in Indian Wells, where hundreds of friends and allies of Charles Koch and his late brother, David, will gather Friday night to discuss philanthropy and, on the sidelines, the political topic du jour. Americans for Prosperity, the Koch Network’s political operation, has already spent tens of millions on Haley’s behalf and helped elevate her nearly 20 points in the polls—which, of course, led Trump to ramble on and on in New Hampshire about “Americans for No Prosperity.”

While the Koch group isn’t making a decision this weekend, per se, their continued support for Haley has become a point of contention among some donors. “It’s kind of nuts that we’re even supporting her at all. It feels like the guy has got it wrapped up. It felt like that several months ago,” said one Koch donor attending this weekend’s session. “When they’re at their best, it’s when they obey their own rules. And what they’re at their worst, they don’t. And one of their rules is: We only get involved when money can make a difference.” 

The Koch network, for its part, has continued to argue over the last few days over internal polling that shows Trump is a disaster at the top of the ticket, and so he either must be defeated in the primary, or they need to make a major down-ballot investment to prevent a Democratic sweep. So what is the best play now? All things to discuss on the premises of a luxury resort and spa in the Coachella Valley.

Similar hard discussions will take place a few days later in Palm Beach, where Republican billionaires including Paul Singer, Ken Griffin, and the Ricketts family are expected to huddle, or their aides, for a meeting of the American Opportunity Alliance. The group—whose powerful membership has included Harlan Crow, Warren Stephens, Chuck Schwab, Linda McMahon, Dan Loeb, and, previously, Betsy DeVos and Bernie Marcus—is both lower profile and less consensus-driven than the Koch network. Pro-Israel and socially moderate, the finance-heavy group has always leaned anti-Trump, but that orientation is shifting by the day, especially as donors make peace with the notion that opposing the former president appears futile. Plus, as a few people in that community pointed out to me over the last week, Trump delivered for the Wall Street community. “It was kind of fun when he won,” one said.

The agenda is not set—Haley could even get invited last-minute—but the sideline conversations will be all about whether it is worth fighting to stop Trump’s momentum ahead of South Carolina or Super Tuesday. If Haley had won New Hampshire outright, my sources suggest, some of these donors would’ve maybe considered it. But now they’re all wondering: If Haley couldn’t win a plurality of voters in New Hampshire, in a primary dominated by independents and open to Democrats, can she win anywhere

The Haley Donor Rorschach Test

Major Republican donors, whose interests and economic persuasions have defined the party since the Reagan era, are at a crossroads this week. The results in New Hampshire were just ambiguous enough to keep the Haley option open, but not strong enough to generate the eight-figure checks that flowed to anti-Trump groups in the middle of the 2016 primary. Sure, Haley lost by double digits and underperformed the most optimistic polls taken at the peak of Nikkimentum… but it was barely double digits, and she did better than most recent polls anticipated, which suggested she might lose by 20 points or more. Everyone is entitled to their delusions: If major donors are searching for a justification to spend big on a final, last-ditch counterattack, they can find it.

But if they wanted to justify sitting out entirely, letting the Trump tidal wave wash over them and enjoy the fun, they have more than enough data to support that (non) investment thesis. Heading into Tuesday’s primary, the mood among major Haley supporters was dark, recognizing the massive uphill climb ahead of them. One Haley bundler texted me yesterday afternoon before the results came in that he was “dying inside.” 

Haley has been sprinting to capitalize on the two-person race that she always dreamed about. She has 17 fundraisers scheduled over a two- to three-week period beginning on Monday in New York, before moving to Florida, California, Texas, and South Carolina, where she has two additional events. One of her hosts in Silicon Valley is Tim Draper, the Bitcoin evangelist who has put millions into her super PAC. Last week, he recorded an amazingly cringe-worthy pro-Haley song that he sent to his entire network: “We wrote a song about Nikki Haley. Click either link (or both), and share!” he said in a note that several people forwarded to me, each deeply tickled. (Here you go…)

Meanwhile, in Dallas, the unofficial headquarters of the old Bush-aligned donor network, a group of well-heeled women are gathering on Thursday to build momentum for Nikki. Hosts of the event, according to an invitation passed my way, include Harlan’s wife, Kathy Crow, who is hosting at her home, and Sarah Ketterer, a major Koch donor. The event is not technically a fundraiser, and Haley isn’t attending, but it is sponsored by her campaign.

Haley supporters, however, are preparing for all outcomes. Also in Dallas this evening, Harlan Crow is hosting a regular session of his ideas circuit, the Old Parkland lecture series, for the Dallas-area family-office set—and the speaker is donor-whisperer Karl Rove. Rove, I’m told, was invited as a special guest to talk about third-party candidates and their viability. Crow, who has been a major supporter of No Labels, is going to go hard for Nikki in these final weeks, including hosting her upcoming Texas events. But if she isn’t the candidate, he and his wealthy network in North Texas are clearly entertaining a Plan B. It was interesting to learn recently that Jan Koum, the single biggest donor to Haley’s super PAC in the first half of the year, has not cut a new check to the group or made any other new donations since the $10 million I reported he gave last year. 

Of course, as many donor-advisers have reminded me over the last week, it’s not even clear that a donation to Haley’s super PAC would make a difference. The super PAC, SFA Inc. is going to be well funded, but even that group knows that earned media—not paid media—is going to matter more in South Carolina. (Look no further than Iowa, where DeSantis’s super PAC spent more than $2,000 per vote.) “Trump has got a cult, and cultists don’t usually lose their followers,” a major Republican donor told me last week when I asked if we should expect a 2016-style big-money mission to stop Trump. “Some cultists get people to kill themselves.”

The Scott Effect

The Trump team, for what it’s worth, expects loyalty. In multiple conversations with Trump officials in New Hampshire, they expressed a confidence bordering on arrogance that his critics would eventually bend the knee, either for transactional or ideological reasons. (“Guess I’m on to Mar-a-Lago in 2 weeks…” one DeSantis bundler texted me the day his candidate dropped out.) The Trump fundraising team, led by Meredith O’Rourke, is pitching donors hard to commit by February 16, the date of the blowout Mar-a-Lago fundraiser that I reported on last week (or certainly by this new Feb. 20 event in Greenville). The Mar-a-Lago event, I’m told, also offers a separate super PAC dinner for people who want to cut the really significant checks—i.e., beyond the $100,000 limit for the campaign-sponsored reception. This is America, and there are many paths to penance.

But it won’t happen overnight. While the Trump team expects people like Steve Schwarzman to eventually come in from the cold, and they believe they’ve secured Robert Bigelow—once upon a time the largest donor to DeSantis—the Trump team sees some others, including Griffin (net worth: $37 billion), as tougher nuts to crack. 

One under-appreciated topic of discussion among G.O.P. insiders is the donor-assuaging effect of Tim Scott, the establishment-friendly senator who recently ended his campaign and endorsed Trump. “Now that Tim Scott is on board, does that give them a pathway to say, ‘Yeah we’re on board because we like Tim Scott?” said one Republican moneyman. For instance, can Scott convince Larry Ellison—his former billionaire mega-backer—to join him on the Trump train? 

I posed this very question to Scott when I ran into him in New Hampshire. Scott said he hasn’t spoken with Ellison about the subject, and also isn’t inclined to tell other people what to do. “I assume he’ll be supporting Trump,” he told me. “He’s gonna support the Republican ticket, and that ticket is going to be Trump.” (Ellison didn’t return a request for comment.)

As the Trump team works to pull these holdouts off the sidelines, some major donors have begun a parallel discussion about whether Trump needs to install more establishment-friendly veterans of big-money politics atop his super PACs, so billionaires will feel more comfortable donating. “Major donors don’t know where any of that money goes,” said one of these people, referring to MAGA Inc. “I think a lot of other major donors are going to be hesitant to put money into it.” One person in Trump world told me they’ve given it some thought, but others tell me they are hesitant to touch his existing outside groups for now. We’ll see.

In the meantime, the Trump team is focused on convincing the G.O.P. establishment that the primary fight is over, and that it’s time to enter into a joint-fundraising agreement with the Republican National Committee. That typically doesn’t happen until there’s a presumptive nominee, but perhaps they can convince a few sympathetic state Republicans to play ball, at least. The R.N.C. is run by key Trump allies, including chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel, who said aloud Wednesday that she doesn’t see a viable path for Haley. That’s not quite a Wasserman “I’ve seen enough,” but she’s getting warmer.

Trump’s victory event in New Hampshire certainly felt like a coronation, anyway. I spied a blind Steve Wynn—the Trump pal who was recently a major DeSantis donor—being escorted into the Trump senior staff room at the Sheraton in Nashua. Also in attendance was longtime Trump friend John Paulson, whose name Trump floated as a possible Treasury secretary in his putative administration. Later, in one of the more surreal moments during the Trump party, into the press pen walked Rudy Giuliani, sparring with reporters and talking about how dirty things were about to get in South Carolina. 

I asked the man (a bit inartfully, I’ll concede), what he made of the “Paul Singers or Ken Griffins of the world” who might still resist Trump. Singer, as longtime money-in-politics watchers know, was tied to Rudy at the hip during his 2008 run. Rudy was ready to swing. “Paul Singer was one of my biggest fundraisers when I ran for president,” he told me, recalling a bygone era. “I would tell Paul. ‘You’re making a terrible mistake. All you guys have misinterpreted Trump from the very beginning.’”