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World & Nation

Rival pro-Trump super PACs fight for GOP cash with little success

Donald Trump
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a rally at Ohio University Eastern Campus in St. Clairsville, Ohio.
(Patrick Semansk / Associated Press)

Donald Trump’s fundraising woes extend well beyond his campaign’s lackluster effort to raise money. 

A hodgepodge of rival outside super PACs is now fighting — without much success — to attract rich GOP donors and the candidate’s implicit endorsement.

As the pro-Hillary Clinton super PAC Priorities USA Action deploys some of its $88 million in contributions to flood the airwaves with anti-Trump TV ads, wealthy contributors wishing to invest in the pro-Trump effort are facing an odd assortment of super PACs with competing visions, questionable capacity and sometimes sketchy track records.

According to election finance reports, of the dozen or so pro-Trump super PACs established so far, only a few have reported raising significant amounts of money or interest — for a total of about $4 million as of the end of May. And most of that has already been spent. 

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One of the most promising pro-Trump super PACs, Rebuilding America Now, announced with fanfare earlier this year that it had $32 million in commitments. But only about $2 million of that came through.

A rival, Great America PAC, has burned through nearly all of the $2.5 million it raised, leaving it with just $500,000 cash on hand. Fundraising efforts weren’t helped by the recent conviction of a top strategist for unrelated 2012 campaign finance violations.

Many were hoping casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who spent nearly $100 million in the 2012 presidential race , would save the day by starting his own pro-Trump super PAC to provide a trusted safe haven for donors.

But after Trump’s polling numbers tanked with his race-based criticism of a federal judge and response to the Orlando shooting, Adelson has put his plans on hold. The Las Vegas billionaire is “not actually starting a PAC despite what has been reported,” his spokesman said.

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Meanwhile the billionaire Koch brothers, whose outside network of groups once promised $900 million this election, are focusing — for now — on congressional and other races.

“You have some traditional Republican donors who are still fence-sitting,” said Mica Mosbacher, a longtime GOP fundraiser. “Sometimes you don’t want to be the first olive out of the jar.… But I feel really strongly that we will come together by the convention.”

Central to the disarray has been Trump’s unwillingness to signal a preference for any of the dueling super PACs, veteran strategists say, as is normally done by a candidate well ahead of this late stage in the election cycle.

“It needs to be sorted,” said California GOP operative Shawn Steel, an advisor to one of the struggling pro-Trump super PACs, the Committee for American Sovereignty, adding that donors “are waiting to see which one is really blessed. So far as I can tell there isn’t one.”

Already alarmed by the Trump campaign’s May fundraising report — which showed $1.3 million cash on hand compared with $42.5 million for Clinton — GOP establishment leaders are increasingly worried that the presumed GOP nominee isn’t raising the money needed to defeat the Democrat.

The pro-Clinton PAC Priorities has already spent nearly $20 million on TV ads, including one that shows video of Trump mocking a disabled reporter while the Ohio family of a young girl in wheelchair criticizes his remark.

Priorities has $52 million cash on hand compared with less than $1 million reported for the three leading pro-Trump super PACs, though that may change with quarterly filings due next month.

Super PACs — which allow wealthy individuals to simply write seven- or eight-figure donor checks — would be the fastest way for Trump to catch up, compared with the $2,700 per-person limits his campaign faces.

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But Trump has frequently boasted of his go-it-alone strategy, first warning the outside groups not to raise money on his behalf, and now refusing to give them credibility. It hasn’t helped that even some of the super PAC officials themselves have openly questioned whether fundraising will be as vital for Trump, whose campaign has often defied traditional political wisdom.

“Raising money is an antique. Super PACs are an antique,” Tom Barrack, a billionaire Los Angeles real estate mogul and co-founder of  Rebuilding America Now, said on CNN. “I’m not sure that you need it.”

It’s little wonder that big-dollar donors, who are already nervous about Trump’s erratic behavior and the necessity of supplementing a billionaire’s White House bid, are looking warily at super PACs.

“I prefer to give directly to the Trump Victory campaign,” said wealthy donor and Trump supporter Foster Friess, referring to the joint committee run with party officials. 

Rebuilding America Now stands out as the most well-connected of the pack, led by Reagan-generation operatives close to Trump’s campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Roger Stone, the hard-slinging Trump ally.

Headed by Laurance Gay, a longtime associate of Stone and Manafort, the group includes GOP media strategist Alex Castellanos, who just weeks before joining was part of the “Never Trump” campaign.

The group has spent nearly $2 million on tough anti-Clinton TV ads — one juxtaposing her explanation of her private email server with her husband’s denial of his affair with a White House intern.

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But as Trump’s campaign drifted during May, promised contributions never materialized, and the group is looking for new donors.

“We know we are late to the table,” said Gay, adding that Trump’s past statements about his personal wealth have not helped. “This is the man who said, ‘I need no money.’”

Rebuilding America Now maintains a not-so-friendly rivalry with Great America PAC, thanks partly to tensions between Stone and another operative of the Reagan era, Ed Rollins, national co-chairman of Great America.

The Rollins team is eschewing a big TV presence for infomercial-style ads that are part of an ambitious database-building exercise to identify Trump’s small-dollar donors and turn them out in swing states on election day.

Great America’s other top strategist, Eric Beach, a California-based operative, sees room for the various outside groups to focus on their specialties.  

“Our playbook is there’s a lot of unique support out there for Donald Trump and we want to capitalize on that,” Beach said.  The group raised another $1 million in June.

But Great America has struggled with staff issues. Tea party leader Amy Kremer, an early backer of the super PAC, parted ways amid differences. Another strategist is appealing a May conspiracy conviction related his work on Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign.

A third super PAC, Committee for American Sovereignty, is run by Doug Watts, a former top aide to one-time GOP presidential hopeful Ben Carson.

Watts intended to raise $20 million by the GOP convention but now acknowledges, “We’re not going to get there.” Initial filings show no cash on hand, and he declined to provide a more updated estimate.

The super PAC has distanced itself from complaints that the Carson campaign blew through its own impressive haul, spending too much on administration. Watts is assuring potential donors that 85% of the money raised will be spent on voter contact operations.

“It is a little bit more difficult than I expected or wanted,” Watts said. “There’s still some uncertainty among donors as to which committees they should be giving to and how they should be giving.”

Gay, the managing director of Rebuilding America Now, acknowledged it would helpful if Trump anointed one of the PACs, preferably his, as the main fundraising organization.

But he is not waiting for that. Trump, he understands, prefers to do business his way.

“If I’m Donald Trump, the more the merrier,” Gay said. “If that means two, three or four PACs end up splitting up those billions, then so be it.”


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