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Semafor LogoShelby Talcott
Shelby Talcott
politics

Republican donors are being forced into an agonizing choice between Trump and DeSantis

With Morgan Chalfant

Shelby is a Political Reporter for Semafor, joining us from the Daily Caller. Morgan is a Political and National Security Reporter for Semafor, joining us from The Hill. Sign up for the daily Principals newsletter to get our insider’s guide to American power.

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Title iconThe News
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks in Tampa, Florida, U.S., August 24, 2022.
REUTERS/Octavio Jones

Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis have been locked in a cold war ahead of an expected 2024 face-off. But Republican donors hoping to retain their influence have found it easy to play both sides. They can back DeSantis in Tallahassee, where he’s raised gobs of cash for his re-election next week, and still stay friendly with Trump in Mar a Lago.

Those days are coming to an end. Major donors will likely have to choose between backing an expected DeSantis run, sticking with Trump, or sitting out the fight and risking cachet with both.

While hedging bets and cutting a maximum campaign check of $5,000 to each is likely to be a popular option, the real action will be in outside groups, where donors can make unlimited contributions.

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“Anyone with that type of wealth knows that if they give DeSantis outside money, they risk Trump's wrath both during the campaign and afterwards,” one Republican strategist told Semafor. “If Trump is to make it back to the White House, they'll risk being persona non grata or have to write big checks to make up for their perceived transgressions.”

Many top donors contacted by Semafor were still wary to even discuss 2024 at this point, when committing to one side could leave them out on a limb if their favored candidate decides not to run or their campaign burns up on launch.

“I know a lot of folks that are on record for Trump but really want something new,” Dan Eberhart, a prominent Republican donor who is one of the few vocal Trump critics within that landscape, said.

The threat of retribution could be an important factor as well, because several donors who spoke to Semafor see strong indications that DeSantis is the preferred candidate of big money. Veteran party backers are hoping he can keep the MAGA base excited with calculated Trump-like stunts, like sending migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, but without the same erratic behavior that’s turned off moderate voters and undermined more electable candidates.

DeSantis has put up huge cash figures this cycle, breaking the gubernatorial fundraising record in September. Of the more than $195 million in contributions to his official campaign and super PAC, less than $10 million came from contributions below $200, according to Open Secrets, the traditional threshold for small donors. At least 42 billionaires, or their family members, contributed to his re-election as of May, according to a USA Today analysis. Citadel CEO Ken Griffin donated $5 million to a pro-DeSantis group and another $5 million to the Florida Republican Party as part of his $100 million-plus midterm spree.

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“The established donor class is behind DeSantis more than Trump,” one GOP donor told Semafor, adding that the “temperature in Palm Beach” and other wealthy areas across the country is that “people are done with Trump.”

Another GOP donor agreed, telling Semafor that donors were tired of seeing the “cannibalization of our party” into a venue for Trump’s personal obsessions, rather than party building and policy wins.

Steven Law, CEO of Senate Leadership Fund, a Mitch McConell-allied super PAC that’s a hub for top donors, less-than-subtly noted on Twitter Sunday that DeSantis’ midterm rally speeches were “refreshing” because “so little of it is self-referential” and any personal references were about “building up the candidate he is there to support.”

A spokesman for Trump, Taylor Budowich, said in a statement that “Republicans up and down the ballot continue to raise money thanks to the support of President Trump and the introductions he has made possible.” He added: “Governor DeSantis was propelled to victory in 2018 because of that support, and his success in advancing President Trump’s America First agenda has provided tremendous benefit to every Floridian.”

undefined headshotShelby's view

While it’s notable that DeSantis is making inroads with the party’s top moneymen, it’s not the only thing that matters. As one donor pointed out to Semafor, Trump has historically put up huge numbers with grassroots donors — and that could ultimately be “more important” than who the established donor class wants for 2024. Currently, Trump’s Save America Joint Fundraising Committee has raised about $130 million, around 53% of which has come from small donors, according to Open Secrets.

Small donors can sometimes be an early proxy for voter support as well. It’s easy to see how a competitive Trump primary might mirror his prior victories, with more well-off voters and established figures backing his opponents, only to be overwhelmed by Trump’s immovable leads with working class Republicans and independents drawn to his personal brand.

Title iconRoom for Disagreement

On one level, Trump’s largely self-funded victory in the 2016 primaries was an underdog triumph against a large field of rivals who had hundreds of millions of dollars in outside help from major donors. But not much of that money was actually spent attacking him — instead, candidates and their backers bombarded each other in the vain hope one would be the last one standing and consolidate anti-Trump Republicans. Jeb Bush’s allied super PAC, the largest of its kind, spent by far the biggest share of its ad dollars going after Sen. Marco Rubio and only a tiny fraction against Trump. It’s not clear what would happen if Trump were to face a concentrated barrage from Republicans right from the start.

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