As Republicans get ready for a second presidential debate, some of the party’s major donors are cringing at the size of the field likely to appear onstage and are increasingly fretting that former President Donald Trump’s lead in the polls is growing harder to overcome.
And while some view the September 27 debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, as a potential inflection point in the battle for the GOP nomination – with an opportunity for a candidate or two to still break away from the pack – some donors worry aloud that the window is narrowing for a Trump alternative to emerge.
Their public angst underscores the chasm between the populism animating the Republican base and what some longtime party donors say is their pragmatic view: that if Trump becomes the GOP nominee, he will fall again to President Joe Biden and potentially endanger the GOP’s narrow House majority.
“My basic pitch is we don’t have the luxury of time,” said Eric Levine, a New York lawyer and fundraiser who is backing South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and recently issued a call to arms to fellow Republicans to get off the sidelines.
“Asa Hutchinson has got to go away. Chris Christie has got to go away. Gov. (Doug) Burgum has to get off the stage,” he said. “They have no shot.”
Others are more fatalistic.
“I don’t know if there’s anything I can do to have an impact on this race,” said Frayda Levin, a Republican donor from New Jersey. “Every Republican’s dilemma right now is: Do we try and undermine and destroy Trump, only to have it come back and haunt us because he’s the candidate, and it’s Trump or Biden?”
Levin sits on the board of the influential conservative group Club for Growth, which has opposed Trump, but she said she was expressing her views on the 2024 contest as an individual.
A super PAC aligned with the club has spent roughly $6 million on anti-Trump advertising so far, according to AdImpact data tallied by CNN.
Levin, who has not backed a candidate in the primary, said the power of big donors to shape a presidential contest has waned in the Trump era, given the former president’s reliance on small-dollar contributors and his resilient grip on the GOP’s grassroots.
And donors interviewed by CNN also said they were reluctant to join any anti-Trump faction in the general election should he secure the nomination.
The present landscape has injected a degree of uncertainty as the candidates prepare to converge on California next week, looking to do more than just impress potential Republican primary voters and caucusgoers. Debates have the potential to serve as auditions for candidates to persuade donors of their viability. Now, the field’s challenge appears to be persuading some regular party contributors they should get involved at all.
At the moment, Trump is the undisputed front-runner for his party’s nod – despite a raft of legal problems, including four separate criminal indictments.
CNN’s most recent Poll of Polls shows the former president maintaining a wide lead over the rest of the Republican field. His support averages 58%, with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis a far second at 14%.
Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy sits in third place at 7%, following his attention-grabbing performance in the first GOP debate last month. (The CNN Poll of Polls is an average of the four most recent nonpartisan, national surveys of either potential or likely 2024 Republican primary voters, which meet CNN’s standards.)
Some of the biggest players in Republican financial circles have made clear they intend to move on from Trump – or least avoid helping him secure the nomination. But many have not weighed in to back another candidate as yet – roughly four months before the first nominating contest – still uncertain that any single Trump rival has demonstrated the skills to vanquish the former president.
Hedge fund billionaire Ken Griffin – one of the biggest contributors in GOP politics – told CNBC in an interview that aired Monday that he remains on the sidelines for now, despite his support for DeSantis’ past gubernatorial campaigns.
Griffin, whose net worth Forbes pegs at $35 billion, made a splash with a $5 million donation in 2021 to aid DeSantis’ gubernatorial reelection in Florida last year.
In the interview, however, Griffin continued to criticize DeSantis’ punitive actions against the Walt Disney Company and said he wanted to see younger Republican and Democratic nominees for the presidency.
“We’d have a debate around ideas and principles and policies to make this a great nation,” he said. “We’re not having the dialogue right now.”
The deep-pocketed network aligned with Kansas billionaire Charles Koch shows no signs of retreating from its pledge to back a Trump alternative but has not yet made a public endorsement in the GOP presidential primary.
Big contributors are saying Trump “is beatable. He’s beatable, but who’s cropping up as an alternative?” said one Republican strategist, who works closely with GOP donors. “No one is coalescing or showing a real ability to grow.”
A veteran Republican fundraiser said the party’s contributors are “going to watch the first couple debates and then get serious.”
“Everyone has their own little friendships and backgrounds,” the fundraiser added. “They’re all splintered.”
The fundraiser predicted more endorsements near the end of October “because people will want to get in the game,” making it all the more important for candidates to “win the week” at this point in the campaign.
Some donors say it’s just too soon to rule any candidate out.
“This may be a race that’s shaping up for a come-from-behind conclusion,” said Fred Klipsch, an Indiana businessman who backs former Vice President Mike Pence’s bid for the GOP nomination and has been a donor to the Koch network. He said Pence still has the opportunity to display his “experience and knowledge” once again at the next debate and gain more support.
The challenge for some in the crowded field is just making the debate stage. The Republican National Committee has set tougher criteria to qualify for the second debate, compared with the first face-off last month in Milwaukee.
To make next week’s debate, Republican presidential candidates will need at hit least 3% in two national polls or in one national poll and two polls from separate early-voting states – Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina or Nevada. Additionally, candidates must have a minimum of 50,000 unique donors, with at least 200 donors in 20 states or territories.
Those requirements could prove a difficult hurdle for lesser-known candidates who have struggled to break through with voters and donors. Candidates have until September 25 to meet the new criteria.
Trump, who skipped the August debate, has indicated he will not join his rivals in California next week. Instead, he is expected to travel to Detroit to deliver a speech before an audience that includes current and former union members, with the remarks serving as counterprogramming to the debate.
The whittling of the field can’t come soon enough for Levine, who views Scott, DeSantis and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley as the only candidates with the potential to mount a serious challenge to the former president.
“I currently refuse to accept the inevitability” of Trump becoming the GOP’s nominee, he said. “Does that make me Pollyanna-ish? I don’t think so. So few people tell me they want Trump.”
Earlier this month, Levine sent an email to roughly 1,500 other donors, friends and election officials, urging them to rally behind Scott as the Trump alternative.
“You have a bunch of people who are wringing their hands” at the prospect of Trump winning the nomination, “but they refuse to stand up and do anything. … If we lose, we lose. But at least try,” Levine said.
So far, about 50 people have responded to his call to arms, he said. According to Levine, some said they would join him, while others said they were backing Haley. Only two warned him against crossing the former president.
If Trump were to prevail in the GOP primary fight, however, Levine said he would not actively work to see him defeated in the general election and would instead focus on helping his party seize control of the US Senate next year.
To win the Senate, Republicans need to net just two seats (or one if the party also wins the White House.)
Similarly, Levin, the New Jersey donor, said she would turn her attention to congressional races and avoid any steps that could aid Biden’s reelection. She called the scramble to persuade donors to attack Trump in the primary “an interesting experiment about democracy.”
“There’s this sense that we don’t want our moneyed class to rule our country, and yet, what we are seeing is people saying, ‘I wish these donors could get Trump out of the race,’” she said.