Donors changing tune on Trump

Republican donors are quietly coming around to the idea that Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump meets with Gov. Mike Pence amid VP speculation Dem immigration platform courts Hispanics Dem platform draft adopts Sanders proposal on taxing foreign earnings MORE could be their party’s nominee for president.

While many major Republican donors still cannot abide the idea of Trump as their party’s 2016 standard-bearer — and some remain flat-out in denial about the strength of his candidacy — interviews with GOP business owners and CEOs in six states suggest shifting attitudes toward the controversial billionaire. 

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Trump has to date rejected financial support from wealthy donors, saying he does not want to owe them if he gets into office. But winning the acceptance — or even the favor — of donors could prevent a big-money assault against Trump and ultimately benefit him in a multi-billion dollar general election. 

Donors who have either given the maximum $2,700 contribution to Trump’s campaign or plan to give vastly more than that in a general election, say they are noticing a growing acceptance of Trump among their mainstream Republicans friends and business associates.

When Republican donor Ernie Boch Jr. threw a party for Trump on the grounds of his 16,000-square-foot mansion over the summer, most of his friends in Boston’s elite corporate and political circles thought he was “nuts” for supporting the billionaire’s unlikely presidential bid.

“People were going crazy that I was having him over to my house,” Boch says of his summer fundraising bash for Trump. “A lot of my friends were afraid to say that they were supporting him because it just wasn’t politically correct.”

Now, nearly six months later, Boch, a car dealership mogul and supporter of the Massachusetts Republican Party, says friends and business associates he regards as moderate or “establishment” Republicans “are coming to terms with the idea that this is the guy; this is who is going to be the GOP leader.”

Phoenix-based business owner Bob Ellis considered himself an establishment Republican all his life “until Mr. Trump came along.”

“I always vote the party line except in this case, because I am not sure what the party line is,” said Ellis, the CEO of AvAir, an aviation components trading company.

 “There’s a lot of people like me who have the same feeling. … I think a lot of people have changed,” said Ellis, who has given $2,700 to Trump’s campaign.

Richard Edwards, president of an electrical contracting firm in Pennsylvania, is another lifelong establishment Republican who has given the maximum contribution to Trump’s campaign.

“There have been a lot of people who were on the fence at the beginning,” Edwards said when asked about Trump support within his business networks. “My friends are now seeing something in him. … He just understands business, and he’s right in saying that America is a business. It’s a multibillion-dollar business.”

Wealthy Trump supporters interviewed for this story say they want to give the GOP front-runner significantly more money than allowed within the limits of campaign finance law and by Trump’s self-imposed rejection of super-PACs.

Boch tried to donate the $87,000 cost of his summer fundraiser as an in-kind contribution to Trump’s campaign, but he was refunded all but $2,700 to comply with Federal Election Commission rules. He says he would be willing to give Trump more than $1 million if only the billionaire would allow a vehicle to accept it.

Boch and a number of other big-money donors say they believe Trump in a general election will be willing to take as much money as required to defeat likely Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonLabor chief: Clinton-Lynch meet not ‘planned in advance’ Clinton scheduled to interview with FBI: reports Dem platform draft adopts Sanders proposal on taxing foreign earnings MORE.

California-based hotel developer Doug Manchester was an early Trump convert but says he has yet to send a check to the candidate. 

Manchester, who gave $25,000 to the super-PAC supporting Republican nominee Mitt Romney in 2012, says he’s willing to fundraise for Trump on a large scale when required. “A lot of my friends have really come around and are now saying they are going to support him,” says Manchester. “These are corporate leaders.”

“If he gets the nomination, then that’s a whole other ball game,” Manchester said.

Another in Manchester’s boat is Alabama GOP donor Shaun McCutcheon,  whose recent Supreme Court victory in McCutcheon v. the Federal Election Commission allowed donors to contribute to more candidates.

In a recent lunch interview at Palm Restaurant in Washington, D.C., McCutcheon told The Hill he had bundled more than $10,000 for Trump’s campaign from his super-PAC’s network of small-money donors.

“It was rough at the beginning,” McCutcheon said. “I had some of my friends in the party that were in the Jeb Bush group; they just wouldn’t talk to me.

“[But] I have been seeing a change where I believe that more of the longtime party people are starting to buy into the Trump idea that he can win. … Now, they would rather see some of the other candidates [win], but they have just been unable to produce.”

Recent comments from leading GOP figures, including Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and Scott Reed of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have been aiding the establishment migration toward Trump, however slow and reluctant it may be. Though far from endorsing the billionaire, they are treating his candidacy with growing seriousness.

Despite styling himself as anti-establishment, Trump appears to relish the approval of business and political elites. His campaign recently issued a statement boasting of endorsements from “four prominent and highly respected businessmen in New Hampshire” and touting their links to groups such as the Manchester Chamber of Commerce.

Trump has also courted the approval of the Wall Street Journal editorial board, resulting in a relatively sympathetic op-ed in which the newspaper admitted to underestimating him. And he has personally appealed for the endorsement, though not the money, of Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson.

Trump still has major barriers to overcome to win widespread establishment support. Some of the business leaders who spoke to The Hill for this story showed an openness to Trump’s attitude but distate for his more extreme policies.

Trump donor Robert Bazyk, the CEO of a security company in Hartford, Conn., would only be quoted for this story on the condition that The Hill quoted in full his support for refugees and opposition to Trump’s ban on Muslims entering the U.S.

“I don’t agree with all Mr. Trump has said or inferred,” said Bazyk, who supported Romney in 2012 and Jeb Bush’s Right to Rise super-PAC before deciding Trump was his candidate. He has since given the maximum $2,700 to Trump’s campaign.

“I believe in welcoming refugees from all countries, races and religions who are genuinely fleeing religious and political persecution,” Bazyk said. “I also believe the insults and name-calling in politics are as counterproductive as political correctness.”

But Bazyk, like a growing number of his establishment peers, concluded that Trump is the only candidate with the “entrepreneurial spirit” to solve America’s “big problems.”

“Early on, many of my friends and associates, who have supported establishment candidates in the past, spoke of Trump as ‘a joke,’ ” Bazyk said. “They have recently changed their tune.”