Big-money groups band together against Trump in Florida

Florida is set to become a last-gasp state for Republican donors desperate to stop Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpDems flip Wisconsin state Senate seat Sessions: 'We should be like Canada' in how we take in immigrants GOP rep: 'Sheet metal and garbage' everywhere in Haiti MORE, with major anti-Trump groups coordinating their strategies and pouring millions into a frantic effort to defeat the billionaire in Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioOvernight Cybersecurity: Bipartisan bill aims to deter election interference | Russian hackers target Senate | House Intel panel subpoenas Bannon | DHS giving 'active defense' cyber tools to private sector Senators unveil bipartisan push to deter future election interference Puerto Rico's children need recovery funds MORE’s home-state primary on March 15.

After the GOP presidential front-runner’s domination of Super Tuesday, Florida is “going to be a very, very important state to stop Trump in, and I suspect there will be no place we will be more invested than there,” said Katie Packer, a former senior adviser to Mitt Romney who runs the main anti-Trump group, Our Principles PAC. 

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Asked whether the anti-Trump group would also run attack ads against the billionaire in Ohio — the other March 15 winner-take-all state where donors hope to stop Trump — Packer said, “As long as it looks like Kasich will beat him in Ohio, there might not be a need to.” 

“We are only going up in places where we think” Trump poses a threat, she added. 

Stuart Roy, a spokesman for the main nonprofit group attacking Trump — American Future Fund (AFF) — said his group is coordinating its anti-Trump strategy with Packer’s super-PAC. 

“We definitely talk to Katie … and share research,” Roy told The Hill in a telephone interview on Wednesday.  

“The main thing is you don’t want to duplicate effort. As you know, we are in a compressed time frame [to stop Trump], and we need to be effective.” 

AFF, which can hide the identities of its donors due to its nonprofit status, received a new cash boost on Monday, according to Roy. The group is now on television in Florida with $1.75 million of fresh attack ads painting Trump as a fraud who duped working people out of their money through his controversial Trump University. 

The group is belting Trump in Tampa, Orlando, Fort Myers, Panama City, and other places in Florida. Roy said it’s also spending additional money on a national cable buy focused on the upcoming Republican debates on Thursday and on March 10, the latter being held in Miami. 

Our Principles PAC is already on the air in Florida with its new ad called “Scam,” which also targets the billionaire on his now-defunct university.  

And on Wednesday afternoon, another conservative group, the Club for Growth, announced that it is launching a new $1.5 million ad buy against Trump in Florida. 

The attack ad, which will begin running Thursday morning on Florida TV and digital outlets, is designed to undermine Trump’s “tough guy” image and portray him instead as an exploiter of workers and widows.

And all three anti-Trump groups are joined by the pro-Rubio group Conservative Solutions PAC, which received more than $10 million immediately after Jeb Bush quit the White House race.  

Trump said during his Super Tuesday victory speech at his Palm Beach club, Mar-a-Lago, that he would not take the Florida attacks lying down and that he would throw everything into beating Rubio in the senator’s home state.

“We’re going to go to Florida, we’re going to spend so much time in Florida,” Trump said. “I know that a lot of groups, a lot of the special interests and a lot of the lobbyists and the people that want to have their little senator do exactly as they want. ... But he’s not going anywhere anyway.”

Trump’s campaign did not return calls for comment. 

Interviews with more than half a dozen sources involved in the various anti-Trump efforts reveal that the strategies are developing at a frantic pace.  

A number of donors approached by the anti-Trump forces, however, have described the efforts as too little, too late after Trump’s domination of the early-voting states and near sweep of Super Tuesday contests.

“The game’s changed; it’s too big now,” said a GOP -mega-donor who has been approached by hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer, a Rubio supporter, to join the anti-Trump effort.  

“You can’t raise enough money to make a difference in these big media markets, especially Florida. That’s an expensive-ass media market,” the donor added, on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations. 

About 50 Republican donors convened on a conference call Tuesday afternoon to hear anti-Trump pitches from GOP mega-donors Todd Ricketts, Meg Whitman and Singer, according to two sources who participated in the call. The New York Times was the first to report the story. 

“I’m not going to send any money,” said a major donor who was on the call. “I mean, I applaud what they’re doing … but it might be too late.” 

Another Republican donor who has been personally approached by both Singer and Ricketts to join their anti-Trump efforts said that he wasn’t convinced by their arguments, although he respects what both are trying to do. 

He said that Ricketts was trying to persuade him that Our Principles PAC’s early spending in Iowa did significant damage to Trump, who lost the caucuses there to Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzWith religious liberty memo, Trump made America free to be faithful again Interstate compacts aren't the right way to fix occupational licensing laws Texas Dem: ‘I don’t know what to believe’ about what Trump wants for wall MORE. But the donor described Ricketts’s argument as “confirmation bias.” 

“At this point it’s bad money after bad. I think it’s flat-out crazy,” the donor, who is supporting Cruz, told The Hill. 

A source close to Our Principles PAC confirmed that Ricketts and the group had been arguing that the anti-Trump advertising in Iowa worked and could be equally effective in future states. 

“Iowa is one of the few places that Trump has come under a sustained advertising and messaging campaign,” the source said.  

“We educated people about his record, and it’s not surprising that it’s one of the states that Donald Trump has not won. And this particular fact is one that Todd Ricketts has shared with people and the PAC has shared with potential supporters. It’s an important fact.” 

The Ricketts family has shown it is willing to spend, adding to its initial $3 million investment in Our Principles PAC despite receiving a threat from Trump, two sources told The Hill.

Another question doing the gossip rounds in Republican donor circles is what will be done with the more than $15 million still sitting in the pro-Bush super-PAC Right to Rise.  

Two of Right to Rise’s biggest donors told The Hill on Wednesday that they believe the money will be returned on a percentage basis to the donors. But other donors say there have been informal conversations among Right to Rise officials about using that money to go after Trump. 

In an email to The Hill, Right to Rise spokesman Paul Lindsay categorically denied that the group’s officials — even in private discussions — have so much as broached the matter of marshaling the cash to attack Trump.

A common theme expressed privately by donors interviewed for this story was that too many donors sat on the sidelines for too long and cannot expect influence the race at this late stage. 

The view is summed up by Chart Westcott, a Texas businessman who gave $200,000 to a super-PAC supporting Scott Walker but switched his support to Cruz after the Wisconsin governor quit the race. 

“I don’t understand donors that don’t get involved early on and are surprised when they get involved late and discover their guy has no chance,” Westcott said. 

Fred Malek, the finance chair man of the Republican Governors Association, puts the Trump dilemma another way. Malek believes Super Tuesday gave each of the anti-Trump candidates a rationale to justify their presence in the race. And the continuation of a widely divided field only helps Trump. 

“I feel that it was certainly Trump’s night,” Malek said of Super Tuesday.  

“But Cruz and Kasich and Rubio all made a case for staying in. ... I don’t believe the Super Tuesday results winnow the field at all.”