Trump-McConnell rift divides GOP donors
The war between former President Trump and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is likely to turn into a battle over money as Republican donors will be forced to choose between Trump-backed and GOP-establishment candidates.
The fundraising rift could prove detrimental to Republicans, who are seeking to flip both the House and Senate in the 2022 midterm elections.
Trump blasted McConnell this week after the Senate GOP leader said Trump was responsible for the Jan. 6 riot. Trump vowed to back primary opponents who are more aligned with his base, setting up a battle over the future of the Republican party.
Many Republican donors are avoiding taking sides publicly for now, but strategists see signs of things to come in 2022 and 2024.
“I think as long as Republicans are out there talking about our own primaries and not talking about [President] Biden and Democratic policies, we’re losing,” a longtime GOP donor said. “Dem money’s going to flow; I think the worry will be some of the GOP money will sit on the sidelines, even the big establishment money, until Republicans get their act together.”
Two Republican senators who voted to convict Trump, Sen. Pat Toomey (Pa.) and Richard Burr (N.C.), are not running for reelection in 2022, leaving open two swing state seats. Another vote to convict came from Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who faces reelection next year.
Some donors are pushing back against the idea that Trump-base candidates have a chance in swing states.
“I think McConnell wins with the legitimate GOP donors. And he wins in the long run. Ex-President Trump lost Georgia, and the Senate, period. And the White House, legitimately. The GOP base is ready and needs to move on; the ex-President’s base — which is not a real Republican base — maybe not so much, but they’ve lost the podium,” said a former corporate PAC director.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) sees it differently. On Saturday, he called Lara Trump, Trump’s daughter-in-law, the “biggest winner of this whole impeachment trial.” She is expected to run for Burr’s open seat and Graham said that Burr’s vote to convict made her “almost the certain nominee.”
But GOP strategist Karl Rove backed McConnell in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on Thursday, writing that “in suggesting that Senate Republicans oust Mr. McConnell, Mr. Trump is setting himself up for defeat.”
“I think McConnell believes there’s no way to get the 51 with Trump,” a longtime GOP donor said of flipping the Senate. “You nominate a really Trumpy person in Pennsylvania, you’re going to get crushed like Rick Santorum did.”
McConnell’s strategy is to ignore Trump after the former president bashed him in a statement this week, a plan that could help Republicans in 2022.
But there is plenty of time for Trump World to rally behind the former president’s next move.
Unlike McConnell, House GOP leadership isn’t distancing themselves from the former president. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) visited him in Mar-a-Lago late January and Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) went to Mar-a-Lago this week.
“McConnell’s strategy is we can’t win with Trump,” a longtime GOP donor said. “I think McConnell would argue, I lost the Senate by hugging Trump in the first place, Republicans should have won Georgia but Trump’s strategy was hug Trump and be as Trumpy as you can be. And, Republicans ended up losing the suburbs.”
There has been backlash to Trump’s strategy. Since the deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, a wave of companies have declared they will not donate to any of the 147 Republican lawmakers who voted against certifying the results of the presidential election, posing another threat to Republicans in 2022.
But corporate PAC donations are small compared to the amount given by mega donors and how much money Trump can stir up from his base in grassroots donations.
Mega donors will be crucial to helping Republicans in 2022, as long as they can navigate the growing divide in the party.
Mega donors like Stephen Schwarzman, the CEO of Blackstone Group, and Pat Ryan, founder of Aon, both backed Republicans in the Georgia runoffs this year. Spokespeople for them declined to comment on whether they would give money to pro-Trump candidates or candidates that McConnell supports in 2022.
Other GOP mega donors who gave in the Georgia runoffs, Warren Stephens of the Stephens Inc., and Kenneth Langone and Bernie Marcus, Home Depot co-founders, also declined to comment on 2022 plans.
GOP donors who backed Trump, as well as former Republican presidential nominees Sen. Mitt Romney (Utah) and the late Sen. John McCain, and former President George W. Bush, said they are largely focused on winning back Congress in 2022.
A Republican lobbyist and former George W. Bush and Romney bundler said GOP donors will turn out for Republicans regardless of the candidates, especially looking ahead to the 2024 presidential race.
“You may even prefer Trump but at the end of the day, let’s say Nikki Haley or [Sen.] Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) is the nominee, you’re really going to sit on your check book because your favorite candidate didn’t make it to the finish line? There are very few Republicans who predicted Trump would be the nominee but when push came to shove, he got enough of their money. They didn’t all sit on the sidelines,” the source said.
David Tamasi, a longtime Republican donor and co-founder of Chartwell Strategy Group, also suggested Republican candidates would get GOP support no matter their position along the Trump-McConnell divide.
“We’re very early in the cycle and we got a long way to go. Let’s see who the candidates are, let’s see who wins some of these primaries, let’s see where some of these elections are. I’m pretty confident that at the end of the day, whoever the Republican nominees are in these respective states, they will have more than what they will need in terms of money to win,” he said.
Ken Kies, managing director of the Federal Policy Group and a former George W. Bush bundler, predicted Republican donors will support candidates “that they think can win.”
“I don’t think it’s going to largely come down to what jersey you’re wearing,” he said.