WASHINGTON — As former President Donald Trump prepares to make his first appearance in front of a group of the GOP’s top donors since leaving office, some Republican officials and fundraisers fear that his own political group will cannibalize a significant portion of the party’s financial base heading into a critical midterm election cycle.
Over the course of two campaigns, Trump built up a loyal army of small-dollar donors, whom the former president is now encouraging to contribute to the political action committee he formed shortly after his 2020 election defeat, as he seeks to reestablish himself as the leader of the Republican Party and potentially set himself up for another White House run.
While Republicans are pleased that Trump agreed to speak at the Republican National Committee’s spring donor retreat this weekend — partly taking place at his Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida — some are wary the former president will ultimately do the party’s fundraising efforts more harm than good as they try to take control of the U.S. House and Senate in the next election.
“I readily acknowledge the former president will continue to have a strong fundraising base for himself,” said Bill Palatucci, an RNC member from New Jersey. “It remains to be seen if he’s willing to share it or not.”
It’s not unusual for a politician to create a PAC to raise money and support like-minded candidates running for office. But as a former president with a devoted following, Trump is poised to play an outsize role.
Trump’s group, Save America PAC, currently has more than $85 million on hand, according to a source familiar with its fundraising. At least $30.4 million of that was the result of a transfer of funds Trump made from one of his 2020 campaign committees late last year. By comparison, the RNC entered 2021 with $80.5 million in its main account. The source also said Trump is still in the process of setting up a super PAC, which unlike traditional PACs can raise unlimited sums of cash.
Longtime Republican donors are viewing Trump’s new political operation skeptically, worried he will use it to advance his own brand rather than the broader interests of the party heading into an election cycle where Democrats are defending slim majorities in Congress.
Frank VanderSloot, the CEO of the Idaho-based health products company Melaleuca, said he supported some of the former president’s policies, but not his tactics.
“The version of America I believe in is against bullying. And our country was led by a bully and I think it’s done a lot of damage,” said VanderSloot, a major Republican donor. “That’s not the kind of leader any of us should be following.”
Asked if he thought Trump’s group would hinder the fundraising efforts of other Republican organizations, VanderSloot responded, “Clearly. I think that anybody would have to assume that, yes.”
Stanley Hubbard, the CEO of the Minnesota-based Hubbard Broadcasting and a major GOP donor, said his main goal will be electing more Republicans to Congress in 2022, though he hasn’t decided which groups to back yet.
“It will probably be good for his ego,” Hubbard said of Trump’s group. “I would have to hear about who it’s for, who’s managing it, what other Republicans think of it.”
Two of Trump’s joint fundraising committees — which raised money for his own campaign, the RNC and state parties — were a major source of cash for the RNC over the past five years. Since Trump became the presumptive GOP presidential nominee in May 2016, those two committees transferred more than $300 million to the RNC, accounting for roughly 1 in 5 dollars raised by the RNC in that time period. That includes a $6.8 million transfer to the RNC this year.
But Trump’s post-presidency relationship with major GOP groups has otherwise been off to a contentious start. Last month, his attorneys sent cease-and-desist letters to the RNC, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee in an attempt to prevent them from using his image in fundraising appeals. All three committees brushed off the letters.
Trump also released a statement urging his supporters to give money directly to his organization rather than “RINOs,” or Republicans In Name Only, though he clarified soon after, saying, “I fully support the Republican Party and important GOP Committees.”
The three main Republican committees have all included Trump in online ads this week, according to Facebook’s Ad Library, a sign of the former president’s continuing appeal to small-dollar donors.
“The RNC and President Trump are focused on the same goal – retaking our Congressional majorities in 2022,” RNC spokesman Tommy Pigott wrote in an email. “There is much more that unites our Party than divides it, and together we will work to expose Democrats’ bad policies and elect Republicans up and down the ballot.”
Even if Trump and the GOP groups have patched up their differences for now, there are looming fights down the road. Trump has vowed to seek vengeance against the Republicans who voted against him during the impeachment proceedings that were spurred by the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Trump has already endorsed one of his former aides, Max Miller, who is challenging Ohio Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, one of the 10 House Republicans who voted for impeachment. If Trump continues to wade into GOP primaries, that would put him further at odds with Republican congressional leaders, who traditionally support incumbents in their reelection battles.
Morton Blackwell, a longtime RNC member from Virginia, said he understood why some Republicans were concerned about the former president competing with other members of the party for funds. But he argued that the Trump and GOP groups would see there is more for everyone to gain by cooperating, even if their interests don’t always directly align.
“Anybody with good sense would see a working relationship would benefit both, and that an adversarial relationship would hurt both,” Blackwell said.
(Ben Wieder contributed to this report.)©2021 McClatchy Washington Bureau. Visit at mcclatchydc.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.