GOP Big Donors Abandon Presidential Race, Switch to Senate

GOP candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz at the Republican candidates debate at the University of Miami in Miami on March 10. Some GOP mega-donors with millions of dollars to spend do not favor Trump or Cruz and instead are trying to maintain the Senate's Republican majority. Carlo Allegri/reuters

This article first appeared on the Center for Public Integrity site.

Donald Trump–fueled tumult in the Republican presidential race is prompting some major donors to abandon the field for now and instead funnel resources into down-ballot races.

Some key political groups dedicated to promoting Republican congressional candidates say they're seeing interest from donors who would otherwise be focused on the presidential race.

Ian Prior, a spokesman for the conservative Senate Leadership Fund super PAC and One Nation, a nonprofit group that also focuses on the Senate, told the Center for Public Integrity in an email that "there have certainly been consistent concerns with the tenor and tone of the Republican nominating process."

Consequently, Prior continued, "the fight to keep the Senate has become one where there has been increased interest, focus and attention from the donor community."

The Senate Leadership Fund, which as a super PAC may raise and spend unlimited amounts of money, has so far reported raising about $13.8 million during the 2015–2016 election cycle. One Nation does not disclose its donors.

Scott Reed, a senior political strategist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which doesn't intervene in presidential elections but spent tens of millions of dollars to influence the 2014 midterm congressional elections, said: "While $200 million has been spent supporting GOP presidential candidates that did not make it to the final three, many big donors are recognizing the importance of keeping the Senate pro-growth—and serving as the final backstop to confirm or reject federal regulators and judges."

The $200 million refers to contributions given directly to the candidates' campaigns, leaving out hundreds of millions of dollars given to outside groups supporting those candidates.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce doesn't reveal its donors.

So far, donors have funneled more than $520 million collectively into campaigns and outside groups supporting Republican presidential candidates who have now dropped out—and the primaries are far from over.

Only U.S. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, Ohio Governor John Kasich and Trump remain in the Republican presidential primary, and they're aggressively courting those who once wrote checks to their opponents. But some GOP mega-donors with millions of dollars to spend haven't selected a new date to the presidential dance. Others are on the arms of their second and third choices.

For instance, members of the Ricketts family, which owns the Chicago Cubs, contributed $5 million to a super PAC supporting Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's presidential bid.

Since Walker withdrew in September, the Rickettses have not thrown substantial support behind another presidential candidate. But since January, members of the Ricketts family have contributed $5 million to an anti-Trump effort, according to campaign finance reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.

In addition, the Ending Spending Action Fund, founded by Joe Ricketts, has continued to spend money on the U.S. Senate race in New Hampshire.

Brian Baker, the president of the Ending Spending Action Fund, said that "everyone is all over the map" when it comes to deciding whether to continue contributing to presidential candidates versus down-ballot races.

Another Republican mega-donor, billionaire investor Paul Singer, supported U.S. Senator Marco Rubio until he suspended his campaign earlier this month. Singer is also reportedly boosting anti-Trump efforts; one Rubio fundraiser who attended a meeting of supporters shortly before the Florida primary this month said Singer was outspoken on the subject of Trump, referring to him as a "plague."

Singer did not respond to questions submitted through his lawyer about his political spending plans and his comments about Trump.

New campaign finance reports filed Sunday show Singer gave $1 million to the anti-Trump Our Principles PAC.

Mica Mosbacher, a fundraiser for Cruz, said his finance operation has long been attempting to woo Republican donors who initially backed other GOP presidential hopefuls.

"We asked folks in, say, the Bush or Rubio camp to consider Cruz as a second, third, fourth choice," she said in an email. "Money is not drying up for Cruz. His path is still possible."

"I never support more than one candidate at a time, but I need to be realistic," said Houston real estate developer Welcome Wilson Sr., who supported former Texas Governor Rick Perry's bid and now helps to raise money for Cruz.

His son, Welcome Wilson Jr., also started out supporting Perry. Then he backed former Florida Governor Jeb Bush—a high school classmate, according to his father. He is now supporting Cruz as well.

Wilson said his politically inclined associates are still willing to attend presidential fundraisers he's hosting. Wilson cites what he described as a well-attended fundraising breakfast he recently conducted for Cruz, which featured the senator's wife, Heidi Cruz.

In contrast, two "bundlers" who raised money for Bush's campaign and subsequently for Rubio's effort said some donors in their networks are reluctant to support yet another presidential candidate. This is forcing the bundlers to be judicious as they consider their next move.

Both men asked not to be named, saying they didn't want Trump, Cruz or Kasich—or other down-ballot candidates, for that matter—nagging them for money.

One campaign bundler said he will likely support Cruz. Another said that for now, he's taking a break from presidential fundraising—and may look at supporting Senate candidates instead.

Carrie Levine is a politics reporter at the Center for Public Integrity.

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