Late last month, more than 100 major Republican donors gathered at the Trump International Hotel for a presentation from the president’s campaign manager Brad Parscale and other top political hands on their plans to keep the White House in 2020 after a brutal midterm election.
But several of the GOP contributors left the two-day retreat in Washington dissatisfied, dogged by essentially the same concern: The president doesn’t really have a strategy to win reelection.
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They are chiefly worried about how he intends to prevail again in the Rust Belt states that voted for Trump in 2016, but where Democrats performed strongly in last year’s midterms. But there are also concerns about whether the president’s fundraising apparatus is up to the task, and whether Trump will trample on any strategy or message the campaign does develop, as he frequently does.
This account is based on interviews with nearly a dozen people connected to Trump’s reelection, including two donors who attended the retreat and other Republican contributors who’ve given to Trump in the past. Several campaign aides, who say they have spoken with anxious donors, also spoke to POLITICO. Most of the sources spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid upsetting Trump.
Some level of nervousness is not uncommon at the outset of a presidential reelection effort. Trump’s campaign manager said the team is confident in its game plan and that any fears are misplaced.
But based on the interviews, the campaign plainly has work to do to assuage at least some of the Republican donor class, which he will need to finance a massive campaign infrastructure that he lacked in 2016. Several donors who regularly contribute to Republican presidential candidates and the political groups supporting Trump said his campaign didn’t learn from its mistakes during the 2018 midterm elections, when Republicans lost control of the House and suffered other defeats nationwide.
“We took a shellacking in the midterms,” said Dan Eberhart, a major Republican donor and energy company executive who did not attend the conference but speaks frequently with other Trump givers. “Donors are concerned that the Trump reelect might draw the wrong conclusions from the Republicans’ defeat in the 2018 midterms and are stressing to administration sources and the nascent campaign that a more inclusive … strategy is needed” that reaches beyond the president’s core supporters.
Trump’s strategy in the midterms was mostly confined to rallying his base at raucous rallies in states that backed him for president, while largely ignoring moderates and independents.
“There’s a lot of anxiety,” said a longtime Republican donor and friend of Trump. “There isn’t a lot of confidence … among the donor group, the broader Republican group important to the reelection.”
Trump’s 2016 anti-establishment campaign was fueled by small donors and his own personal fortune. This time he’s an incumbent taking a more traditional approach to his 2020 election. He will need broad support from wealthy Republican donors cutting larger checks to the campaign and pro-Trump political action committees, including America First Action, the main super PAC that will support the president’s reelection in 2020.
“The first time around they didn’t have any major donors,” said Jonathan Felts, who served as White House political director for President George W. Bush and is close to people in the Trump White House. “Unless he wants to write a big check he can’t ignore them this time.”
In 2016, Trump’s campaign raised $87 million through small donations, nearly twice as much as it did from from larger donations. Trump himself contributed $66 million.
Felts, who lives in North Carolina, said Trump’s campaign needs to do a better job cultivating donors — a task that both Bush and President Barack Obama did successfully. “Donors have been asking a lot of questions, the establishment Republicans,” he said. “I’ve talked to a lot of folks who don’t have a good impression.”
Trump filed for reelection on Inauguration Day, earlier than any president in modern history. The early start means he’ll need money to sustain his campaign for longer than his predecessors running for a second term did, creating a high demand for cash.
Right now the Trump campaign and the RNC continue to pull in large sums, but are also spending large amounts laying the groundwork for the 2020 elections.
Trump’s political operation, including his campaign and two joint fundraising committees, raised $21 million in last three months of 2018, while the Trump campaign spent $23 million during that time. Two-thirds of the money raised by Trump’s political machine came from small-dollar donors giving $200 or less. The remaining $5.3 million was raised from donors cutting checks of more than $200. Trump’s campaign finished with $19 million in the bank to start 2019.
In total, it raised $136.3 million between Jan. 2017 and Dec. 2018, breaking previous records and outpacing past presidential campaigns, according to the campaign. The vast majority came from small contributions.
“Not only is the president the single largest force behind our joint, record-breaking fundraising, but he is also the reason we have welcomed nearly one million new small-dollar donors since his inauguration,” said Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel.
Much of the worry about Trump has been about the lack of a big-picture strategist, a Karl Rove or David Axelrod-like figure. Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, has been mentioned as someone who might play that role, but he remains a senior adviser at the White House, where many believe he serves as the de facto chief of staff.
Like other Trump aides, Parscale took an usual path to leading the campaign. He specialized in digital marketing, working for the Trump Organization before the 2016 campaign. While the appointment of someone with relatively little election experience to run Trump’s 2020 campaign has drawn attention, Parscale starts the campaign with the staunch backing of Trump, Kushner and other top people in the president’s orbit.
Another recurring complaint among donors is that Trump often strays from his own strategy. “The problem is the president can’t and won’t stay on message, push an issue in any kind of sustained way, stay out of trouble for more than 5 minutes,” said another Republican donor who attended the retreat at the Trump hotel.
Trump’s team declined to address any specific donor concerns but said in a statement the campaign is poised for a banner performance.
“We are creating the largest campaign operation in American history, an unstoppable apparatus that will follow and implement President Trump’s strategy to great effect,” Parscale said. “We are building the largest ground game in history, looking at multiple levels of data, responding in real time, and putting the President on the ground in the right places to win.”
“On every metric,” Parscale added, “we are on track to outpace our 2016 numbers by many multiples. Over the next two years, our state-of-the-art operation will share President Trump’s litany of achievements directly with the American people, and on Election Day 2020, President Trump will soar to reelection and continue his historic presidency.”
Parscale was one of many White House and campaign officials, including Donald Trump Jr. and White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, who spoke to about 125 top donors as part of the two-donor event — the 2019 MAGA Leadership Summit — hosted by Vice President Mike Pence’s PAC, Great America Committee.
According to two attendees, campaign officials acknowledged that Trump is under-performing in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, though they said he is holding steady in Florida and trending upward in Ohio. But they offered no details on what they’re doing to regain ground in the Midwest, the attendees said.
“Donors are asking for the plan and they have no plan,” said an outside adviser close to the campaign. “There’s not a strategy.”
America First, which consists of a super PAC and a nonprofit group, will have to begin raising significantly larger amounts of money in order to keep pace with the demands of a presidential cycle. As of November, the group said it had raised $75 million overall since its launch after the 2016 election. Priorities USA Action, the Democratic super PAC that backed Hillary Clinton during her 2016 bid, raised $192 million during the 2016 election cycle.
But in the wake of the midterms, donors being courted by America First have questioned whether the group is the best place for their pro-Trump funds, according to one Republican fundraiser who speaks regularly with top donors.
Among other things they questioned is why the super PAC used $3 million of its $34 million in spending in 2018 to help Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), who wound up losing reelection. The donors saw that spending as a sign the group lacked a strategy.
“There is true reluctance to give because there’s no plan or coherent structure to give to,” the Republican fundraiser said. “The campaign is doing really well with small-dollar donations, but it’s the high-end contributions [America First] is failing on.”
America First spokeswoman Erin Montgomery acknowledged that the group needs to increase its fundraising for 2020, which she said was always the plan.
“America First didn’t exist in 2016,” she said. “Yet, in less than two years, we’ve raised tens of millions of dollars, had a winning record in the midterms, and firmly established ourselves as the primary super PAC in support of President Trump’s re-election.”
A person close to the campaign and familiar with the situation said donors are always asking questions. “They are just nervous the way they always are at the start of a cycle….It’s the way they are.”
And some donors are just taking their time: Minnesota billionaire Stanley Hubbard, CEO of Hubbard Broadcasting, said he’ll likely support the president once he’s had time to rebound from the costly midterm elections.
“I’m sure we’ll end up supporting Trump, but we’re not doing anything until next year,” Hubbard said. “Our checkbooks are closed until 2020.”
Eliana Johnson, Gabby Orr and Andrew Restuccia contributed to this report.