The backlash is threatening to deprive Republicans of resources just as they’re gearing up for the 2018 midterms. Party officials are so alarmed that North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis, who oversees fundraising for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told his colleagues at a recent conference meeting that donations had fallen off a cliff after the Obamacare flop. The committee’s haul plummeted to just $2 million in July and August, less than half of what it raised in June.
“When you’re in a business and you tell your stakeholders you’re going to build a building or something, you have to follow through,” said Houston-based energy executive Dan Eberhart. “I can’t borrow money to build a building and then not follow through, which is what these guys are doing.” He said he’s spoken to four Republican senators over the past month to express his displeasure, mostly over the party’s failure to repeal Obamacare.
Behind the scenes, the GOP has begun to try to smooth things over with its most important givers. On Monday, Trump met with the party’s most prominent donor, Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who has privately expressed frustration that the president hasn’t moved the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. And in the wake of an establishment-backed candidate’s loss in Alabama, a top McConnell political lieutenant, Steven Law, held a series of frank discussions with key benefactors.
Some of the donors are giving lawmakers an earful. Bruce Rastetter, an Iowa agribusiness mogul who has funded a long list of Republican elected officials, said he had informed his state’s two GOP senators, Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, that he would not donate to Republican senators “unless they pass new legislation or get new leadership.”
In the world of campaign politics, big donors have long been known as gripers — an exclusive group accustomed to stroking and attention. But this year is different. Veteran fundraisers say they’re having an unusually hard time setting up meetings with major contributors, lining up checks and organizing events.
One seasoned GOP fundraiser forwarded along a curt email from a sought-after donor. “The GOP leaders should know, no movement on remaining agenda: tax reform, infrastructure, deregulation, etc. means no funding from supporters like me,” it read. “No meetings, calls, contributions until we see progress.”
The figures turning off the cash spigot range from mid-level donors to some of the most generous contributors whom the party has long relied upon. Among those who’ve been cool to outreach are venture capitalist John Childs, real estate developer Harlan Crow, and retail executive Les Wexner, according to fundraisers.
All have funneled millions of dollars to the party over the years.
Al Hoffman, a former Republican National Committee finance chair who played a key role raising money for George W. Bush’s presidential campaigns, said he had no plans to help in 2018 other than to work on a few races in his home state of Florida.
“It’s a real mess, no?” said Hoffman, a real estate developer, referring to the GOP’s predicament.
The resentment over the state of the party has infiltrated Republican fundraising capitals like Dallas.
“I think major donors are tired of writing checks to a do-nothing Congress,” said Roy Bailey, an influential, Dallas-based GOP bundler.
Last week’s GOP runoff for an Alabama Senate seat only heightened the sense of frustration. A McConnell-aligned super PAC, Senate Leadership Fund, dropped more than $8 million in a failed effort to prop up incumbent Sen. Luther Strange over flame-throwing jurist Roy Moore. The outcome has some party donors questioning the group’s spending decisions.
“They blew all of their resources in Alabama for basically nothing,” said Eberhart, who has donated to the NRSC, which also backed Strange.
Law, a former chief of staff to McConnell who oversees the Senate Leadership Fund, said none of his donors have threatened to stop giving. But he conceded there is wide-ranging unhappiness over the failed legislative efforts, and he described the looming tax reform battle as a make-or-break moment for the party.
“Our donors are expressing the same frustration with the lack of progress in Washington that Republican primary voters are,” he said.
Some exasperated givers are turning to Steve Bannon, Trump’s hard-charging former chief strategist and a McConnell nemesis, to vent. Bannon met with several contributors who were in Washington this week for an RNC gala and has eagerly stepped into the role of donor-whisperer. He is looking to establish his own finance network to fund an effort to unseat Senate Republican incumbents in 2018.
The White House has been closely monitoring the donor unease, concerned that it could derail the party’s 2018 efforts. Last week, Marc Short, Trump’s director of legislative affairs who previously served as an operative for the Koch financial network, delivered a presentation for a group of influential conservative financiers that included Frayda Levin and Art Pope.
Some in the administration, however, view a donor revolt as a useful way to motivate lawmakers. On Tuesday, Nick Ayers, chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence, told a group of RNC donors that if Congress failed to enact the president’s agenda they should withhold their financial support and instead give to primary challengers.
Not all donors are joining the protest. Pope, for one, blamed the GOP’s legislative struggles on its slim Senate majority. If anything, he said, it’s reason to continue donating, in order to elect more Republicans.
“It’s very difficult when you have a razor-thin majority and united opposition from the other party,” he said.
To others, though, the disappointment over having so little to show for their investments is profound.
Michael Salzhauer, a New York real estate investor, said he had begun informing lawmakers that he’s done giving until they address health care and taxes.
“To miss that opportunity,” he said, “is totally irresponsible.”
Alex Isenstadt & Gabriel Debenedetti