WASHINGTON — One of the first tasks real estate magnate Donald Trump has set for himself now that he's the de facto Republican presidential nominee is actively seeking campaign contributions, a job the billionaire's largely self-funded campaign has been able to avoid thus far.
Ordinarily, the newly minted Republican standard-bearer would start making calls to Texas, a solidly Republican state where wealthy donors routinely bankroll presidential bids. Texas was second only to California in fueling Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign super PAC.
But Trump’s record of comments mocking minorities, women and people with disabilities — not to mention his stances on some hot-button issues including abortion — present a moral dilemma to many in the GOP, including donors.
So will those holding the Texas purse strings buy into Trump's campaign?
“I think your business types might ... [but] your ideological donor is going to be hard to persuade,” said Jack Ladd Jr., a former Texas Republican campaign operative.
At first blush, many in politics assumed Trump wouldn't need donor money.
After all, he spent the primary decrying the influence of money in politics and had loaned his own campaign $36 million as of March 31. His frequent television appearances offset any lag in advertising dollars, and that presence allowed him to stand apart in the crowded GOP field.
But no Republican opponent Trump faced in the primary had a fraction of the infrastructure that the Democratic Party will hurl at him in the coming months. Trump will need to raise money — possibly a billion dollars or more — to run a viable national campaign, and he said as much to the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday.
“I’ll be putting up money but won’t be completely self-funding as I did during the primaries,” he told the paper.
Austin-based Republican bundler Brian Haley has experience fundraising for national campaigns; he served as a senior adviser to Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s now-defunct campaign and was a fundraiser for two previous presidential campaigns, including U.S. Sen. John McCain’s 2008 general election bid.
“For anyone to say he doesn’t need to raise money — short of the candidate writing a billion-dollar check — there’s no way for the Republican Party to fund its operations without the nominee partnering with them to do it,” he said.
Several operatives suggested that giving to the Republican National Committee would serve as an outlet for donors who cannot bring themselves to write a check directly to the Donald J. Trump for President campaign. That's because the RNC's fundraising and infrastructure will also assist down-ballot candidates.
But other fundraising sources insist the Lone Star contributors will come around regardless, if only because so many Texas Republicans can't stomach the idea of Hillary Clinton as president.
“You’ve got to give people a couple of days ... to come around with what reality is,” Haley said. “I feel confident that Republicans nationwide will come to grips with reality and will be supportive of the nominee.”
Jordan Berry, an Austin-based GOP consultant, concurred.
“I think Trump can focus on Hillary and make himself then appear more viable once he stops attacking other Republicans,” he said. “Then that could open up wallets.”
But not everyone has arrived at emotional acceptance of the Trump nomination. Another Republican operative, who asked for anonymity to protect his clients, cautioned that the consultant class is ahead of the donors in processing that Trump is really headed for the nomination. Rich contributors have an economic luxury consultants and down-ballot officeholders do not: They can sit out this campaign.
One Texas GOP fundraiser, who declined to be named because the fundraiser was not authorized to speak on behalf of donors, is dubious that donors known as “the bigs” — like Dallas-based Harlan Crow, Ray and Nancy Hunt, Trevor and Jan Rees-Jones, Midland’s Javaid Anwar and Houston-based John L. Nau III — will play large roles this campaign.
Some of those contributors gave big — ranging between $500,000 to $2 million — to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s super PAC, only to see his campaign flop and his super PAC direct much of their money to attacking U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. That's money they thought could've neutralized Trump months ago.
“Their hearts were broken,” the fundraiser said. “They can’t believe what’s taken over the Republican Party. They don’t understand what’s happening in their world, and they don’t control it anymore."
Since Bush dropped out, these donors have mostly stayed on the sidelines.
Crow, who gave roughly $50,000 to Bush's campaign and $100,000 to Rubio's, actively worked against Trump, dumping $100,000 into an anti-Trump super PAC in February.
Only a personal call from Texans with Gov. Greg Abbott or U.S. Sen. John Cornyn’s stature could persuade these donors to open their checkbooks, said the fundraiser. Whether either man has an appetite for that remains to be seen.
Many in national politics urge anti-Trump donors to give to down-ballot races. The idea is to make sure Republicans stay in power in the legislative branch in order to serve as a check on a Trump or Clinton presidency.
But that's a hard calculation to make. If Clinton is able to win competitive Senate seats and House districts by the 10-point margins that are surfacing in the polls, it is difficult to see how a Republican down the ballot could win.
Texas donors, who for so long dominated the Republican political world, are finding themselves adrift.
“A lot of ‘the bigs’ are like, ‘I don’t understand the world I’m living in right now,’ and so they’re not investing in it,” the fundraiser said.
Disclosure: John Nau and Javaid Anwar have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.