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Republican 2024 rivals go shopping for big donors

Former President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event.

Former President Donald Trump will gather some of his top donors at his Mar-a-Lago estate in South Florida Thursday evening for his super PAC’s first fundraiser — an event that organizers are billing as an intimate candlelight dinner.

Four miles down South Ocean Boulevard and a day later, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Trump’s lead potential rival for the Republican nomination, will host his own contributors for a three-day-long retreat at the Four Seasons Resort Palm Beach.

The dueling events — along with a Friday donor conference in Austin, Texas organized by former George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove and featuring a handful of other prospective Republican presidential candidates — will pull back the curtain on an intensifying battle for big donors in 2024. Republicans are moving aggressively to expand their networks of major contributors and block out rivals who are competing for the same dollars. DeSantis is expected to draw around 150 top donors and other supporters to the event, many of whom formerly backed Trump.

The slate of donor events also neatly illustrates the current state of the nascent Republican primary: Trump and DeSantis are in a class of their own, while the rest of the burgeoning field is jostling to enter the top tier.

Those involved in the planning for this week’s conferences describe the donor recruitment fight as intense and wide-open, with many Republican contributors — a large segment of whom are eager to move on from Trump — gravitating toward DeSantis but others still shopping around.

“I think they’re like a lot of people,” Rove said of the roughly 350 donors and other guests expected at the Texas conference he has organized. “They might have someone who’s sort of a preliminary favorite, but they’re looking, and they want to see how they will perform.”

The daylong conference will feature former Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, former Vice President Mike Pence, and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, among others. It is expected to draw a slate of mega-donors, with beer distribution executive John Nau, Omni Hotels owner Robert Rowling and real estate developer Harlan Crow are among those listed on the event invitation as co-hosts.

Held at the 4,000-acre Omni Barton Creek Resort in Austin’s Hill Country, the meeting will be modeled after the same event Rove organized in May 2021, where members of the Texas congressional delegation interviewed would-be presidential hopefuls. Scott, who is Black, drew particular notice from donors for his performance during the 2021 event, when he spoke about his race and upbringing.

As in 2021, candidates are jumping at the opportunity to attend the conference. Many of the co-hosts have long been part of Bush’s formidable donor network— a network that those seeking the GOP presidential nomination are eager to tap. Some candidates are expected to set up private meetings with influential givers during their visits.

Trump’s Thursday evening event, meanwhile, will raise money for the principal super PAC supporting his candidacy, MAGA Inc. The organization started the year with $55 million in seed money, much of it transferred from Trump’s Save America PAC, which raised money over the last two years. But this week’s fundraiser will be MAGA Inc.’s first.

According to recent filings, the super PAC has also received large contributions from several longtime Trump givers, including transportation company executive Timothy Mellon, banker Andy Beal and sanitation mogul Anthony Lomangino.

Trump is now looking to further bolster the super PAC, which has begun using its substantial resources to hold focus groups aimed at testing out lines of attack against DeSantis and other rivals.

Much of the attention, however, will be on DeSantis’ retreat, which is drawing donors, lawmakers and other supporters. According to a person familiar with the plans for the event, DeSantis is expected to discuss how he won a landslide 2022 reelection race and key planks of his agenda, including his ongoing fight with Disney, his decision to send planes of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., and his battle against what he has derided as “woke” liberals. The governor’s team will also give a data-focused briefing on the reelection win.

DeSantis also held a political retreat last year that drew a number of prominent Republican figures, including now-Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a former Trump White House press secretary.

Donors are focused on whether DeSantis, who is about to publish a new book and has been upping his national travel of late, uses this week’s event to drop any hints about his anticipated presidential bid. The retreat will also be scrutinized for which donors attend — including how many of them were once Trump backers who may be looking to defect from the former president to the Florida governor.

The list of defectors includes Arizona donor Don Tapia, a retired electrical company executive who served as Trump’s ambassador to Jamaica. Tapia was a six-figure contributor to Trump’s 2016 and 2020 campaigns — but said that he had decided to back DeSantis should he run in 2024.

Tapia, who gave more than $50,000 to DeSantis’ reelection bid and hosted a pair of fundraisers for him, contended that donors had grown tired of Trump’s attacks on DeSantis and predicted that the retreat would “overwhelmingly” be attended by former Trump supporters.

“The name-calling has turned a lot of people off,” Tapia said of Trump. “Let me tell you, we don’t like that.”


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