The first spring donor retreat after a defeat for a political party is typically a moment of reflection and renewal as officials chart a new direction forward.
But with former President Donald Trump determined to keep his grip on the Republican Party and the party’s base as adhered to him as ever, the coming together of the Republican National Committee’s top donors in South Florida this weekend is less a moment of reset and more a reminder of the continuing tensions and schisms roiling the GOP.
The same former president who last month sent the RNC a cease-and-desist letter demanding they stop using his likeness to raise money will on Saturday evening serve as the party’s fundraising headliner.
“A tremendous complication” was how Fred Zeidman, a veteran Republican fundraiser in Texas, described Trump’s lingering presence on the political scene.
The delicate dance between Trump and the party — after losing the House, the Senate and the White House on his watch — will manifest in some actual shuttle bus diplomacy Saturday as the party’s top donors attend a series of receptions and panels at the Four Seasons Resort before traveling to Mar-a-Lago, the former president’s private club, to hear Trump speak.
Trump’s insistence on leading the party “affects every member,” Zeidman said, as lawmakers and would-be elected officials jockey for a Trump endorsement that is as powerful in a Republican primary as it can be problematic in a general election.
“He’s already proven that he wants to have a major say or keep control of the party, and he’s already shown every sign that he’s going to primary everybody that has not been supportive of him,” Zeidman said. “He complicates everything so much.”
Among other things, Trump is considering running again in 2024. Although few of his allies believe he will follow through, his presence could have a chilling effect on other potential candidates.
“The party is still very much revolving around” Trump, said Andrea Catsimatidis, chair of the Manhattan Republican Party and a donor who will be at the retreat. “He was the one who very much revived the party when we weren’t winning.”
Also inescapable is the fact that Trump has quickly built a political war chest that rivals that of the RNC. An adviser to Trump said he currently had about $85 million on hand, compared with nearly $84 million for the RNC.
“Send your donation to Save America PAC,” Trump urged supporters last month, not to “RINOS,” the derisive acronym for “Republicans in Name Only.” Trump has appeared as passionate about punishing Republicans who crossed him, especially those who supported his second impeachment, as he has about taking back the House and Senate in 2022.
For party officials, the goal is keeping the energy that has propelled Trump to success inside the Republican tent while not entirely allowing the former president to dominate it. Ronna McDaniel, the RNC chair whom Trump supported for a second term, has vowed to remain neutral in a potential 2024 primary should Trump run again.
“It is a difficult balancing act,” said Bill Palatucci, a Republican National Committeeman from New Jersey who has been critical of Trump.
“The president certainly has devoted followers,” Palatucci said, “but he also more than offended a lot of people with his conduct since the November election, which culminated in his helping to incite the riot on Jan. 6.”
Several Republicans who are considered likely to run for president in 2024 — including Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota — were scheduled to speak to the RNC’s donors at the Four Seasons. Mike Pompeo, the former secretary of state and CIA director who served under Trump, had been scheduled to speak Friday but did not attend the gathering.
Notably absent are two leading Republican figures who also skipped the last big Republican gathering, the Conservative Political Action Conference, that Trump attended: former Vice President Mike Pence, who is starting his own political advocacy group, and Nikki Haley, the former United Nations ambassador.
Some donors are hoping to quickly move past Trump, but they are also focused on the current Oval Office occupant.
“It is very important the Republican Party puts Donald Trump as far into the past as possible,” said William Oberndorf, an investor in California who has given millions to GOP candidates but fiercely opposes the former president.
“However, if Joe Biden does not ensure that major pieces of legislation have bipartisan support, it is he who will bear more responsibility than any group of Republican donors ever could for resurrecting Mr. Trump’s political future and fortunes,” he added.
Among donors, the jockeying for favor and financing extends beyond Trump and the RNC.
On Thursday and Friday, a separate but overlapping gathering for Republican contributors was held at Trump’s private club: an “investors meeting” of the Conservative Partnership Institute (CPI), a nonprofit organization. Mark Meadows, who served as Trump’s chief of staff, is now a senior adviser for the group, and Caroline Wren, who used to fundraise for the former president, is raising money for it.
Donors are being pitched on a dizzying array of Trump-adjacent projects, including Pence’s group and new entities being started by Ben Carson, Trump’s former housing secretary; Stephen Miller, his former White House adviser; and Russell Vought, the former director of the Office of Management and Budget.
Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s first campaign manager in 2016, is said to be involved with efforts to start a Trump-aligned super political action committee as well.
Trump, who continues to talk privately about a future campaign of his own in 2024, spoke to donors for the Meadows-linked group for more than an hour Thursday, also at his private club.
“All Republican roads lead to Mar-a-Lago,” said Jason Miller, an adviser to Trump. “Trump is still the straw that stirs the news cycle. His influence will be central to every speech and storyline this week.”
Those who have trekked there to meet Trump in recent months include Sarah Huckabee Sanders, his former press secretary and a candidate for governor of Arkansas; Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee; and Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. and the House minority leader.
The RNC had initially planned for its entire retreat to be held nearby in Palm Beach, but organizers moved the final Saturday evening events to Trump’s resort, meaning the party will again be paying the former president’s private club to use its space.
During Trump’s White House tenure, his political campaign, the RNC and his allies spent millions of dollars at Trump businesses, including his hotel in Washington near the White House and a resort property in Miami, where yet another pro-Trump group also held a conference this week.
Party officials maintained that donors and a number of party activists were happier being at Trump-branded properties than they were anywhere else.
Still, the Trump branding of official Republican events had alienated what was once the Republican establishment.
“This is all about the Trump circle of grift,” said former Rep. Barbara Comstock of Virginia, who is close to another high-profile Republican — and a frequent target of Trump’s — who was also notably absent: Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming.
Comstock said that the Republicans keeping their distance were wise to “build their own coalitions” and “not get sucked into Trumpism, which has a limited and short-term appeal with demographics dying in this country.”
Henry Barbour, an influential RNC member from Mississippi, said that the party was still in a transitional phase since Trump’s loss.
“When you lose the White House, you kind of figure it’s going to take a little bit of healing, and I think probably first quarter has hopefully got us moving on a better path,” Barbour said. Trump, he said, is a “big force in the party, but the party is bigger than any one candidate, including Donald Trump.”
With Trump’s priorities differing from those of other party leaders, the tension remains palpable. On Friday, the super PAC for Senate Republicans, which is aligned with Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, announced its backing of Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who infuriated Trump by voting to impeach him. (Some Trump 2020 advisers are working for Murkowski’s Republican challenger, Kelly Tshibaka.)
Last month, McConnell privately boasted of the super PAC’s fundraising in a meeting with Senate Republicans, bragging that it had raised more than Trump’s super PAC had in 2020. He even distributed a card to hammer home the point: “In three cycles: nearly $1 billion,” the card said. Below that were Trump’s super PAC statistics: “Trump: $148+ million,” referring to the group America First.
But the Republican small donor base remains very much enamored with Trump.
“He’ll still be the most significant figure in the party in November 2022,” predicted Al Cardenas, a former chair of the Florida Republican Party and former chair of the American Conservative Union. “Everybody has a shelf life, and Donald Trump has lost a bit of his shelf life. It could be two years. It could be 10.”