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Trump and his allies scramble to close fundraising gap with Biden

Donald Trump and the Republican Party find themselves facing an early cash gap heading into the 2024 election — and are furiously trying to fix it.

At the end of January, President Biden’s campaign had $56 million in cash, compared to $30.5 million for Trump. The Democratic National Committee, which is functioning as a part of Biden’s campaign, had $24 million in the bank — almost triple the $8.7 million held by the Republican National Committee.

A Washington Post analysis of filings by Biden’s campaign and joint fundraising committees found that they had 172,000 unique donors in November of 2023, pulling ahead of Trump’s 143,000 donors for the first monthly win of the year. Despite the fact that Trump was actively campaigning for the Republican nomination, Biden maintained an advantage in December.

“He needs to raise money. Look what Democrats are raising. I told him, they are going to empty the coffers here,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a Trump ally. “It’s one of the things that concerns me.”

Worries have also grown among top Republicans in Washington and among some allies that Trump is spending too much political money on his legal bills, that his fundraising team is not large enough and that small-dollar donations are slowing. In 2020, Trump’s campaign took advertisements off television for some time because it faced a cash crunch, and Democratic groups and the Biden campaign ultimately spent about $1.2 billion on ads after April 1 of that year — significantly more than the $779 million spent by Trump and groups that supported him, according to the ad-tracking firm Ad Impact.

The fundraising disadvantage has been magnified by a significant drain of legal expenses for Trump’s multiple civil and criminal trials, which he has been paying for with campaign and PAC funds. About 23 percent of spending by Trump’s affiliated committees in 2023 went to legal fees, which are expected to climb this year. Two committees now dedicated largely to paying Trump’s legal bills, Save America leadership PAC and Make America Great Again PAC, spent over $55 million on legal bills in 2023. Save America alone spent about $3 million on legal bills in the first month of 2024.

Facing the gap and cascading legal bills, the former president has agreed for more than a year to do three to five hours a week of “call time” with donors, stunning some advisers who know he has historically avoided the practice. He regularly writes personal letters to donors, signs thank you notes, and sends hats to those he speaks with, while also agreeing to a series of small dinners and roundtable question and answer sessions with some of the party’s biggest donors, according to Trump advisers.

Just this week, he pulled in more than $10 million in private events in Nashville and in Greenville, S.C., following an event at his Mar-a-Lago Club last week that drew nearly 1,000 people. On recent visits to Las Vegas, he has dined with the late businessman Sheldon Adelson’s widow, Miriam, in recent months, hoping she will repeat her family’s history of spending heavily for the Republican nominee. He has also courted Robert Bigelow, a Nevada real estate magnate who gave $20 million to the former presidential effort of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) before switching sides.

Fundraiser Meredith O’Rourke and others now give Trump names of major donors to call, and he has shown a willingness to keep calling even if he doesn’t think they will currently give. He has also asked some associates to raise money for him, a rare departure from the past.

“The president is very engaged with one-on-one relationships,” O’Rourke said. “We are spending a lot of time on the phone with people. The format we are doing with a lot of events ends up turning into more of a question-and-answer session, so more of that personal interaction than we had before.”

There is now an open question over whether the RNC, which paid Trump’s legal bills in the past, will again start paying for such expenses. One of Trump’s top advisers told NBC News on Friday that the RNC will not be used to pay legal bills. But Trump has proposed that his daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, help lead the national party this year, and she said this week that Republican voters broadly support using party money to pay for the former president’s legal representations. Ronna McDaniel, in her final weeks as RNC chairwoman, has spent most of her time fundraising, venturing to New York and Palm Beach, Fla., in the last two weeks, among other destinations, but she had stopped having the RNC pay his legal bills after he became a candidate.

Brian Ballard, a top Florida lobbyist who also has close ties to DeSantis, recently met with Trump and plans to raise major dollars for the former president. Several major DeSantis donors have started giving to Trump in recent weeks.

“I’m very confident that the finance operation is first class. I don’t think there is going to be any issue with raising money,” said Ballard. “It is, and is going to be, a very professional and experienced team that will raise all the money needed to run a successful presidential campaign.”

Other wealthy friends and prominent donors such as hotelier Steve Wynn have not yet written checks, frustrating Trump, according to people familiar with his comments, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to reveal private conversations. One top Republican official said some prominent donors have not been contacted and that Trump’s team has to expand its size and aperture. A Trump adviser said they were planning to hire additional people in the coming weeks, and the RNC and Trump campaign will all but merge once he, as expected, becomes the de facto nominee.

Some major donors have expressed concerns about their contributions going to legal bills, according to two prominent Republicans who have heard the concerns directly. “They are going to give to Trump but they aren’t just going to give as much if they think it’s being wasted,” said one person who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the concerns. “These people want to win elections, not pay lawyers.” A Trump adviser said the campaign has not heard this concern directly.

In the meantime, Trump’s only remaining challenger, former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, is continuing to raise significant money from traditional donors even as she trails badly in the polls. She raised more than $11 million in January and will post another strong month in February, her adviser Katon Dawson said. “We have money falling in like a snow cone machine in the summer,” he said.

“A lot of people are sitting on the sidelines here,” Graham said. “You won’t see a lot of these people break loose until after the primary.”

This week, Trump had a fundraiser at the Greenville home of South Carolina casino developer Wallace Cheves, where he was flanked by Gov. Henry McMaster (R), the state’s two U.S. senators and other lawmakers. He raised more than $6 million, a campaign adviser said, with guests coming in from out of state locales as far as Texas. The event, which included a smaller gathering of top donors and a chance to discuss the MAGA Inc. super PAC, was closed to the public and the press.

Rep. William Timmons (R-S.C.), a Trump supporter who attended, said the former president had a “much more disciplined and tighter message” than in the past and that he came away impressed. Instead of talking about conspiracy theories that the election was stolen, Trump said he should have challenged more of the coronavirus-related law changes before the election.

“I didn’t realize that was my job,” Trump said, according to Timmons. “I didn’t have the best lawyers, but we’ll have lawyers in every state this time.”

Days later, Trump appeared in Nashville with the actor Dennis Quaid, musician Kid Rock and representatives of MAGA Inc., an event that raised $4 million. Unlike campaigns, super PACs can raise checks of unlimited amounts. Candidates can appear as guests at super PAC donor gatherings or on phone calls but are not allowed by federal law to directly solicit contributions for those groups.

He had a bigger event at Mar-a-Lago last Friday, where tickets went from $1,000 to enter to $100,000 for a private roundtable — where about 30 people showed up to raise $3 million. At the event, he thanked donors for giving, which he doesn’t always do, even as he railed against the New York judge who recently ruled against him in a civil case and the criminal cases against him, among other topics. About 1,000 people packed into the event.

At the smaller roundtable, Trump talked about how Republicans had to win big because the Democrats were going to try to steal the election again, and he heard from donors who thought Biden was not going to be the Democratic nominee, said a person familiar with the event.

Trump also attended a more exclusive dinner earlier this month in Palm Beach at the home of hedge fund manager John Paulson, where he answered questions from donors who are considered whales in GOP politics, according to people familiar with the event. MAGA Inc., a super PAC supporting Trump, was involved in the event.

Another super PAC supporting Trump, Right For America, announced its formation this week, led by Ike Perlmutter, the billionaire former Marvel chief executive and Trump friend, who gave with his wife about $25 million during the 2020 cycle to groups supporting Trump’s campaign. Two other wealthy Trump associates, Leandro Rizzuto, Jr., the son of the founder of the Conair Corporation, and Anthony Lomangino, who made his money in waste management, are on the board of the group.

Trump’s top campaign adviser, Susie Wiles, recently gave a presentation to top Republican donors convened by the American Opportunity Alliance, a donor group convened by hedge fund manager Paul Singer. Among those present were name brand donors or their representatives, including Warren Stephens, Charles Schwab and representatives of the Michigan DeVos family, according to a person familiar with the event.

Wiles gave a data-heavy presentation to some of the party’s top donors in Palm Beach, making the case that Trump inevitably was the nominee and taking a range of questions. People familiar with her presentation said the donors came away impressed, and some committed to give. The campaign declined to provide names of the new donors.

MAGA Inc. has been warning since December of an expected spring advertising blitz in swing states by allies of Biden. The group began telling donors that they expect Democrats to spend $255 million this year in the seven major battleground states — Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

MAGA Inc. has received a quasi-official blessing from Trump, who transferred money from his leadership PAC at the start of the cycle to seed the organization. In past cycles, Trump took a more hands-off approach to his outside support, focused on his coordinated fundraising with the RNC. The group is now focused on raising large checks as many six-figure donors wait for Trump to start fundraising with party accounts, which can directly coordinate with the campaign. Timothy Mellon, the heir to the banking family of the same name, gave the group another $5 million in January.

“Where we are at right now is an all hands on deck moment. That is not just the feeling among the campaign and the professionals but among the donors as well,” said Taylor Budowich, the chief executive of MAGA Inc.

FF PAC, a group that is devoted to Biden’s reelection, has already announced plans to reserve $250 million in television and digital ads starting in August, after the Democratic National Convention. Democratic groups have not announced advertising plans for the spring, but party strategists say they are waiting for the conclusion of the Republican nomination battle, when voters more fully internalize of another Trump and Biden showdown in November.

Trump’s fundraising fortunes could shift once he secures the nomination, as is now widely expected, both because be will be able to raise $836,300 checks in partnership with the RNC and state parties that will benefit his campaign. Small-dollar donors historically tune in late in the cycle.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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