‘Get in the game’: GOP candidates pitch to major donors

With less than 100 days to go until the Iowa caucuses, Donald J. Trump’s leading rivals continue to engage in a fierce battle with each other as much as with him, raising fears that internal divisions threaten to doom efforts to find a new face for the Republican Party in 2024.

From Dallas to Park City, Utah, major Republican donors gathered behind closed doors this week as talk intensified about the need to destroy the GOP field. In private comments to donors in Utah, Nikki Haley, the former ambassador to the United Nations, delivered a stark message that it’s time to pick a side and invest if there’s any chance of preventing another Trump nomination.

“Get in the game,” Ms. Haley invited them, according to two people who were present at the event.

But given Mr. Trump’s enduring advantage, some political financiers are considering staying on the sidelines. For those donors who are not, the choice has increasingly narrowed to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Ms. Haley, whose fortunes have been boosted by her performance in the first two debates. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina is also a factor, given the $25 million his super PAC has booked for television ads in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina over the next three months.

On Friday, teams of advisers to Mr. DeSantis, Ms. Haley and Mr. Scott went to Dallas for separate presentations to an exclusive gathering of some of the country’s most influential Republican donors, a group known as the American Opportunity Alliance. They met at an estate owned by billionaire Republican financier Harlan Crowe, who attracted attention and scrutiny for his close relationship with Justice Clarence Thomas.

In the audience were some of the party’s biggest contributors or their top representatives, megadonors like Paul Singer and Ken Griffin who can spend tens of millions of dollars. And the stakes produced pointed presentations, according to more than a half-dozen people who were in the room or familiar with the remarks.

DeSantis’ team argued that any attempt to remove him from the race would be aimed at Trump. DeSantis’ three chief campaign strategists – James Uthmeier, David Polyansky and Ryan Tyson – presented internal polls showing that 90 percent of his supporters would switch to Mr. Trump if Mr. DeSantis left the race. By contrast, Ms. Haley’s supporters, they said, would defect to Mr. DeSantis if she left.

The DeSantis team has suggested that Mr. Trump must be stopped in Iowa, and that Mr. DeSantis is the only one in a position to do so. They, too, acknowledged Mr. DeSantis’ past struggles, describing themselves as fighting for a stronger position.

Ms. Haley’s advisers, Betsy Ankeny and Jon Lerner, showed their own internal surveys, which put Ms. Haley ahead of Mr. DeSantis in New Hampshire and South Carolina and tied the two in Iowa. Mr. DeSantis paused, they claimed, and she stood up.

In a sign of the threat Ms. Haley poses to Mr. DeSantis, Never Back Down — the leading pro-DeSantis super PAC — is preparing an ad campaign against Haley and has tested several attacks, including her ties to China, according to people familiar with the matter. Such a move would be a turning point, as advisers to DeSantis have long insisted that a showdown between the governor and Mr. Trump comes first.

Mr. Scott, whose team was not originally invited to Dallas, was represented by Jennifer DeCasper, Zach Moffat and Eric Iverson. They discovered that Mr. Scott to enter October with $12.6 million in primary cash — more than either Mr. DeSantis or Ms. Haley.

Ms. DeCasper noted Mr. Scott’s toughness and his willingness to stand up to Mr. Trump. She made the reference when he confronted Mr. Trump about the former president’s equivocation following white-collar violence in Charlottesville, Va.

“We never flew to Mar-a-Lago to kiss the ring, to ask permission for anything,” she said.

The dueling presentations underscored the degree to which the race to be the main alternative to Mr. Trump is being played out in donor meetings as much as on the ground in early states.

On the campaign trail in New Hampshire on Friday, Ms. Haley made explicit the power of wealthy donors to narrow the field. “I think it’s up to the voters and I think it’s up to the donors to decide which candidates should get off the stage,” Ms. Haley said. how she applied to appear on the ballot in the state.

Donors have held private discussions for months not only about the possibility of collective support for an alternative to Mr. Trump, but also whether wealthy backers of low-ballot candidates could encourage those candidates to drop out to consolidate anti-Trump support.

In recent days, Ms. Haley and Mr. DeSantis made a series of announcements in which political insiders outlined their momentum. Mr. DeSantis on Thursday announced its first ad booking race, saying he would spend $2 million in Iowa. It comes a week after it moved one-third of its staff from Tallahassee to Iowa to bolster its operations in the state.

Ms. Haley launched her fundraising drive, finding she had more cash available for campaign matches than Mr. DeSantis, $9.1 million to $5 million. She also announced the opening its first office in Iowa and the addition of two in-state staff members, bringing her total to four.

For veterans of the 2016 primaries, the obsessive focus on the second-place race is causing a serious sense of déjà vu.

“In October 2015, you had Jeb Bush firing a machine gun at Marco Rubio and Rubio going after Ted Cruz, and no one actually raised a hand against Trump,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist who was Mr. Rubio’s top adviser. in time.

“This will be a repeat of 2016,” added Mr. Conant on the current competition. He said this time it was even worse for Trump’s challengers. “Now, even if you combined everybody’s polls going into the debate phase, you’d still be under Trump.”

Recently national poll by Fox News it showed Mr. Trump at 59 percent, almost unchanged from September. Mr. DeSantis was the next closest with 13 percent, while Ms. Haley was third, with 10 percent.

However, most of Trump’s rivals are cautious when it comes to criticizing the former president.

On Monday, Mr. DeSantis first appeared on MSNBC, the kind of network he has derided for years as “corporate media,” a sign of his need for political oxygen and coverage. And while he brushed off how a Trump nomination would be a distraction — citing documents found near a restroom at Mar-a-Lago — he sidestepped a follow-up question about whether Americans should be concerned if Mr. Trump was free in a relationship. with the nation’s secrets, the charge at the center of the special counsel’s criminal indictment.

“Well, look, I think it’s an accusation — it remains to be seen,” Mr. DeSantis began, before moving on to Mr. Trump’s defense.

Later this week, Mr. DeSantis criticized Mr. Trump for his attack on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and on Israeli intelligence services for missing an impending terrorist attack by Hamas. The issue is a strong one for many pro-Israel and politically conservative donors, and allies and advisers of Mr. DeSantis see it as a vulnerability for Trump.

Spencer Zwick, who oversaw Sen. Mitt Romney’s fundraising operation when he ran for president in 2012 and who organized the Utah conference, said Ms. Haley was “probably the strongest in making the case” that donors needed to mobilize to stopped Mr. Trump. from victory. Other attendees included former Vice President Mike Pence, Gov. Doug Burgum of North Dakota and former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey.

“If you don’t choose a candidate, Trump will be nominated,” warned Mr. Christie donors, according to a tape of his comments obtained by The New York Times.

But the lower-polling Mr. Christie urged donors not to focus on who they thought might win — “Your record shows you don’t know” how to predict that, he said with a laugh — but on who they thought would be the best the president.

“How about we try this one?” Mr. Christie said.

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