Wealthy GOP Donors Are Bullish on Nikki Haley—For Now

Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley delivers remarks at the Christians United for Israel (CUFI) summit on July 17, 2023, in Arlington, Virginia. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Even as many wealthy Republican donors sit on the sidelines waiting for a consensus alternative to Donald Trump to emerge in the GOP primary, some are making an early play to propel Nikki Haley into that coveted spot.

Three Republican donors who have contributed to Haley’s super PAC, SFA Fund Inc., tell The Dispatch they are smitten with the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and ex-South Carolina governor. The reasons are typical: Haley is an experienced chief executive, has a track record of winning tough primaries; and exhibits a command of foreign and domestic policy. And of course, they are desperate to steer the GOP away from Trump.

But however subtly, conversations with these donors reveal their professed faith in Haley to emerge as the consensus Trump alternative later in the primary race does not necessarily equal limitless patience—or plans to write SFA Fund Inc. blank checks. That’s relevant because despite being in the primary longer than any candidate other than Trump, Haley is polling in the low single digits.

“I think a lot of things are going to come very clear in the debate,” says Tim Draper, a venture capitalist in California’s Silicon Valley. He says he is willing to be “patient” with Haley’s progress (or lack thereof) at least until the contenders meet August 23 in Milwaukee for the first faceoff of the primary campaign. “Watch Nikki in the debate.”

Draper, who has contributed to Republicans and Democrats, including President Barack Obama, brims with compliments and enthusiasm for Haley, saying the upside to her nomination is worth the financial risk it appears to be. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a candidate or entrepreneur—maybe Elon [Musk]—work this hard,” he says. “She is everywhere and the more people are exposed to her, the more they like her. I think that wins.”

But his investment—$1.25 million so far—does have a ceiling. “I’m not sure I want to tell anybody that,” he says when asked exactly how much money he is willing to pour into SFA Fund Inc. “That’s a little like when you find a startup and you say: ‘Oh yeah, I’m here for you forever.’ It’s like—no way.” Draper over the years has invested in Tesla, SpaceX, Twitter, Skype and Ancestry.

Ron Weiser, a veteran Republican donor from Michigan and SFA Fund Inc. contributor, is blunt in his assessment of Haley’s progress since entering the race in mid February. “I wish she was doing better in the polls,” says Weiser, who according to a spokesman for SFA Fund Inc. has donated “six figures” to the super PAC. 

He’s backing the 51-year-old underdog because “I thought she would make the best president.” But Weiser is realistic about the state of the Republican nominating contest, and concedes disappointment with Haley’s standing. 

But like Draper, Weiser thinks Haley’s dividends will pay out later in the race. “Polls don’t mean anything today,” he says before suggesting he is prepared to back Haley through next winter’s crucial South Carolina primary. “I think that’s key for Nikki, to win her own home state. If she can’t do that and comes in distant, I think that’ll be a problem for her and I think that probably eliminates her.”

Haley herself has indicated she believes her campaign will be an example of delayed gratification. “I fully expect us to stay where we are until midfall,” she told The Dispatch earlier this month while in New Hampshire. “Then, by midfall, it’ll start to shake up after the debates, after things start to move and all that’s going to happen.”

Like super PACs backing other Republican presidential candidates, SFA Fund Inc. is not focused strictly on investing donor money in paid advertising. The group is using resources to send text messages to promote Haley campaign events in the key early primary states. The super PAC also is financing a grassroots fundraising operation designed to find new, small-dollar donors for Haley’s campaign (the super PAC supporting former Vice President Mike Pence is doing something similar).

That doesn’t mean SFA Fund Inc. isn’t spending money on advertising now, though. A spokesman said the super PAC is running Google search ads nationally and plans to target Iowa and New Hampshire with television, direct mail, and digital spots beginning in “the coming weeks.”

Super PACs are prohibited from coordinating with a candidate’s campaign but are permitted to raise money in unlimited amounts. The money must be disclosed in filings to the Federal Election Commission, with the next one due Monday.

SFA Fund Inc. collected an impressive $18.7 million from 120 donors in the second quarter fundraising period ending June 30, entering this month with $17 million on hand to spend boosting Haley. Not bad for a candidate polling fifth nationally (3.4 percent) behind Trump (52.4 percent); Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (18.4 percent); wealthy biotechnology entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy (5.4 percent) and Pence (5.2 percent.) 

Though it’s not yet reflected in polling, Haley’s supporters say the super PAC’s fundraising haul is positioning the former Trump Cabinet official to stay in the race long enough to outlast rivals and become her former boss’s chief competition in the primary. DeSantis’ recent struggles have only bolstered their rosy projections.

“If history tells us anything, those of us who are supporting her should continue to support all the way through the early primaries,” says Mary Tolan, a longtime Republican donor in Chicago who backed former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in 2016 but contributed to Trump’s reelection bid in 2020. “Bush looked like he had all the money and the polls and the election tied up and that certainly did not turnout to be the case.”

“I talk to a lot of Republicans, by the way—I mean these polls are just flat wrong,” adds Tolan, a “six figure” donor to SFA Fund Inc. “I can’t find anyone who’s telling me that they want to support Trump again. And yet these polls are saying he’s, by far, the frontrunner. I don’t think these deep MAGA voters are 50 percent, or 46 percent or 42 percent of the Republican Party.”

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