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GOP Financiers Still Looking for a Trump Alternative
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GOP Financiers Still Looking for a Trump Alternative

Plus: Party leaders are still talking up Glenn Youngkin while Team Trump talks up Ramaswamy.

Donald Trump Jr. and fiancee Kimberly Guilfoyle at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on August 23, 2023 after the first Republican presidential debate. (Photo by PEDRO UGARTE/AFP via Getty Images)

Happy Monday! Did the first debate shake up the Republican presidential primary race in any meaningful way? Fire away in the comments.

Up to Speed

  • Donald Trump’s presidential campaign told Politico it raised $7.1 million through Saturday following the former president’s brief stop Thursday evening in an Atlanta-area jail, where his mug shot was taken in connection with the Fulton County indictment over his alleged efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election there. His campaign said it raised more than $4 million on Friday alone.
  • Vivek Ramaswamy, who during last Wednesday’s Republican presidential debate seemed to be auditioning for the role of Donald Trump understudy, raised $625,000 in the 24-hours following the primetime event, his campaign tells The Dispatch. The wealthy biotechnology entrepreneur and novice candidate was a consensus winner of the debate, along with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, per polling and focus groups conducted immediately afterwards. The former president did not participate.
  • Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy signaled Sunday that the Republican conference could be proceeding soon with impeaching President Joe Biden. “If you look at all the information we have been able to gather so far, it is a natural step forward that you would have to go to an impeachment inquiry,” McCarthy said on Fox News. His remarks follow months of investigation by House Republicans into the business activities of Hunter Biden, which has raised some questions about President Biden’s knowledge of influence peddling.
  • Federal prosecutors are reportedly weighing bringing criminal charges against Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez in connection with an ongoing investigation into whether he and his wife received undisclosed gifts in exchange for political favors, the Wall Street Journal reports.
  • Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said during a Sunday press conference that he will cancel a scheduled campaign trip to South Carolina on Monday as he prepares for Tropical Storm Idalia in Florida. “We’re locked in on this, we’re going to get this job done,” DeSantis said.

No Clarity for GOP Donors After Debate

MILWAUKEE—The broader community of wealthy Republican donors is still sitting out the 2024 campaign, waiting for a consensus alternative to Donald Trump to emerge after the first GOP presidential debate in Milwaukee that did not appear to shake up a primary so far dominated by the former president.

“Donald Trump is still the 800-pound gorilla in the room,” a veteran Republican donor told The Dispatch during a breakfast interview in downtown Milwaukee, the morning after Wednesday evening’s debate. This contributor actually did sign on with a GOP contender awhile back. But as part of his regular conversations with other donors, both before and after the first presidential debate, he expected little change in the existing dynamic.

“We don’t have enough information to say: ‘There’s anybody that has the definitive chance of beating this guy.’ So, I think most people are going to still sit on their pocket books,” this Republican financier said. This individual’s evaluation of where his contributor colleagues stand was backed up in multiple interviews with senior GOP operatives who interact with the party’s well-heeled mega donors.

“Fun show but nothing changed the dynamic,” one said. Added another: “Still sitting on their wallets.” Added yet another: “My sense is that, no, nothing has changed in a meaningful way.”

Republican donors who write big checks are typically heavily involved in the presidential primary at this point, financing super PACs and bundling contributions for campaigns. But scarred by 2016, when their money boosted Trump by keeping his crowded field of opponents afloat, many wealthy GOP donors this time around are keeping their powder dry. They are looking for a candidate who appears the most viable against the former president, even if that contender is not their favorite.

To that end, the first Republican debate could prove over time to have marked a significant development in the primary, depending on how the race unfolds in the months ahead. 

Vivek Ramaswamy may be getting a wave of attention from his debate performance, but the wealthy biotech entrepreneur, who is largely self-funding his campaign, is unlikely to win favor from major donors with his populist, pseudo-Trumpian approach. But Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor, and Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, could win them over, and their debate performances left open that possibility.

Post-debate polls and focus groups suggest DeSantis boosted his standing among GOP primary voters. Data shows they were impressed with how the governor handled himself, liked what he had to say, and are more likely to consider supporting him now than they were beforehand. This has reassured DeSantis donors that he is a viable candidate worth their continued financial assistance, despite harboring some misgivings personally about the governor’s performance, Republican insiders backing his campaign say.

Haley might have turned the most heads. Although she is the sort of Republican wealthy donors are inclined to support, doubts about her ability to win the nomination have caused them to hold off. But the way the former ambassador acquitted herself Wednesday evening sparked a surge in interest in her campaign, as reflected by high ratings in post-debate polls and focus groups. Even supporters of Haley’s competitors acknowledge she had a strong showing.

“Many people say that she did well. I personally think she did very well. My wife thinks she did well,” said Pete Snyder, a former candidate for Virginia governor and GOP financier who backs DeSantis and was making telephone calls to donors Thursday on his behalf. “I wouldn’t be surprised at all in national polls, if she picked up 3, 5, 6 points. I think she did really, really well.”

“I just don’t know where she’s gonna go. Right?” Snyder was quick to add. “I just don’t know what she’s selling. Like what voters is she going for? And I don’t know where the path to the nomination is for her.”

Is Youngkin Waiting in the Wings?

Meanwhile, dissatisfaction with the 2024 field has left many Republican donors hoping for an eleventh-hour bid from Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin. 

For now, Youngkin is focused on this November’s off-year legislative elections in the Old Dominion and leading a takeover of the Democratic-controlled Virginia Senate. But the governor, who considered running for president and never definitively declared he would not, continues to generate interest from the donor community not sold on any of the Republicans that are running.

Indeed, Youngkin’s name came up repeatedly in private conversations last week in Milwaukee, say four individuals who attended the Republican National Committee’s summer meeting. During the gathering, held in conjunction with the debate, one unknown individual present for the RNC gathering created a personal Internet hotspot called “Glenn Youngkin Needs to Run.” 

“This is an opportunity for somebody like a Youngkin, who might be the fresh face coming off a big victory in November,” says Saul Anuzis, a former RNC member.* “From a timing perspective, it could be very interesting.”

Would Youngkin entertain a late entry into the Republican primary? When pressed with this question, his advisers are cagey. “Governor Youngkin is honored leaders across the country see what Virginia is doing as a model. There is more to be done in the Commonwealth, so all of the Governor’s time and energy is on our critical elections this November,” said Dave Rexrode, a senior adviser to Youngkin, in a statement provided to Dispatch Politics.

Virginia Republican Party Chairman Rich Anderson says it’s not completely out of the question, but he expects Youngkin to stay completely mum on the matter until after his state’s November 7 off-year elections.

“We’ll get through that and then people start thinking about the future,” Anderson says. “He’s not in New Hampshire or Iowa. So I take him at his word. And to be competitive, you gotta hit those places.”

Trump Surrogates Elevate Vivek Ramaswamy

MILWAUKEE—It didn’t take long for the Trump campaign to settle on a proxy debate winner in the former president’s absence—biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, the candidate who is nominally running against former President Donald Trump but who still praised him onstage Wednesday evening as the “best president of the 21st century.”

“Trump won on the stage, and I think that Vivek performed the best,” the former president’s eldest son Donald Trump Jr. told reporters Wednesday evening in Milwaukee. “DeSantis just needed a breakout moment, and I mean, it was pathetic.”

“Vivek did a good job. He landed a bunch of punches,” failed 2022 gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake of Arizona told The Dispatch at the Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport Thursday afternoon. “Ron DeSantis was the disappearing man. I mean, he just disappeared on that stage. He didn’t know how to handle himself. He almost went into, like, silent and couldn’t get any points across.”

The Trump campaign is making the clear calculation that between DeSantis and Ramaswamy, the two candidates who are trailing most closely behind the former president, first-time candidate Ramaswamy is far less of a threat to the nomination. 

“Of course the Trump surrogates are trying to prop up Vivek because they see Gov. DeSantis—wisely—as the primary obstacle to President Trump, who didn’t even bother to show up,” DeSantis surrogate and GOP Rep. Chip Roy told The Dispatch Wednesday evening in the spin room.

The subtext from the DeSantis camp here: Ramaswamy is little more than a stalking horse for Trump. That’s certainly how many reporters see it. In the 15-minute period that Dispatch Politics stood beside Don Jr. in the Milwaukee debate media room last Wednesday, three different reporters asked him if the Trump campaign views Ramaswamy as a potential vice presidential pick. 

“I don’t know,” Don Jr. told reporters, adding that he likes Ramaswamy’s “spirit” and entrepreneurial background. “I don’t know where he was in ‘20 or ‘18 or ‘16. So again, you can change your political views. You gotta sell that to the American people,” he added. “But on the stage tonight, he’s the only one that actually performed as far as I’m concerned.”

Notable and Quotable

“Well, I think a few things. One is, I think I’m much more likely to actually get elected, which is very important. I could serve two terms. He’d be a lame duck on Day 1 even if he could get elected. I have a track record of appointing really good people to office. I think he appointed a lot of duds to office, and it really hurt his ability to get his agenda done. I also think I’m more likely to follow through on doing what I said I would do. You look in Florida, everything I promised, I did. I never made a promise that I didn’t follow through on, and that’s just how I am. I am not going to sit there and tell you something that you want to hear to try to get your vote, and then get in and just forget that it ever happened.”

—Ron DeSantis responding to an Iowa caucusgoer’s question about why he should support him over Trump, reported in the New York Times on August 26

* Correction, August 28, 2023: This piece originally misspelled the surname of Saul Anuzis.

David M. Drucker is a senior writer at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was a senior correspondent for the Washington Examiner. When Drucker is not covering American politics for The Dispatch, he enjoys hanging out with his two boys and listening to his wife's excellent taste in music.

Audrey is a former reporter for The Dispatch.

Michael Warren is a senior editor at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was an on-air reporter at CNN and a senior writer at the Weekly Standard. When Mike is not reporting, writing, editing, and podcasting, he is probably spending time with his wife and three sons.