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CNN analysis: Trump megadonors sit on the sidelines in 2024 presidential race as the first GOP debate looms


By Fredreka Schouten and Alex Leeds Matthews, CNN

(CNN) — Dozens of the most generous donors to super PACs that supported Donald Trump’s reelection bid in the 2020 cycle have skipped giving to the new crop of super PACs backing the former president and his rivals for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, a CNN analysis shows.

Roughly three-quarters of the individuals who contributed $50,000 or more to the previous Trump super PACs have not donated so far to super PACs supporting any individual Republican candidates – underscoring how much the GOP presidential primary remains frozen in place. Some of the wealthy people who once supported Trump remain reluctant to back his third bid for White House as the former president confronts three criminal indictments. But they also haven’t committed to another GOP contender at this stage in the campaign.

“People like to give their money to winners,” said Eric Levine, a GOP fundraiser in New York who opposes Trump’s candidacy and views the large GOP field as too unwieldy. “There is a lot of concern that we have too many people in the non-Trump lane. We’d really like to see it narrow down.”

Of the 88 people who donated $50,000 or more to the two main super PACs that backed Trump’s reelection in the 2020 cycle, four of those donors – or people closely connected to them – donated to Trump’s super PAC, MAGA Inc., during the first six months of this year, according to CNN’s review of new filings with the Federal Election Commission.

They include New York Jets owner Robert Wood “Woody” Johnson, who was a top fundraiser for Trump’s earlier campaign and served as his ambassador to the United Kingdom. He donated $1 million to the Trump super PAC active in the 2024 election, Make America Great Again, Inc.

Among Trump’s rivals, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis attracted the most donations from the Trump big-donor world. Four gave to the DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down, the analysis found, including Republican megadonors Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein, who donated $1 million apiece.

Doug Leone, another larger donor to a Trump super PAC in the 2020 election cycle, contributed $2 million to Never Back Down.

At least one previous Trump super PAC donor – Arkansas-based investment banker Warren Stephens – is playing the field. He donated to four of Trump’s rivals: giving $1 million to a super PAC aligned with former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, $100,000 to one supporting former Vice President Mike Pence, $50,000 to a group aligned with former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and $25,000 to one backing former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.

Stephens, who initially opposed Trump’s candidacy in 2016, donated $3.5 million to two Trump-aligned super PACs in the 2020 cycle. He declined an interview through a company spokesperson.

The Uihleins also declined comment through a spokesman, and Leone did not respond to CNN’s inquiry.

And one of Trump’s former financial benefactors, banking heir Timothy Mellon, is supporting a Democrat: anti-vaccine activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr., giving $5 million to the pro-Kennedy super PAC American Values 2024, the recent filings show.

That donation accounts for roughly half of the money the super PAC raised during the first six months of this year.

Mellon did not respond to an inquiry from CNN, but in a statement released last week by the pro-Kennedy super PAC, he said: “The fact that Kennedy gets so much bipartisan support tells me two things: that he’s the one candidate who can unite the country and root out corruption and that he’s the one Democrat who can win in the general election.

When asked about donors remaining on the sidelines, Trump spokesman Steven Cheung said in an email: “President Trump is absolutely dominating in every single poll – both nationally and statewide – and his campaign is powered by a grassroots movement that is unmatched.”

“This campaign is about everyday Americans who are sick and tired of living in Joe Biden’s America, and want to return to a country with a booming economy, safe communities, a secure border, and respect on the world stage,” he wrote.

Debate looms

The analysis isolated donations of $50,000 or more to America First Action and Preserve America PAC, the super PACs that raised the most money in support of Trump’s failed reelection campaign in 2020. It then examined donations to super PACs aligned with the current field of GOP presidential contenders.

The reluctance of the monied class to rally behind Trump’s bid has been evident since he announced his candidacy last November. Several prominent Republicans donors – including billionaires Steve Schwarzman and Ronald Lauder – quickly announced their defections from the Trump camp.

In a move that has the potential to reshape the primary battle, the deep-pocketed political network affiliated with Kansas billionaire Charles Koch also has pledged to weigh in on the Republican primary to back a single alternative to Trump. The network has not yet made its choice known.

“Republicans donors are waiting to see how the race evolves and how the debates go,” said a Republican strategist who advises major GOP givers. “The world will look different at Halloween and at Thanksgiving and at New Year’s.”

The first big test for the field comes August 23 at the Republican National Committee’s first debate in Milwaukee, which requires candidates to meet polling thresholds and demonstrate they have collected money from at least 40,000 individual donors to participate.

It’s not clear whether Trump will join the debate. In an interview Wednesday with Newsmax, the former president said he would not sign a loyalty pledge required by the RNC to appear in the event but said he would announce his plans next week.

The second debate – set for September 27 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, with higher polling and fundraising thresholds – could further winnow participation.

To Levine, the New York fundraiser, the culling can’t come soon enough.

“I’ve gotten a lot of calls from candidates telling me they want to get on the debate stage,” he said. “I’ve told them, ‘I don’t want you on the debate stage because the field is too big.’ “

DeSantis super PAC leads

So far, the pro-DeSantis super PAC, Never Back Down, has the biggest pot of cash available – nearly $97 million as of the end of June, which it is deploying to run a campaign infrastructure on the Florida governor’s behalf.

Never Back Down’s largest benefactor, hotel magnate Robert Bigelow, contributed $20 million to the super PAC in March. But in a recent interview, he told Reuters he would not contribute further unless the super PAC attracts more donors and DeSantis moderates his positions, citing the governor signing into law a ban on abortions in Florida after six weeks.

Bigelow did not return telephone calls from CNN.

A separate donation – $50,000 from the Orlando Magic team – to the DeSantis super PAC has drawn criticism from the NBA players’ union because it came directly from the accounts of an NBA franchise.

The team is owned by members of the Michigan-based DeVos family, some of whom donated to the Trump super PACs in the runup to the 2020 campaign. One member of the family, Betsy DeVos, served as education secretary in the Trump administration.

But a DeVos spokesman told CNN last week that the family has not yet decided to back DeSantis or anyone else in the 2024 race.

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Article Topic Follows: CNN - US Politics

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