Establishment Republican donors reckoning with Trump’s staying power

The Republicans JI spoke to this week were divided on the question of supporting Trump if he becomes the nominee again

As former President Donald Trump dominates the Republican primary field, leading GOP donors and Trump skeptics are, however reluctantly, beginning to reckon with a new reality: that Trump seems increasingly likely to win the nomination in 2024.

“The sense that I get is there’s pretty much a resignation he’s going to be the nominee,” Joel Geiderman, a physician in West Hollywood, Calif., who sits on the board of the Republican Jewish Coalition, acknowledged in an interview with Jewish Insider on Thursday.

“Based upon my circle of friends and my informal survey,” said Jon Tucker, a GOP activist in Pittsburgh, “there’s just a fervent hope and prayer that, somehow, Trump will get out of the way and allow other candidates to get back in.”

“Right now, I don’t see anybody else getting traction,” concluded a prominent Republican donor in Chicago, who expects that Trump will win the nomination. “It makes me feel that people like me, the ‘before Trump’ Republicans, don’t have a home,” he sighed.

Even as the nearly dozen Republican donors interviewed by JI declined to back the former president in the primary, they were divided on the question of supporting Trump if he becomes the nominee again. 

“There’s no one I see the Democrats putting up that means I would not support Trump being the nominee,” one top Republican donor explained, noting that he appreciated Trump’s policies, if not his personal conduct, as president. “Obviously, he has issues with respect to his, you know, temperament and pettiness, which I think helped cause him to lose.”

Still, the donor was otherwise cautiously optimistic that another candidate may ultimately come forward ahead of the primaries who can “implement” Trump’s agenda “without the noise or baggage,” he said. “Who that person is, man or woman, remains unclear,” the donor told JI. “Trump is definitely doing a good job to lock it all up now.”

In recent weeks, Trump has landed a growing number of congressional endorsements, while building momentum over Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who is widely expected to launch his presidential campaign in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, Nikki Haley, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who entered the race in February, has struggled to break out as Trump’s support has surged following the indictment last month from a Manhattan grand jury.

Bernard Hasten, a longtime confidante of former Vice President Mike Pence — who is now weighing a White House bid of his own — said he would not vote for Trump in the primary if there are other Republican candidates on the ballot. But, he added, “If Donald Trump is the Republican nominee for president and the Democratic nominee is Joe Biden, I’d pick Donald Trump hands down.”

He emphasized, however, that he would not donate to Trump’s campaign. “Is he my first choice in any way shape or form?” Hasten said. “No.”

“If there’s some wonderful Democrat who comes out of the woodwork” and is “middle-of-the road and somewhat reasonable,” Hasten told JI, “that could change my view in the general election.”

Alan Sager, a board member of the Republican Jewish Coalition who lives in Austin, Texas, said he knows some GOP activists who have claimed they “will hold their nose” and pull the lever for Trump in the general. “But nobody that I talk to [says] that ‘I’m going to vote for Biden if Trump is nominated,” he said in an interview on Thursday. “They realize that ultimately they’ve got a binary choice.”

For his part, Sager was alone among Republican donors who spoke with JI in suggesting that he would consider voting for Trump in the primary. “I’m WWS: we will see,” he said. “Obviously, if he’s nominated, I will support him,” Sager added, emphasizing that he approved of the former president’s policies. “It’s all the other stuff around him that’s a problem.”

To a handful of donors, however, “the other stuff” remains largely disqualifying, they said in conversations with JI this week. “I can say pretty definitively that I would not support him,” said the Republican donor from Chicago who believes Trump will win the nomination. “His personal behavior got so far outside any realm of acceptability for me that I cannot support him.”

He said he “will be donating to almost any other Republican” in the GOP contest. If Trump wins, he said he would leave his ballot blank or support a third-party candidate in the general election.

Trump’s “personal flaws don’t befit a person who’s running for president of the United States,” said Geiderman, the West Hollywood physician, who has written publicly about why he is unable to vote for Trump. Even as he looked favorably upon the former president’s accomplishments in the Middle East, he said in a recent opinion piece for the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, “no past accomplishment can make up for Trump’s moral unraveling, and he must be held to account.”

“As far as the Jewish community goes, there are people who feel, especially around what a great friend he was for Israel, a loyalty to him,” said a Republican pro-Israel donor in Columbus, Ohio, who does not share that sentiment.

Still, his “sense” is there are “a lot of people in Republican Jewish politics” who “want to win with a more traditional” candidate, he said, rather than a nominee like Trump who has advocated for an isolationist approach to foreign policy — most prominently his willingness to cut off aid to Ukraine as it defends itself from Russia’s invasion. 

The donor said he is hosting a small fundraiser in Columbus next month for Haley, a pro-Israel stalwart who has expressed support for continued U.S. military assistance to Ukraine. “Even if she didn’t have a chance, and I think she does, I think she deserves our support and appreciation and thanks,” he explained.

Tucker, the Republican in Pittsburgh who is involved in pro-Israel activism, said he is enthusiastic about Haley as well as Tim Scott, the GOP senator from South Carolina who recently launched a presidential exploratory committee. He said that he would “be on the sidelines” if Trump secures the party’s nomination. Tucker, an orthopedic surgeon who is close with Dr. Mehmet Oz, invoked a medical term to describe his approach to the presidential race. “Active neglect, we used to call it in surgery,” he quipped.

Eric Levine, a prominent GOP fundraiser who sits on the board of the Republican Jewish Coalition, is also leaning toward Haley and Scott, he said. Trump, he argued, “is the one Republican who could not win” in a general election matchup with Biden. “Therefore, I don’t think we should stop trying to find somebody else to nominate.”

If Trump is the nominee, however, he said he would focus his attention on winning back the Senate — a loss he attributes to the former president’s conduct during the 2020 election. “Donald Trump gave us wokeism,” Levine, who is hosting a major fundraiser for the Senate Republicans’ campaign arm in Manhattan next month, charged in a recent interview with JI. “Donald Trump gave us the progressives. Donald Trump gave us Joe Biden. His losing the Senate intentionally gave the country to the progressives. And then, of course, Jan. 6 speaks for itself.”

While Levine voted for Trump in 2020, he said, “I would never vote for him again.”

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