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Fast Money

The War Between the Republican Billionaires and the Base

The biggest tension in the GOP primary isn’t between Trump and DeSantis.

Christopher Dilts/Getty Images
Citadel Advisors CEO Kenneth Griffin was all in on Ron DeSantis last year. But as the GOP primary has kicked off, he’s become a lot less bullish on the Florida governor.

There is perhaps no greater schism in the current Republican Party than the divide between the attitudes of its voters and the preferences of its billionaire donors. The base has shown no signs of moving on from Trump, and Republican elected officials—wary of upsetting that base—have spent recent months lining up behind the former president. But the mega-funders seem to have a different mind on the matter: Republican billionaires have all but abandoned the man who once slashed taxes on their corporations by 14 percent.

Even as the billionaires have deserted Trump, they have struggled to coalesce behind any single alternative candidate willing to challenge him in the Republican primary contest. And as the pre-primary period has increasingly indicated that Trump is recovering his advantages, there are fewer and fewer promising messages for Republican campaigns eager to court the deep pockets that have historically padded GOP war chests.

Consider the example of hedge fund billionaire and Republican megadonor Kenneth Griffin. In 2022, Griffin—who was then the wealthiest man in Florida—helped bankroll the gubernatorial reelection campaign of Ron DeSantis. Only days after DeSantis was reelected to the governor’s mansion, Griffin appeared onstage at a Bloomberg conference in Singapore, where he made statements more typical of a campaign press aide than of a billionaire, saying that Governor DeSantis “won by a landslide because of the merits of his leadership; the state of Florida has delivered for its citizens.” Griffin added that the Florida governor “is going to run [for the White House] on a record of just unbelievable accomplishment.”

But DeSantis’s recent accomplishments—signing a six-week abortion ban, instigating a legal war with the Walt Disney corporation, downplaying the Russo-Ukrainian war as a “territorial dispute”—have spooked donors like Griffin. While previously a visible DeSantis cheerleader, Griffin has since fallen silent. Only days before the 2022 midterms, Griffin told Politico that “our country would be well-served by [DeSantis] as president,” but the billionaire’s only headline-making donation of 2023 came when he gave Harvard University $300 million to name one of its graduate schools after him.

In late April, The New York Times cited anonymous sources close to Griffin suggesting that the billionaire had cooled on DeSantis. The Times’ story appeared only days after a piece in the Financial Times in which GOP billionaire Thomas Petterffy said he was putting his donations to DeSantis “on hold”—and that he and his friends (presumably, other Republican billionaires) are “holding our powder dry.”

It surely didn’t help that April was a visibly disastrous month for Ron DeSantis. He snapped on a reporter in Jerusalem when asked about his time at Guantánamo Bay. He short-circuited when asked about his dropping poll numbers—and these were just his self-inflicted wounds. During the same month, Marco Rubio bashed DeSantis over his state’s gas crisis. The Trump campaign fine-tuned its attacks, accusing the Florida governor of “playing public relations games instead of actually doing the hard work needed to improve the lives of the people he represents.” DeSantis closed out the month in Israel, where he was photographed talking at GOP megadonor Miriam Adelson while she read from the dinner menu.

Adelson has reportedly told the Republican primary candidates that she will not support any of them during the primaries. She is one of a number of former Trump donors who have distanced themselves from the former president. Tech mogul Peter Thiel has sounded a similar refrain—he too won’t be putting money into the race during the primary. Others are more clear: anybody but Trump. Tech tycoon Larry Ellison—who hosted a lavish fundraiser for Trump’s 2020 reelection effort—has since pumped tens of millions into a super PAC aligned with Tim Scott. Oil tycoon Harold Hamm—who gave at least half a million to Trump’s reelection campaign—is now financially supporting Nikki Haley.

Haley’s attempt to solidify the patronage of billionaires is an effort years in the making. As early as 2019, a nonprofit associated with her political ambitions courted donors like Miriam Adelson and billionaire Paul Singer. Because nonprofits do not have to disclose the identities of their donors, they have become an increasingly popular pipeline between ambitious politicians and billionaire funders. When, in 2022, the donor list for Haley’s associated nonprofit, Stand for America, appeared in Politico, Nikki Haley said it was leaked in an attempt to “intimidate conservative donors.”

And as the Republican midterm field has crowded with candidates, Haley has tried to position herself as the moderate alternative to Trump. But like the rest of the field, Haley is caught in the Republican primary paradox: The billionaire donors whose support she needs to defeat Trump want a moderate who can win in the general election, but the Republican primary base wants—well, more Trump. This has led to some odd contortions: In an April memo to donors, Haley’s campaign simultaneously attacked Trump for being indicted and attacked the Manhattan district attorney for indicting him. In an attempt to court headlines, the memo (which was leaked to Axios) took a broadside shot at Trump, asserting that “Trump’s candidacy is more consumed by the grievances of the past and the promise of more drama in the future, rather than a forward-looking vision for the American people.”

In that memo, Haley’s campaign claimed she raised $11 million during her first quarter of the race, but it later surfaced that Haley’s team inflated their figures. The actual number was closer to $8 million. In the same quarter, Trump’s team brought in over $14 million—almost entirely in small-dollar donations.

The former president was the headliner for April’s gathering of Republican donors in Nashville, Tennessee, but a number of speakers—including Mike Pence, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, and New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu—lobbed thinly veiled criticism at their party’s overlord. During a breakfast speech, Kemp reportedly whined to donors, “We have to be able to win a general election.” But as the Republican primary field has fallen before Trump, the billionaire donors haven’t yet settled on a candidate who might win a general election from the top of the ticket.

On the other side of the aisle, no such hesitation exists. Days after Joe Biden announced his reelection campaign, he spoke to a crowd of top donors at Washington’s posh Salamander hotel. One fundraiser who attended the event told The New Republic that “four years ago, the people in that room were with one of the [other Democratic candidates] … now we’re all together, and we’re united, and it’s great to be able to start out at this point.”

Despite the fact that Biden has occasionally targeted billionaires, he can count on their support as he goes into the race. According to a Forbes analysis, roughly one-quarter of America’s billionaires financially supported Joe Biden against Donald Trump in 2020. During that election, Biden’s campaign became the first presidential campaign in history to raise $1 billion. And though he doesn’t typically seem to enjoy high-dollar fundraising, Biden is well aware of the role deep-pocketed donors play in a campaign. At the recent Salamander hotel event, he told donors, “You raised more money for me last time than I raised in my whole life. You think I’m kidding? I’m not.”

As campaign season kicks off, those donors will be expected to pony up again. Only this time, without a primary fight to wage, Biden’s war chest can go entirely to funding efforts against the eventual Republican nominee. Because of the attitudes of the Republican base—and to the displeasure of its billionaires—the eventual nominee is almost certain to look and sound a lot like Donald Trump.

When asked in late 2022 how much he might spend to get DeSantis into the White House, Kenneth Griffin demurred, saying, “You can’t buy a political seat. You can buy a voice for politicians to run with.” But what use is a politician’s voice if primary voters don’t care to hear it?