LAS VEGAS — Dispirited over a Republican Party primary that has devolved into an ugly, damaging fight, some of the GOP’s biggest financiers are reevaluating whether to invest in the 2016 presidential contest at all.
Among those on the sidelines: Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino mogul who hosted the Republican Jewish Coalition’s spring meeting at his Venetian hotel this weekend. His apparent ambivalence about 2016 was shared by many RJC members here. With grave doubts about the viability of the few remaining Republican contenders, many of these Republican donors have decided to sit out the rest of the primary entirely. And while some are reluctantly getting behind a remaining candidate, others are shifting their attention to congressional contests.
On Friday morning, during a meeting of the group’s board, Arthur Finkelstein, an iconic Republican strategist who has advised numerous politicians over the past four decades, presented polling data that showed Donald Trump sitting at historically low approval numbers among American Jews, according to three attendees who described the off-the-record meeting. Ted Cruz, despite an aggressive recent push to court Jews, fared little better.
Following the nearly 30-minute presentation, the group turned to a discussion about what’s next in the race. While some in the room spoke in favor of Cruz, others expressed reservations about his prospects in the general election. Trump, meanwhile, had little support: Not one person volunteered to raise money for him if he were the nominee.
Over the course of the weekend, some of the party’s disappointed and most sought-after contributors said they may be done with the 2016 race. Mel Sembler, a Florida real estate executive and former U.S. ambassador, said that after helping to bankroll Jeb Bush’s campaign, he had turned his attention to defeating a local medical-marijuana initiative.
“That’s my focus for the rest of this year,” he said.
Easily the biggest holdout, though, is Adelson. Despite spending more than $100 million on the 2012 campaign — some of it on former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s unsuccessful primary effort that year — the 82-year-old mogul has yet to pick a favorite 2016 candidate. His advisers say that he will not endorse anyone until the Republican nomination is decided, at the earliest.
Adelson, an unpredictable and enigmatic figure who is the 22nd richest person in the world, has offered few hints about how he’ll try to influence the campaign. While the RJC spring meeting is traditionally a celebration of Adelson, with politicians of all stripes venturing to the Venetian to pay homage, this year’s was different.
On Thursday evening, Adelson hosted some of the organization’s top officials at his palatial mansion. While former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper discussed how fractured parties can unite, Adelson listened but said little, according to three people who were present. And on Friday, rather than preside over the deliberations, Adelson and his wife, Miriam, departed for a wedding.
The lack of interest is partly rooted in exhaustion. After watching many of the party’s establishment prospects — from Scott Walker to Marco Rubio — go up in flames, many top donors say they’ve simply grown tired of opening their wallets. Some here have given to multiple candidates, only to watch them suffer defeat.
“Burnout’s real. People spent a lot of time and energy traveling on their own nickel, asking friends for money from different candidates. There’s only so many times you can go back to the well,” said Jay Zeidman, a Texas executive who has thrown his support to Cruz after initially backing Jeb Bush.
For some who’ve watched their favored hopeful go down, the idea of getting behind someone else is almost unthinkable.
“It’s tough. Jeb was such a good candidate,” said Ronald Krongold, a Florida real estate investor and Bush friend and golfing partner who for years shared office space with him. “He was such the guy that should have been president that the people who backed him are still confused. When you compare him to anyone else, if you’re a Jeb guy, you’ve seen things you thought were really great about him, and I don’t know that any of the other candidates had all the things he had going for him.”
Krongold, who has yet to endorse another contender following Bush’s departure, added: “I’m a little disappointed as to how the race has evolved.”
As the volatile primary rumbles toward a conclusion, some of the most prominent GOP donors are turning their attention toward races for House, Senate and governor. While in Las Vegas last week, Ron Weiser, a former Republican National Committee finance chair, ferried around Eric Greitens, an Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran who is running for Missouri governor. Greitens was among the small group that joined Adelson at his home Thursday evening.
Weiser, who cut a check to Marco Rubio, said he was uncommitted in the GOP primary.
The conference was jampacked with down-ballot contenders eager to make inroads with deep-pocketed contributors. Florida Rep. Carlos Curbelo, one of the most imperiled House Republicans, attended a Shabbat dinner along with Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, who is facing a challenging reelection contest. Jon Keyser, an attorney running for Senate in Colorado, was the subject of much interest among those at the Venetian.
After helping Rubio, former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman, an RJC board member, said he’d turned his attention to leading American Action Network, an outside group that spends in congressional races. With Trump as the possible nominee, Coleman said there are growing worries that he could imperil the party’s hold on the House and Senate.
“We’ve been getting a lot more folks coming to us,” he said. “One of the realities of a Trump candidacy is it puts the House in play, as it does a number of Senate seats.”
Cruz, though, is undeterred. Not so coincidentally, the Texas senator held a donor retreat over the weekend at the Venetian, giving him easy access to the RJC members roaming the hallways, and supportive super PACs did the same. Cruz was the only presidential candidate to address the group, and he has locked down the support of some influential RJC board members. In a Saturday speech, he warned against focusing singularly on down-ballot races as he urged the room to get off the sidelines and behind his campaign.
“If the top of the ticket is getting blown out of the water by 10 points, we’re losing the Senate, and there’s not a thing that can be done to stop it.”
On Friday night, Cruz courted over a dozen RJC members at Acqua Knox, a dimly lit seafood restaurant just off the casino floor. He schmoozed with attendees including Texas businessman Fred Zeidman and California venture capitalist Yitz Applbaum, both former Bush supporters, and former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer. Among the topics discussed, according to one person briefed on the informal get-together: how the ongoing delegate fight will play out.
For all the consternation about Trump — in December, he delivered a speech before the group in Washington, D.C., that was widely panned — top RJC organizers were interested in hearing from him. In recent weeks, the RJC’s executive director, Matt Brooks, waged an unsuccessful behind-the-scenes effort to get the New York businessman to attend the Las Vegas gathering. Brooks contacted two of Trump’s top aides, Corey Lewandowski and Michael Glassner, to see whether Trump would be interested in speaking to the group, according to one person briefed on the outreach.
Just days before the start, the RJC got word back: Trump wouldn’t be coming.
Bobby Schostak, a former Michigan Republican Party chairman and major GOP donor who is uncommitted, acknowledged the deep concerns about the state of the race. But, he stressed, even those now on the sidelines would eventually get behind the nominee — no matter who it is.
“I don’t have a preferred candidate right now,” said Schostak, who supported Bush. “But I will work to make certain that everyone I know, that I can have an impact on, votes Republican rather than sit out, and votes Republican over Hillary or Bernie.”
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