Trump, even in exile, is the Republican Party’s cash cow
There is a major ingredient behind the Republican Party’s re-embrace of the president after Jan. 6: Cold. Hard. Cash.
In the days immediately following the Jan. 6 riots, the Republican National Committee went dark.
Its fundraising email account did not send a single message as the prospect sank in that the president it had long trumpeted — Donald Trump — was a pariah for inciting the rioters who ransacked the Capitol.
Six days later, the emails resumed, but with notable caution. A Jan. 12 message from RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel conceded something Trump refused to: “I know the Presidential Election did not turn out the way we wanted,” it read.
If the committee’s intent was to leave the impression that it was moving on from Trump, it was short-lived. Ten days later, the RNC sent another fundraising email, titled “Thank you, President Trump.” Over the subsequent days, the account sent 15 emails decrying Trump’s impeachment for instigating those riots. From there, the embrace only tightened. All told, since resuming its email fundraising, the RNC account has sent 97 emails mentioning Trump, according to a Politico review — touting everything from his potential rallies, to his social media ventures, to his upcoming birthday. The messages add up to roughly 40 percent of all the email fundraising traffic from their campaigns account.
The RNC’s fundraising emails are just one of several data points that affirm the continued force of Trump’s gravitational pull over the entirety of the party.
Fundraisers and operatives, some of whom are no fans of the former president, said GOP institutions have become increasingly reliant on Trump to help generate enthusiasm at the grassroots level, even after he left office and as he continues to question the legitimacy of the 2020 election. And though Trump’s refusal to concede he lost a fair election has contributed to a splintering in the party, his capacity to drive online donations has all but determined how the main party committees come down on that split.
Money, after all, is king.
“There was this pregnant pause around the impeachment and Jan. 6 riot, that was 'Trump was toxic and Trump doesn’t want us to use his name.' But we’ve now reverted back to the past five years, where Trump is the biggest name in Republican politics. He’s the best name at bringing in money and we need to lean into that,” said GOP fundraiser Dan Eberhart.
“[The party] has abandoned this idea of a post-Trump world,” he said.
The RNC emails were not all about raising money. Some of them were about increasing engagement. And while Trump features prominently in them, he notably has not been listed as a signatory on any of them (though occasionally an email has been addressed from a non-individual, like “Trump Rally Tracker”). Instead, the committee has experimented with a number of different lawmakers at different moments.
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) was listed as the sender on two emails around the time he delivered the rebuttal to President Joe Biden’s address to a joint session of Congress, while Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) has signed seven emails around the promotion of his new book. But even on those occasions, Trump looms. In March, the RNC sent out an email under Florida Republican Sen. Rick Scott’s name advertising the chance to meet — not with Scott, but with Trump.
A Republican official noted that the RNC’s efforts to send emails from people not named Donald Trump have been successful overall. But sources close to the RNC say the party also recognizes the power the former president has when it comes to bringing in small dollar donors, and that it has no plans to distance themselves from him as the former president and de facto leader of the party.
“The party raises money in different ways,” said one top Republican fundraiser. “When you’re talking about different email, Facebook, small donors, building up that loyalty at the small-dollar level, President Trump is so much more potent and powerful than all the other names of the party combined — including Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan.”
The fundraiser went on to argue that the major GOP donor class was still skeptical of Trump. But others say that, too, is becoming less clear. Another top Republican fundraiser, who declined to speak on the record, said angst over Biden’s early tenure had persuaded some of the party’s money men to rethink Trump.
“Those donors who were wary of Trump have been coming up saying they’re not happy with current leadership,” said the Florida-based fundraiser. “He feels reenergized by that and the enthusiasm he’s getting. Could have gone either way.”
For a very brief period of time, it wasn’t clear that the relationship between the party’s institutions and Trump would survive. At the end of February, Trump called on conservatives to financially back his leadership political action committee, Save America, instead of the GOP entities. Days later, he sent a “cease and desist” letter to the RNC demanding that they not use his “name, image, and/or likeness in all fundraising, persuasion, and/or issue speech.”
Even without his usual social media platforms to give him a fundraising boost like Twitter or Facebook, Trump continues to rake in money for his leadership PAC. A Trump adviser said Save America PAC currently has over $90 million. But his rift with the RNC was quickly resolved after party officials worked to smooth things over — and for the most part disregarded Trump’s demands. Trump remains in regular contact with McDaniel.
“The Republican Party has a long history of incorporating former presidents in our fundraising efforts, and we are happy to tout President Trump’s accomplishments and all he did to fight for the American people,” said RNC spokesperson Emma Vaughn.
Since then, the committee has been active and creative in trying to fundraise off the Trump brand.
On Feb. 21, the RNC launched a “Trump Legacy Membership” — an effectively meaningless designation designed to lure in supporters of the 45th president. On Feb. 23, it asked recipients to put together a surprise “‘Thank You’ Card for Trump.” On Feb. 28, it hyped Trump’s speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference.
On March 10, it began advertising a chance to meet Trump at the spring retreat in Mar-a-Lago. On March 23, it touted Trump’s potential new social media platform.
On April 8, it asked recipients to join Trump’s call to boycott Major League Baseball over moving the All-Star Game from Georgia over the state’s new voter restriction law. On May 4, it began hyping potential Trump rallies. That same day, it began promoting Trump’s birthday, though it lands on June 14. And on May 16, it no longer was treating the rallies as speculative. “President Trump’s Rallies Are Back,” read an email subject line. None have been announced so far.
It’s not just the email fundraising, either. The RNC as well as the Republican Party’s two congressional campaign committees have all devoted major chunks of their Facebook advertising budgets to Trump as well.
From the beginning of April through the first weeks of May, the RNC, NRSC and NRCC spent more than $220,000 on Facebook ads mentioning the former president, according to data pulled by Bully Pulpit Interactive, a progressive advertising firm. For the House GOP campaign arm, Trump-related Facebook ads have been roughly 75 percent of their expenditures on that platform. For Senate Republicans, Trump content composed roughly 60 percent. And while the RNC initially spent little on Trump-related Facebook ads, roughly 80 percent of its spending on Facebook during the first two weeks of May went toward ads featuring Trump.
Notably, Bully Pulpit’s data showed Democrats heading in the opposite direction. The DNC hasn’t put any money behind ads that mention Trump on Facebook during this period, the firm said. And while the DSCC and DCCC spent a total of over $140,000 on Trump-related Facebook content in this time period, the percentages of their budget tied to these ads have steadily decreased. Still, beyond Facebook, the Trump name continues to be used in DNC email blasts as well.
Collectively, the data has left Trump-skeptical Republicans concerned that the party is effectively squashing any type of ascension from other national figures; that the indelible impression is being left in the minds of supporters that the former president is the party’s choice to be their next presidential nominee, even as the RNC insists it will be neutral. That concern has been bolstered by the fact that Trump has remained the star attraction of major fundraising events, often held in the gilded ballrooms of his own Mar-a-Lago club but soon to be held at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J. (Make America Great Again Action, a super PAC led by Corey Lewandowski, will hold its first fundraiser with Trump next weekend at the club.)
“After Bush lost in ‘93 you didn’t see a lot of Republicans heading up to Kennebunkport,” said GOP strategist and former RNC spokesperson Doug Heye. “But we’re in a different world now.”
In a joint statement, McDaniel; Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, the NRSC chair; and Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota, chair of the NRCC, said the committees are “grateful for President Trump’s support, both past and future. Through his powerful agenda, we were able to break fundraising records and elect Republicans up and down the ballot. Together, we look forward to working with President Trump to retake our Congressional majorities and deliver results for the American people.”
Heye said that “privately,” Republicans on the Hill say Trump is bad for their long-term prospects, but that they feel the need to “keep him on their side to help take back the House.” And here too, it is cash that is affecting thinking.
When House Republicans voted to oust Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) from her leadership position last week, it was portrayed as anger over her refusal to simply stay quiet about Trump’s lies about the election. In reality, Heye said, it was because her anti-Trump posture had “cut off her ability to raise money.”
“One of the main responsibilities of the conference chair and party leadership in general,” Heye said. “The media hasn’t portrayed it like this. They have her on this anti-Trump crusade, but not being able to raise money against Trump loyalists signed her death warrant.”