Trump ‘ends up hurting’ Republicans, says head of conservative group

Florida governor Ron DeSantis has a better chance of winning the White House than former president Donald Trump, who hurts Republicans when he is on the ballot, according to the head of a leading US conservative group.

The Club for Growth, a Republican super political action committee which has given $130mn to Republican candidates in the past two election cycles and supported Trump in the 2020 election, is one of several conservative groups that has turned its back on the former president. The donor network led by billionaire industrialist Charles Koch last week said it opposed Trump’s re-election bid.

David McIntosh, president of the Club for Growth, said DeSantis “would be a very good nominee” based on his overwhelming re-election as governor in November — a contrast to the poor performance of most of the Trump-endorsed candidates in the midterm election.

“Republicans saw him [DeSantis] win decisively and felt that Trump had been a hindrance for Republicans winning, either with bad candidates, but even more, I think, the realisation that when he’s either on the ballot himself or an issue in the campaign, that it brings out the Democrat base, and that ends up hurting you,” McIntosh told the Financial Times.

Trump is so far the only Republican to announce his intention to contest the 2024 election. But his low-key early rallies and persistent legal headaches have cast doubt of the former president’s viability as a contender.

“It’s not like we’re just averse to Trump,” said McIntosh. “It’s: let’s find the candidate who can have the best shot of winning.”

As more GOP contenders prepare to enter the 2024 presidential field, leading Republican donors and groups are treading a careful line, typifying a lingering hesitancy among Republicans to turn their backs entirely on the former president.

A few big Republican donors, such as Stephen Schwarzman, Ken Griffin, and the Koch network, have all announced they will not be supporting Trump in the Republican primary. But others are taking a wait-and-see-approach, worried that the ex-president could still win the nomination, either because of a crowded field, or because of enduring support for Trump among Republican primary voters who tend to be more conservative than Republican voters as a whole.

While Club for Growth campaigned against Trump in the 2016 race, McIntosh and Trump mended their relationship and worked together in the 2018 midterm and 2020 presidential election campaigns. They fell out again during the 2022 midterms, when the Club and Trump supported rival candidates in some of the key primaries.

Trump lashed out at the Club this week after it left him off the guest list for its annual donor retreat while inviting the other expected Republican 2024 candidates.

The Club has released internal polling showing Trump trailing DeSantis in a head-to-head match up. However, DeSantis’s lead evaporates in a multi-candidate field, the polling shows, with other potential GOP candidates, such as Mike Pence and Nikki Haley, eating into DeSantis’s lead.

In a head-to-head match up between Trump and DeSantis, the former president has a double-digit lead over DeSantis among very conservative voters.

While Club for Growth is traditionally more influential in deciding primaries and races for Congress, McIntosh said the group’s support has proven influential in some early contests. Its support of Ted Cruz in 2016 is believed to have helped propel the Texas senator to victory in the Iowa Caucus.

The decision to abandon Trump is fraught with complications for the group, given many of its biggest donors are prominent backers of the former president and have not yet publicly endorsed another candidate.

According to a Financial Times analysis of Federal Election Commission records, at least one-quarter of Club donors backed Trump during his 2020 re-election bid.

Midwestern shipping supplies magnate Richard Uihlein and his wife Elizabeth, the club’s biggest donors, gave more than $4mn to two Pacs supporting Trump’s 2020 presidential bid. Private equity billionaire John W Childs, another top-five donor, donated $975,000 to Trump’s re-election campaign together with his late wife. David Frecka, who built a Kentucky packaging film company, has written seven figure cheques to both Trump and the Club. None of the three has publicly said whether they will back Trump again in 2024.

At the same time, an FT analysis found that several of the club’s largest donors had given large sums to Ron DeSantis in the run-up to his 2022 gubernatorial race, primarily through his PACs, Ready for Ron and Friends of Ron DeSantis. Their contributions together totalled at least $13mn.

McIntosh noted that Club for Growth had faced ire from some of its members when it endorsed Ted Cruz over Trump in 2016 and was wary of that experience as it looked ahead to 2024.

“It’s one of the reasons why the board will be really careful about what we do. We built a coalition of people for the Senate and House races,” he said, adding that the group did not want to alienate any of its existing donors with its final endorsement. Many of them are still deciding on 2024, he added.

“I’m sure you could find certain individuals who say I’m only for Trump, or I’m already for DeSantis. But as a whole, they’re kind of waiting.”

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