The War Among the Donald Trump Super PACs

6 minute read

Since the dawn of the super PAC era six years ago, thousands of these outside spending groups have been organized to play more or less the same role in political campaigns. They exist to entice donors to write large checks for the purpose of propping up their preferred candidate or trashing the opposition.

Great America PAC isn’t like most other super PACs.

Founded in February to support Donald Trump, the group has spent nearly as much time selling itself as singing Trump’s praises. “Great America PAC is the official Super PAC supporting the election of Donald Trump,” claimed one recent fundraising email. (Headline: “The Only Reputable Super PAC Backing Mr. Trump.”) Other missives have been devoted to bragging about the credentials of its co-chair, veteran GOP operative Ed Rollins.

It’s no mystery why Rollins and his partners want to tout their efforts. While Trump’s swaggering style has turned off plenty of GOP donors and operatives, another cohort of professional Republicans has been fighting to position their groups as the preferred vessel for pro-Trump cash—and put themselves in line for the personal riches that come with the job.

At least 15 super PACs have been established to support Trump, according to a list compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. Some have raised little or no money, but a handful of applicants are vying with Great America PAC to become the primary attack machine for a candidate who spent months pledging to self-fund his campaign and decrying the influence of big money in politics.

There’s the Committee for American Sovereignty, which has vowed to raise $20 million for Trump. A group called Patriots for Trump, as well as another called the Committee to Restore America’s Greatness, have each raised six figures in support of the billionaire businessman. The Trump brand has attracted niche players as well. Take Amish PAC, a group of Trump supporters with ties to Ben Carson and Newt Gingrich whose mission statement is to sell the pastoral sect on the virtues of the swaggering Manhattan developer.

Such competitions go with the territory in the GOP. The party of the free market has long been plagued by professional operatives who attach themselves to a hot property, promising to defend a cause or defeat a hated opponent, only to pocket their share of the proceeds with little to show for their efforts. Some of the pro-Trump PACs are already facing these complaints.

Great America PAC, which says it has spent more than $2 million on behalf of Trump so far, is a “fraud,” tweeted Roger Stone, one of Trump’s longtime advisers, who is locked in an old feud with Rollins. (Rollins, who is also a senior advisor at Teneo Strategy—a firm with close ties to Bill and Hillary Clinton—did not return a message seeking comment for this story.) Another of the group’s strategists, veteran GOP operative Jesse Benton, was recently found guilty of public corruption by federal jurors in Iowa in connection with a campaign finance scandal. Trump’s campaign has previously “disavowed this and all PACs” and said it had sent a cease-and-desist order to Great America PAC, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal.

All this has left Republican donors leery and confused. And the muddle can be traced to Trump’s unusual attitude toward the role of fundraising in his campaign. The billionaire who claimed to self-fund his primary effort—even as he raised millions from the sale of his signature red “Make America Great Again” hats—was a frequent critic of super PACs and the millionaires and billionaires who funded them. “Sheldon Adelson is looking to give big dollars to Rubio because he feels he can mold him into his perfect little puppet. I agree!” Trump tweeted last October of the GOP megadonor.

Trump’s senior campaign aides say fundraising will be a low priority as the candidate transitions into the general election. But as his party’s presumptive nominee, Trump is reversing course in some ways. He has signed a joint fundraising agreement with the Republican National Committee. And his first fundraisers last week raised more than $6 million for his campaign and GOP causes, according to sources familiar with the totals.

In a bid to cut through the confusion, Adelson is now trying to organize a group of his own. The casino magnate’s confidant Andy Abboud is leading the effort to draft a batch of senior Republican strategists to run a more professional pro-Trump super PAC, as Politico first reported. Among the operatives involved are former aides to Chris Christie, Mitch McConnell, Rand Paul and Tim Pawlenty, including former Republican Governors Association executive directors Nick Ayer and Phil Cox, former Rand Paul campaign manager Chip Englander, and former McConnell chief of staff Josh Holmes.

The super PAC would be designed to serve as a vehicle for Adelson’s spending in the 2016 election, which is expected to total more than $100 million. Other pro-Trump groups, says one Republican involved in the Adelson effort, are “peanuts compared to this.”

Republicans are hoping the group will quickly supplant its rivals. That would probably be a plus for Trump. Competition among super PACs can be a detriment to a political campaign. Just ask Trump’s vanquished challenger Ted Cruz, whose allies set up a quartet of interlocking big-money groups, boasting the unprecedented structure would attract mega-donors who sought greater control over the disbursement of their cash—only to watch in frustration as one sat on millions when Cruz needed it badly.

But while party operatives are fretting about the ragtag array groups swirling around Trump’s campaign, the man at the top is unconcerned. Trump is a believer in competition: witness the way he has pitted top campaign aides Corey Lewandowski and Paul Manafort against one another. More importantly, he has little faith in the primacy of big-money politics, in which ceaseless fundraising that yields saturation TV ads is seen as the key to burying one’s rivals. While Trump quickly broke and later reversed his promise to self-fund, he’s done little to seek the support of the party’s donor class. In Trump’s mind, his knack for winning media attention beats begging the rich for checks.

Meanwhile, there are no shortage of people eager to make the ask on his behalf.

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