Some four dozen Republican donors were on a fundraising conference call on 5 February with Liz Cheney, the congresswoman and only Republican House leader to vote for Donald Trump’s impeachment for his role in the mob attack on the Capitol on 6 January.
Many of the donors on the Cheney call are expected to donate the maximum amount of $5,800 to her 2022 re-election campaign before the end of the first quarter of this year, to ward off a primary challenge to her which Trump loyalists like congressman Matt Gaetz are encouraging, said Michael Epstein, a leading Maryland Republican donor.
“We want to show a really big cycle for her to scare off competition,” Epstein said in an interview. “We want people who make judgments based on what’s right.”
The number of donors on the call reflects in part a growing movement among Republican fundraisers to try to fight off threats from the Trump-supporting majority, which has maintained its hold on the Republican base, despite Trump’s loss to Joe Biden in the 2020 election.
Though still a minority in Republican political circles, Trump’s critics – and the moneyed donors who are backing them – are scrambling fast on multiple fronts to try to prise control of the party away from those loyally toeing the Trump line.
Nikki Haley, the ex-Trump UN ambassador who is eyeing a presidential run in 2024, is hosting Zoom fundraisers on 3 and 4 March for her Pac, and is expected to draw dozens of big Republican donors attracted to her criticism of Trump during the Senate trial, when Haley told Politico she was “disgusted” and “angry” at Trump’s role in the 6 January riot.
Haley’s fundraising Pac, dubbed Stand for America, is expected to support Cheney and others who voted to impeach Trump – plus other candidates who voted against impeachment – say fundraisers with ties to her.
A more aggressive effort to try to take on Trump and his allies and move the Republican party away from their influence, is also being mounted by a new Pac called Country First, which was unveiled in late January by the Illinois congressman Adam Kinzinger, one of just 10 Republican House members who voted to impeach Trump
Kinzinger, who has been censured by his local party for backing Trump’s impeachment, was outspoken after the Senate failed to convict Trump.
Trump “encouraged an angry mob of his supporters to storm the United States Capitol to stop the counting of the electoral votes”, Kinzinger has said. But he stressed that “We have a lot of work to do to restore the Republican party,” and to reverse “personality politics”.
However, campaign finance experts caution that the fight to reduce Trump’s fundraising influence will be tough in a party that he maintains a powerful grip on, and the ex-president has signaled that he will be involved in 2022 races with an eye to ousting his critics.
In a statement berating Mitch McConnell – the Republican Senate minority leader who voted to acquit Trump but later delivered a blistering criticism of his actions – Trump warned ominously: “I will back primary rivals who espouse Making America Great Again and our policy of America First. We want brilliant, strong, thoughtful and compassionate leadership.”
Before leaving office, Trump raised tens of millions for a new Pac, called Save America, which is expected to spend generously in 2022 to keep his political ambitions alive and exact retribution against those who voted to impeach and convict him. Save America had over $30m in its coffers at the start of 2021, and Trump raked in tens of millions more via three other committees he controls, according to public filings.
“It will be difficult for Kinzinger and others who voted to impeach or convict Trump to keep up money-wise,” said Sheila Krumholz, who runs the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics. “As of most recent filings, Trump had $105m in the bank. He also has the biggest list of loyal supporters in politics he can tap for donations whenever he needs money.”
Analysts and Republican donors expect that Trump’s ego and money will prompt big battles against Cheney, as well as the other outspoken members who voted to impeach Trump, such as Kinzinger.
Republican operatives say that another possible Trump target could be Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who was one of only seven Republican senators to vote to convict Trump and is the only one of them up for re-election in 2022.
Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor who gave Trump a key endorsement in 2016, is considered to be a possible primary challenger against Murkowski.
But some Republican sources say that McConnell could help scuttle a primary challenge to Murkowski: McConnell has indicated he will be active in backing candidates that are best for the party’s future and, after voting to acquit Trump, he unequivocally stated Trump was “practically and morally responsible” for the Capitol riot.
Some Republican operatives are trying to persuade the party that Trump, despite his continuing high approval ratings of almost 80% with Republican voters, is a serious liability for the party’s future with the broader electorate.
“The GOP must focus on nominating candidates that can win in the fall of ’22 and stop the Trump litmus test,” said veteran operative Scott Reed.
Other operatives note that the National Republican Congressional Committee, the House’s Republican campaign arm, seems on track to back Cheney and others who voted to impeach Trump.
“The NRCC is going to try to help Cheney and I suspect they will be for others who voted for impeachment,” said Charlie Black, a longtime GOP operative.
Still, Krumholz warns that in the near term pledging fealty to Trump is likely to be a magnet for Republican candidates to raise funds. “The way to rake in campaign cash as a GOP candidate, especially from small donors, is to put yourself out there as a Trump loyalist,” Krumholz said.