When Donald Trump landed in Ohio this week, he got a taste of the meager Republican super PAC efforts aimed at him: a 47-second Web video clipping together some of his most provocative comments and a small airplane trailing a banner proclaiming, “Ohioans Can’t Trust Trump.”
As the combative mogul enters his fifth month at the top of the GOP presidential field, attempts to derail him remain anemic, underfunded and unfocused — and they will probably stay that way until the Iowa caucuses in less than 10 weeks.
Most of the party’s financiers and top strategists are sitting on the sidelines. Many are reluctant to spend money against Trump after watching others fumble as they tried to handle his counterpunches. Others, citing past elections, remain confident that the race will eventually pivot away from him early next year.
The political network backed by the billionaire Koch brothers has no plans to take on Trump. American Crossroads, the super PAC co-founded by strategist Karl Rove, is steering clear and fixated on Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton instead. Right to Rise, the super PAC backing Jeb Bush, is not gearing up to attack Trump either. And major Republican donors, such as hedge-fund manager Paul Singer and the Ricketts family, have shown no interest in supporting the few organizations trying to undercut him.
“It is probably accurate to say there is very little money for these endeavors,” said Liz Mair, a Republican consultant who recently started an anti-Trump group called Trump Card. “Our group has donors and money, but it’s not like we have hundreds of people.”
Trump has reveled in the GOP’s hand-wringing over his candidacy and has taunted groups targeting him as a “disgrace.”
“I think people are surprised that, you know, they’re politicians and they’ve been doing this stuff all their lives. I haven’t. I’ve been a job producer,” Trump said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.” “I guess they can’t understand what’s happening.”
The absence of a big-money response to Trump is especially striking, given the mounting anxiety among GOP leaders about his lasting dominance in the race and his accumulation of incendiary statements. Some also are wary of trying to short-circuit him in a year when anger toward elites is boiling over.
“I don’t think there’s any group of establishment donors trying to take down a candidate, nor should there be,” said Fred Malek, finance chairman of the Republican Governors Association. “Who are we, the donor-fundraiser class, to dictate to the voters? The voters can figure this out.”
The fear of Trump bolting the party to run as an independent hovers, as well. Trump has repeatedly warned that if he is provoked and not treated “fairly,” he may reconsider his pledge to support whoever wins the Republican nomination.
The resistance to committing to all-out warfare has far-reaching consequences, leaving Trump poised to face only scattered challenges in the final weeks before the first contests in Iowa and New Hampshire. Several senior Republicans said this week that they expect Trump’s staying power to persist through the spring — possibly forcing the primary fight to spill into next summer’s convention.
It’s a starkly different scenario from four years ago, when a super PAC backing Mitt Romney plowed millions of dollars into TV ads hitting former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) as he began to ascend.
More than a dozen interviews with high-profile GOP financiers revealed a pervasive confidence that the party’s rank-and-file voters will ultimately reject Trump’s brand of politics.
“He is going to implode himself,” said Frank VanderSloot, the chief executive of an Idaho nutritional-supplement company who is backing Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.). He said he recently turned down a funding request from a group seeking to run anti-Trump ads.
“It’s just going to take a little time for people to take a step back and look at his track record, see who he is and how he’s changed his positions and how unprepared he is to be president of the United States,” VanderSloot said.
That view is shared by Andrew Sabin, a longtime New York donor supporting Bush.
“I’m not worried,” Sabin said. “The voters are not going to think out their candidate until a week or two before they go into the voting booth.”
Another reason wealthy donors are holding back: a widespread conclusion that it is futile to try to dislodge the New York billionaire, who has successfully parried nearly every attack.
“I’m not sure someone wouldn’t do better to take their money and throw it off a tall building,” said Henry Barbour, a Mississippi-based operative who is unaligned with any of the campaigns. “I think the voters who are for Trump are not going to move off from Trump.”
After conducting two focus groups of Trump supporters this fall, GOP consultant Frank Luntz said he has concluded that there is no political issue or stance that will turn off his supporters.
“They came to him because he is unlike any other politician,” Luntz said. “That allows him to do and say things others could not and get away with it.”
One party strategist privy to recent research on Trump voters said that none of the messages tested swayed them — including his past support for universal health care or fond words about Bill and Hillary Clinton.
“They’re incredibly angry, and he’s the first guy in their mind who speaks to that anger in a visceral way,” said the strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the findings. “They have a deep longing for that.”
Trump’s nontraditional campaign has left his opponents rattled. He has largely avoided paid ads and instead harnessed the enormous amount of free airtime he garners. He uses media coverage to drive an attack through multiple news cycles until it becomes a narrative, such as his constant swipes at Bush as “low energy.”
Some Republican campaign veterans are puzzled that no clear opposition to Trump has formed. The only significant effort was mounted by the conservative Club for Growth, which spent more than $1 million on ads in Iowa attacking the real estate tycoon. Trump remains on top there in the latest polls.
Stuart Stevens, who served as Romney’s chief strategist in 2012, said most donors and party officials have long expected the pro-Bush Right to Rise to take the lead in toppling Trump.
“I’m baffled by why Jeb Bush’s super PAC is sitting on what was $100 million when Trump represents everything Bush doesn’t seem to like,” Stevens said. “They should be going after Trump and defining him. It’s a classic opportunity for Bush to be seen as the dominating and strong alternative.”
Republicans familiar with Right to Rise’s view of the contest said the super PAC is willing to eventually make ads that contrast Bush with Trump, but at the moment is concentrating on consolidating Bush’s support among traditional Republicans, many of whom are split among Bush, Rubio, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Other Bush allies worry privately that any ad against Trump could help Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) rather than Bush. Most Bush associates would much rather have the race become a one-on-one bout vs. Trump, because they view Trump as an easier adversary.
The latest attempt to go after Trump is coming from New Day for America, a pro-Kasich super PAC that paid for this week’s Web video and airplane banner in Ohio. The organization began running a television ad in New Hampshire last week featuring a photo of Trump, President Obama and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who also is seeking the GOP nomination, that warns that “on-the-job training for president does not work.” It’s part of $2.5 million that the group said it plans to spend in the state to drive down Trump’s support.
“We had a lot of donors who, quite frankly, have been saying for a long time that someone has to stop Trump,” said Matt David, the super PAC’s chief strategist. “Between that and Governor Kasich’s willingness to stand up to Trump in the last debate, we felt best suited.”
Unlike other campaigns, David said his group is not going to approach Trump like a politician and highlight his changing positions over the years.
“We are going to treat him like what he is: a reality TV star,” he said. “This will be a very sustained effort, and it’s clearly gotten Trump’s attention.”
After the super PAC announced the anti-Trump campaign, the general counsel of the Trump Organization sent a letter to Kasich and the group’s strategists threatening to take legal action if the ads contained defamatory material.
Fred Davis, the GOP admaker crafting the super PAC’s spots, said the missive is an example of why more donors are not stepping forward to take on Trump. “I think the reason people are hesitant is that he’s a bully,” he said.
In a statement, Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks called Davis “a typical consultant who works for the highest bidder.”
“Unlike most of the weak and ineffective, all-talk, no-action politicians Fred is accustomed to dealing with, Mr. Trump will not tolerate unprovoked attacks comprised of falsehoods,” she said.
Radio host Rush Limbaugh poked fun this week at the muddled anti-Trump movement. “Many in the Republican Party are just beside themselves now,” he said on his syndicated show Tuesday. “They don’t know what to do. They’re still in denial that, ‘This isn’t real, that Trump’s going to be off and doing something else once the year turns and he’s bored and made his point. He’ll go back to TV.’ ”
He went on to mock the Kasich super PAC ad, saying, “They’re wasting their money, but it’s their money to waste.”