MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — As Donald Trump moves closer to the Republican presidential nomination, the billionaire real estate developer faces a looming question: Will he reverse his pledge to self-fund and seek donations for a general-election campaign that could cost as much as $1 billion?
Trump offered conflicting answers this week, first suggesting in a debate Thursday night that he had not yet decided whether to pursue outside contributions, only to backtrack Friday, when he said he was referring to money for the national party.
His campaign has already quietly begun planning how to underwrite the cost of a national campaign if he becomes the Republican nominee, holding talks with longtime party fundraiser Ray Washburne about playing a supporting role at the Republican National Committee, according to people familiar with the conversations. Encouraging donors to give to the party, which finances a national get-out-the-vote operation, could be a way for the New York businessman to raise funds to benefit his bid without soliciting donations directly for his campaign.
While some wealthy contributors remain deeply opposed to his candidacy, a significant share of heavyweight players are willing to financially support Trump if he emerges as the nominee to avoid ceding the White House to the Democrats, according to more than a dozen well-connected party financiers.
“If Trump is the nominee, I think there would be a sufficient appetite to end the last eight years of the leftward direction and overregulated economy that the majority of donors will support him,” said Fred Malek, who leads major-donor fundraising efforts for the Republican Governors Association.
Malek said he personally prefers Ohio Gov. John Kasich or Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, adding that he has been dismayed by disparaging comments that Trump has made on the campaign trail. But he’s still willing to back him over the contenders for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders.
“Trump is not my choice,” he said. “But if he is the nominee, I will support him.”
If Trump were to actively solicit contributions, he would reverse a central tenet of his outsider bid, turning for support to a donor class he regularly derides as a corrupting influence. “They make large contributions to politicians, and they have total control over those politicians,” he said at Thursday’s CNN debate.
But Trump also appears to be trying to smooth the path toward broader acceptance. He spoke of “love” and unity at the debate, and when retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson endorsed him Friday, he noted that Trump has “cerebral” side in private.
Trump’s newly restrained tone will help make him “very acceptable” to top donors, said former House speaker Newt Gingrich, adding, “The thought of Hillary Clinton picking the next Supreme Court justices will bring almost everybody back in.”
While some traditional givers may balk, plenty of new contributors would fill the void, said Henry Barbour, a Mississippi-based Republican strategist supporting Rubio.
“Donald Trump would have some struggles with some of our regular major donors,” Barbour said. “But look, there are plenty of people with money who have never given to a Republican nominee before who would be interested in writing $1,000 or $2,700 checks to a Donald Trump candidacy.”
He noted that Trump could adopt Sanders’s successful fundraising model and tap the grass roots for money. “There have got to be tens and tens of thousands of $27 donations just waiting for him to ask for them,” Barbour said.
While Trump repeatedly says he is self-funding his campaign, he has already collected $7.5 million in contributions through the end of January. His website features “Donate” buttons that go to a page that asks for contributions up to $2,700, the maximum legal limit allowed for individuals. But unless he were to reverse himself and actively encourage supporters to give him money, he would have to spend a substantial share of his personal fortune on a general-election campaign.
“I have not made that decision,” Trump said during Thursday’s debate when asked whether he would take outside contributions in a general election. “My decision was that I would go through the entire primary season, and I have turned down probably $275 million worth. I have many, many friends that come up all day long — $5 million, $10 million — I’m turning down money. I feel sort of foolish, to be honest with you.”
But Trump quickly clarified himself at a news conference Friday morning, saying he was not violating his oft-repeated pledge to self-fund his campaign.
“I don’t think so — because I wouldn’t be taking money,” he said in Palm Beach. “If anything, the party would be taking money. I’m not going to take any money. . . . It’s something I haven’t given much thought to.”
The thorny question of how to handle Trump loomed over a two-day gathering of RNC donors here in Miami Beach this week. As they swapped predictions of a contested convention and analyzed delegate counts at the Ritz Carlton’s poolside lounge, top party givers expressed sharply divergent views about where they would put their money.
Sipping an iced coffee, Boca Raton investor Marc Goldman, who supported Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and is now backing Rubio, said he would be willing to move to Trump in the end.
“I think he brings successful business experience, which our government — that has been so unaccountable for any results — has been sorely lacking,” he said.
Goldman noted that he is a member at the Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach, a facility he described as “immaculate.”
“There are long-term employees who do an excellent job, and when you see people staying year after year, that speaks highly of their organization and management,” he said.
Others were less receptive. “We hate Trump,” one donor said flatly, declining to give his name early Friday morning as he left the RNC’s post-debate party, where a band was blasting reggae tunes as guests mingled over Cuban sandwiches and a fajita bar.
“I will worry about that if I ever have to, and I’m not going to have to,” said Virginia developer Bob Pence, a top Rubio fundraiser, as he headed into a luncheon Friday with former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld. “But I think that there are number of a very large donors who would not give Donald Trump money.”
Larry Kawa, a Boca Raton-based orthodontist who helped raise $500,000 for GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney in 2012, said if the party chooses Trump, “I will pull the lever for him with a sweaty palm.”
But Kawa said he would stop short of raising any money for the mogul. “If someone says they are going to self-fund their campaign, don’t then turn around and ask me to,” he said.
Such attitudes could redirect contributions to the party’s congressional committees and allied super PACs in the fall, as contributors seek to insulate the GOP-led Congress from Democratic attacks tying congressional Republicans to Trump.
“If Trump is the nominee, it is my expectation that many donors will focus on the down-ticket races in the Senate and the House, rather than the presidential,” said Bobbie Kilberg, a major GOP fundraiser in Virginia who is supporting Rubio.
The RNC has already banked substantial resources for the fall, raising $114 million through January compared with the Democratic National Committee’s $69.6 million. And Trump is promising to do more to help the party.
“I must tell you it’s very, very important, as a Republican, that our senators and that our congressmen get reelected, that we put a good group of people together, that we keep the people that are there,” Trump said at a news conference Tuesday in Jupiter, Fla. “We have some terrific people, not all of them are on my side, but we have some terrific people. And it’s very, very important — if we’re going to be effective — it’s very, very important.”
Jose A. DelReal in Jupiter, Fla., Jenna Johnson in West Palm Beach, Fla., and Sean Sullivan in Palm Beach, Fla., contributed to this report.