It really is Donald Trump’s party now. Three years ago, traditional Republican donors kept Trump at arm’s distance, or in many cases further than that. Trump returned the favor by declaring his scorn for the GOP establishment and attacking the party’s former nominees for their opposition.
As it turned out, everyone could afford to do that when Hillary Clinton was the opponent. This time around, the New York Times reports, everyone’s playing nice — and playing it safe. Call it the triumph of pragmatism over consistency:
The tiered bundler system that Mr. Trump’s campaign has built — modeled after President George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign and complete with super PACs supporting it from the outside — is the most tangible example yet of Mr. Trump’s ceding to the reality of his second presidential race. This time, he is a candidate of the establishment, complete with bundlers who are lobbyists, even while he tries to run as if he is still the marauding outsider at the gates.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton and her super PACs raised a total of $1.2 billion. Mr. Trump raised about half of that, mostly from small donors. The fund-raising operation he now has in place, run by people he once attacked for attacking him, wants to make sure that kind of gap is a thing of the past.
“We’d be foolish as Republicans to say we could do that again and win,” said Todd Ricketts, the finance chairman for the Republican National Committee. “We have to be competitive in our fund-raising with whoever the Democratic nominee is going to be.”
And when we say all in, baby, we mean all in:
“I’ve seen heavy momentum from Bush, Romney and McCain people who are all circling up with the president because they want to be on board and have influence with the administration,” said George Seay, a Dallas investor who served as the Texas finance chairman for Rick Perry’s 2012 primary election race. “There’s a huge trove of people who want to be ambassadors, and they’re all going to belly up to the bar, so to speak.”
How could people who supported John McCain suddenly don MAGA hats? We could ask Lindsey Graham, who undoubtedly led the way. It’s a simple calculation, as both Ricketts and Seay make clear. Donald Trump is president, and the only alternative is a Democrat, in whose administration they would have as much influence as, say … Lindsey Graham. It’s not just about ambassadorships, either, but for policy influence and potential Cabinet and sub-Cabinet jobs. In a post-Mueller world, the Trump White House might regain a little cachet as a resumé reference.
This is the power of incumbency, a point the Times misses while still offering significant and interesting detail on the structure of the campaign fundraising operation, which features a very traditional architecture in conjunction with a very populist candidate. This Republican fusion between the establishment and populist wings for 2020 has essentially walled off any hope of a primary challenge to Trump. That potential declined with the RNC’s decision to merge with Trump’s 2020 campaign and drained away further with the collapse of the Russia-collusion hypothesis, but the stampede of Republican establishment donors has quashed any last flicker.
More subtly, though, the RNC gains from this exchange too. They get to use Trump to raise money for down-ticket races and to build actual infrastructure for GOTV and party expansion, tasks that didn’t get as much resources in 2016. They will need those resources to protect gains in places like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, and maybe especially Florida and Arizona. The populist handcuffs will come off, and it might make Republicans more formidable in House and Senate races in the next election.
The big message is that, at least for the next eighteen months, this is very much Donald Trump’s party. And now that Trump’s free of the Mueller probe and voters clearly want to move on, it may become unapologetically so in most corners of the GOP.