Updated Aug 19, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Big GOP donors push for Trump alternative

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin speaks to a crowd in front of a blue background.

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin speaks at the grand opening of Amazon's HQ2 in Arlington, Va., in June. Photo: Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Several top GOP donors, panicked about their current choices, are holding back 2024 money with the long-shot dream of luring an alternative to former President Trump into the presidential race at the last minute.

  • Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp are getting secret overtures from establishment Republicans — and haven't ruled out running, top sources tell Axios.

Why it matters: This (probably futile) quest for anyone-but-Trump is an indictment of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — who was seen as Trump's top challenger but is struggling for traction ahead of Wednesday's first GOP debate.

What we're hearing: Youngkin, if he announces, wants to wait until after what he hopes will be big GOP wins in November's legislative races in Virginia.

  • The former private-equity executive, elected governor in 2021, initially ruled out a run for the White House. But Axios reported in May that he was reconsidering.
  • Billionaire Ronald Lauder is among the GOP donors who are considering backing Youngkin if the governor gets into the race, a source who has spoken with Lauder told Axios. A spokesperson for Lauder declined to comment.
  • Another billionaire, Thomas Peterffy, was in DeSantis' camp in the spring but since has given $2 million to Youngkin's Spirit of Virginia PAC, NBC News reported.

Other major Republican donors quietly have expressed interest in Youngkin, disdain for the quadruply indicted Trump and/or lukewarm feelings toward the current GOP alternatives.

  • The New York Times reported in June that Rupert Murdoch, the media mogul atop Fox News and the New York Post, privately said he wants Youngkin to enter the race.
  • Murdoch hasn't publicly embraced Youngkin, but the governor has become a frequent guest on Fox News this summer. Last week the Post published a glowing profile of him by conservative columnist Miranda Devine.

Zoom in: Kemp is less likely to jump in, and is eyeing a U.S. Senate seat, Republican sources say.

  • Even so, John Bolton — Trump's former national security adviser who has become a fierce critic — met privately with Kemp earlier this month and encouraged him to enter the race, a GOP source said.
  • Kemp could be a particularly hard sell to a GOP base that backs Trump, though. The Georgia governor has rejected Trump's claims of voting fraud in that state's 2020 elections.

Zoom out: Some GOP donors who are frustrated by Trump's strength tell Axios they believe it's too late for another candidate to enter the race, with the primary season less than five months away.

  • Wednesday's debate will be a measuring stick of whether DeSantis has any hope of recovering from his sluggish start — or whether another candidate will emerge from the pack, two donor advisers told Axios.
  • The political network created by conservative industrialists Charles and David Koch has raised $70 million, The New York Times reported in June — and has indicated it wants to use some of that to block Trump from the GOP nomination, if a realistic choice emerges.

What they're saying: "People are desperate. They are concerned with what could happen if Trump wins the primaries and they want a viable alternative," one Republican source said.

  • A second Republican source warned, however, that while the Republican donor community and the Republican elite is excited by Youngkin, the GOP base is in a different place.
  • "The base likes Trump," that source said.

Dave Rexrode, chairman of Youngkin's Spirit of Virginia PAC, told Axios: "Virginia's getting attention because Governor Youngkin's common-sense conservative leadership is working. There's more to do, so the governor's not taking his eye off Virginia; these (legislative) races are too important."

Reality check: A party's base typically decides presidential nominees — and in today's GOP there's little indication the base is hungry for someone besides Trump, despite his baggage.

  • Youngkin has made retaining GOP control of Virginia's House and taking over the state Senate a top priority — and if that effort fails this November, it could chill any presidential plans he might have.
  • If Youngkin waited until November to announce a presidential campaign, he wouldn't be able to compete in the Nevada caucus and the South Carolina primary — two early contests — because the filing deadlines are Oct. 15 and Oct. 31, respectively.
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