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As Trump takes the lead, rich GOP donors have no one to give to

Rick Newman
Senior Columnist

Here’s another head-spinning scenario Donald Trump has conjured: If he turns out to be the Republican nominee for president, rich GOP donors may not be able to find a presidential candidate willing to accept their money. Or one they even want to back.

Trump, of course, is mostly self-funding his campaign, with a bit of help from small donors who have contributed about $8 million to his effort. While accepting donations subject to the $5,400 maximum, Trump has consistently blasted the “super PACs” that can accept unlimited amounts from wealthy donors. So it seems unlikely he’d change his mind and start his own super PAC. Trump has also touted the virtues of self-funding, saying repeatedly that he’s not beholden to any donor or interest group—a core tenet that seems to be a big part of his popularity.

With several convincing wins on Super Tuesday, Trump now appears to be the prohibitive favorite to win the Republican nomination for president. And if he’s the nominee, what will top donors such as hedge funders Robert Mercer (a big giver to Ted Cruz), Paul Singer (Rubio) and Ken Griffin (Rubio) do with their money? Here are five possibilities:

1. Fund an anti-Hillary Clinton super PAC. Super PACs can spend their money either advocating for a favored candidate or campaigning against a rival. While Trump has said he doesn’t want a super PAC aligned with his campaign, he’d probably be happy to have GOP money stacked behind outside-spending groups devoted solely to attacking the Democratic nominee, who will most likely be Hillary Clinton. “Big donors can still fund super PACs pointing out the negatives with Hillary,” says GOP strategist Boris Epshteyn. “The party’s going to need a lot of money.”

There are already plenty of anti-Democrat super PACs that could be harnessed to attack Clinton, such as Karl Rove’s American Crossroads and Club for Growth Action, affiliated with Charles and David Koch. Most super PAC funding so far has gone to groups aligned with individual candidates—often to fund attacks on fellow Republicans in a hard-fought primary. But in 2012, that type of spending eventually coalesced around the nominee, when Mitt Romney’s super PAC, Restore our Future, raised an impressive $154 million. That was $37 million more than the No. 2 group, American Crossroads, which backed several GOP candidates.

Trump is different, given that he has bashed super PACs and big donors trying to buy influence all along. It would certainly be awkward for him to benefit from anti-Clinton super PACs he shuns in principle. But Trump also finds ways to change his positions while deflecting criticism for flip-flopping. So there still might be a big-dollar super PAC backing the Republican nominee and trashing his Democratic opponent in the home stretch next fall.

2. Give more to Congressional candidates. The House is a lock to remain in Republican hands after the elections, but the Senate is up for grabs, with more vulnerable Republicans running for reelection than Democrats. Republican Senators such as Mark Kirk of Illinois, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Rob Portman of Ohio will need all the help they can get, including a tailwind from million-dollar donors. With Trump doing his own thing in the presidential race, GOP kingmakers might feel their money is better spent helping keep the Senate in GOP hands, especially if the next president is a Democrat.

 3. Fund a conservative third-party candidate. Politico reports that a few GOP donors are researching whether a late-entry third-party candidate would be viable. It's conceivable, but still a long shot. First, the candidate would face urgent deadlines for getting on the ballot in all 50 states. And second, any candidate who took votes away from Trump would raise the odds of a Democratic victory, perhaps decisively. 

4. Support Hillary Clinton. It might sound crazy, but some moderate, pragmatic donors who lean Republican could choose to throw their weight behind Clinton, on the assumption she’s more likely to win and they want to be on the right side come next January. Some of Bush’s prior donors might be most likely to side with Clinton, since they tend to be more moderate than those supporting Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio. Certain Wall Street donors might even be tight with Clinton from her years as a New York senator (and 15-year resident of the state), and her role with the New York-based Clinton Foundation.

Clinton would welcome any Republican money she could get. Though her own super PAC, Priorities USA, is fairly well funded, with $51 million raised in 2015, that sum was still less than half the $119 million Bush’s super PAC raised. And toe-to-toe, there are more Republican donors willing to write a $1 million check than Democratic ones.

5. Sit on their cash. Several big Republican donors, most notably casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, have spent nothing so far, even though they had donated millions at a similar point in the 2012 Republican primaries. One lesson of that campaign was that Republican money used to attack fellow Republicans in the primaries can end up funding ads or opposition research the Democrats will exploit come the general election in the fall. Adelson is supposedly waiting for a single nominee to emerge, but once that happens, it’s possible he will object to that candidate on policy or ideological grounds, and keep his money to himself—especially since he’s said to favor Rubio. If Trump ends up being the only choice, Adelson will be one of many wondering what to do with his money.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Liberty for All: A Manifesto for Reclaiming Financial and Political Freedom. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.