Trump faces a fractured party, legal troubles and financial headwinds after securing GOP nomination



CNN
 — 

Twelve hours after Donald Trump predicted his near sweep of Super Tuesday states would lead to unity “very quickly” in the Republican Party, the former president delivered a parting shot to his last remaining rival for the GOP nomination. On his social media site Truth Social, he called some of Nikki Haley’s supporters “radical left Democrats” and dismissed her Vermont victory the day before as less than legitimate.

“I hope she stays in the ‘race’ and fights it out until the end!” he added.

But by then, the former South Carolina governor was no longer in the race. A minute prior, Haley had suspended her presidential campaign, making Trump the presumptive Republican nominee on his way to a rematch with President Joe Biden.

As he emerges victorious from the Republican primary race, Trump faces considerable challenges both inside and outside the political arena. He is fighting to delay four criminal trials until after the November election, a battle that is headed to the US Supreme Court next month. Mounting legal bills and more than half a billion dollars in judgments against him have threatened his personal and campaign finances.

But chief among his priorities as a candidate over the next eight months will be rallying disenchanted Republicans around his third White House bid. Trump’s team is keenly aware of how polarizing their candidate is, and that every vote will count in what is expected to be a highly competitive general election rematch. Wednesday’s inauspicious start to Trump’s outreach efforts is reflective of the longstanding concerns about his temperament and style that inspired many Republicans to support Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and other candidates over the former president.

Haley in her concession speech withheld an endorsement and instead encouraged Trump to “earn the vote” of those who supported her.

“This is now his time for choosing,” Haley said.

In cruising to his party’s nomination, Trump left little doubt that he remains the dominant figure in the GOP. Keeping to a remarkably light campaign schedule throughout much of 2023, Trump vanquished with relative ease a field that included his former vice president (Mike Pence), his first ambassador to the United Nations (Haley), a one-time protégé (DeSantis), a top congressional ally (Tim Scott) and the man who spearheaded his first presidential transition team (Chris Christie), among others. The historically swift primary race delivered an outcome that appeared inevitable since Trump seized control of the lead last summer.

With the outcome all-but certain, Trump largely pivoted to the general election weeks ago. Mentions of Haley at rallies and on social media have grown increasingly rare as he instead focused on Biden and the issues he intends to build his campaign around, namely immigration. On Wednesday, Trump challenged Biden to debate “ANYTIME, ANYWHERE, ANYPLACE.”

Meanwhile, sewing up the nomination by early March gives Trump access to the Republican National Committee’s voluminous data on its voters far sooner than his 2016 campaign, as well as its fundraising infrastructure and ground operation. These resources are critical to Trump’s campaign as they make plans to build out their teams in key battleground states like Michigan, Georgia, Arizona and Pennsylvania in the coming weeks and months.

The full support of the RNC – which after this week is likely to include leaders Trump selected, including his daughter-in-law Lara Trump as co-chair – also ensures that Republican parties in each state will begin working immediately toward the goal of electing Trump.

The RNC helped pay Trump’s legal fees after he left office but stopped when Trump announced his candidacy in 2022. While Trump’s legal expenses have amassed, the former president’s senior advisers insist they do not plan to tap into the committee’s coffers to help cover Trump’s mounting legal bills.

Meanwhile, some deep-pocketed donors who have been wary of having their names linked to Trump, could be more willing to write a check to the RNC, a former RNC official told CNN.

Even as Trump looked ahead to a November rematch with Biden, GOP nominating contests continued to demonstrate that Republican support for him is not nearly as ubiquitous as his dominating record would suggest. From Iowa and New Hampshire through Super Tuesday, Haley especially exposed persistent divisions in the party and headwinds for Trump recapturing moderate support.

In North Carolina – a key battleground Trump twice narrowly won that President Joe Biden is targeting – 85% of Haley’s voters don’t believe Trump is mentally fit to serve, according to CNN exit polls. Meanwhile, nearly three in 10 of all primary voters said Trump wouldn’t be fit for the presidency if he is convicted of a crime.

And in Virginia, where Trump hopes to mount a competitive challenge, three-quarters of Haley’s supporters aren’t committed to voting for Trump in November.

One of those voters, Doug Moran, who referred to himself as “a recovering Republican,” said he was “a diehard Republican until Trump took over the party.” After voting for Haley on Tuesday, he said he would “hold my nose and vote for Biden” in a potential rematch of the 2020 election.

“I have moral objections to, moral and political objections, to the way Donald Trump ran his campaign and served in office. Some of the choices he’s made I think are just wrong for our country,” Moran said.

In recent conversations with more than a dozen Haley voters in primary states, many of them shared similar struggles and voiced uncertainty – or outright refusal – to back Trump should he become the GOP nominee.

“My conscience won’t allow me to vote for a criminal,” Jack Wolber, a Republican from Nashua, New Hampshire, told CNN shortly after voting in the state’s January primary.

Biden extended an olive branch to Haley’s supporters shortly after she suspended her campaign, saying in a statement, “there is a place for them in my campaign.”

“Donald Trump made it clear he doesn’t want Nikki Haley’s supporters,” the statement said.

Still, there were other signs of the GOP coalescing around Trump. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a notable holdout and consistent critic of the former president, endorsed Trump shortly after Haley dropped out, a move that Sen. Lindsey Graham called “good for the party.”

Trump’s eagerness to move on from the primary in recent weeks is driven in part by internal recognition of the uphill climb he faces in convincing these Republicans, according to conversations with several advisers. His team watched Haley perform well with suburban voters on Super Tuesday and acknowledge the work they have ahead courting moderate and independent voters.

“Nothing is a sure thing this time around,” one senior Trump adviser told CNN.

They are in the process of identifying areas of weakness for the former president and hope to draw from some of the recent primary data to help shape their strategy ahead of November. Part of that focus will include peeling off voters from traditional Democratic strongholds. In recent months, Trump has made appealing to union households a key part of his strategy for winning over working-class voters, especially in the battleground states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania—courting the Teamsters union, visiting a nonunion shop outside Detroit during the autoworker strike and railing against Biden’s electric vehicle push.

This week, a Trump-aligned super PAC, MAGA, Inc, launched a three-week radio ad campaign targeting Black voters in Georgia, Pennsylvania and Michigan. Trump’s campaign also sees an opening with Jewish American voters turned off by Biden’s approach to Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza, a senior adviser told CNN.

Just as they did in the Iowa caucuses, Trump’s campaign is also identifying potential first-time voters, advisers previously told CNN, an acknowledgement that some moderate voters and former Republicans can’t be won over.

However, these largely remain broad goals and specific plans have yet to reveal themselves.

Some longtime Republican donors also need convincing. North Carolina Republican donor Art Pope, who had been a major supporter of Haley’s presidential ambitions, said Wednesday he’s likely to focus on competitive contests for Congress and positions in his home state in the short-term, but he did not rule out backing Trump’s campaign.

“I have never been a Never Trumper,” said Pope, who oversees the Variety Wholesalers discount chain. But he said his financial support would depend on the former President’s vice-presidential choice and the “tone of his campaign” moving forward.

“It really depends on him reaching out to traditional conservatives and respecting our positions on the issues,” Pope said.

Similarly, Texas businessman Roy Bailey, a one-time Trump backer who shifted support this cycle to DeSantis, said he will “see what the entire landscape looks” before deciding whether to fundraise for the former president once more.

With Trump’s team deeply concerned about his finances, the former president spent last weekend hosting potential donors at Mar-a-Lago. He also met recently with Elon Musk, though the billionaire wrote on his social media platform X on Wednesday that he’s “not donating money to either candidate for US President.”

Trump’s courtship of these donors come as his campaign is confronting the financial reality of having to pay for the former president’s enormous legal expenses while simultaneously building out a general election campaign strong enough to take on an incumbent president.

Additionally, Trump’s political operation is trailing the Biden campaign significantly in the money game, entering February with roughly $30 million in cash reserves compared to nearly $56 million in Biden’s equivalent account.

The Democratic National Committee has similarly trounced the Republican National Committee in fundraising.

Still, some of Trump’s backers believe Haley’s departure and his quick pivot to the general election gives the former president a much earlier starting point to change minds than he had in his first campaign eight years ago.

“I expect this will be another 2016 moment where these disparate folks (who had backed other contenders) come together to support Trump,” said a Republican strategist who is close to a key outside organization in the GOP orbit.

“Now, you’ve got eight months to make the case,” the person said of Trump clinching the nomination this week. “That’s something you can’t buy.”

CNN’s Kaitlan Collins, Ebony Davis, Morgan Rimmer and Kevin Liptak contributed to this story.


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