Finley: GOP donors tuck away their checkbooks

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

Cleveland — Typically at this point in a presidential campaign cycle, David Nicholson and his family are running out of ink in their pens from writing so many checks to support the Republican nominee.

The Nicholsons, owners of Detroit-based PVS Chemicals Inc., have been among the GOP’s most reliable donors in presidential contests. Father James B. Nicholson is also a top-tier Republican fundraiser.

But this year, the pens are staying in their pockets. Why?

“Donald Trump,” says David Nicholson, who is in Cleveland as an alternate delegate for Ohio Gov. John Kasich. “We will not be donating to the Donald Trump campaign.”

With Trump as their nominee, GOP fundraisers face unique challenges in trying to find enough money to mount a credible campaign against the incredibly well-funded Democrat Hillary Clinton.

For one thing, while the Republican rank and file rejected the party’s establishment in selecting Trump as their candidate, it is those deep-pocketed elitists whose dollars pay for the campaign structure and advertising. And because of their distaste for Trump, many of the richest — led famously by the biggest GOP sugar daddies of them all, the Koch Brothers — are sitting out the presidential contest.

“The Trump dynamic does change things,” says Ronna Romney McDaniel, chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party. “Some traditional donors are just not going to come in.”

Further handicapping the effort is that the Trump campaign is not raising money itself, relying entirely on the Republican National Committee to fill its coffers. Normally, both the campaign and the national party do fundraising.

Former RNC Chairman Ron Weiser of Ann Arbor, who raised tens of millions of dollars for 2012 nominee Mitt Romney, is one of four regional chairs of the Trump Victory Fund tapped by the RNC to find a way around the obstacles presented by its candidate.

“The biggest difference this time is that the candidate is not raising money,” Weiser says. “So the RNC has to do it. We started with nothing a little over a month ago — no structure, no team. But it’s starting to come around.”

Weiser says his message to reluctant donors is simple: “It’s not Trump vs. the GOP. It’s Trump vs. Hillary. Hillary’s our best weapon. Whether or not they support Trump, they certainly are not for Hillary Clinton.”

And if they still resist, Weiser asks them instead to write a check to the RNC Victory Fund, a portion of which does go to the Trump campaign but is mostly financing the infrastructure to support House and Senate candidates and the get-out-the-vote apparatus.

That doesn’t work for Nicholson. He blames the RNC for the lack of discipline that led to a 17-person GOP presidential primary field and gave rise to Trump. The family is refusing even to help bankroll the national convention, which came into Cleveland $6 million in the hole.

“We traditionally support the convention,” Nicholson says. “But what the party did this time around just didn’t work.”

So instead the family is writing checks to state House candidates in an effort to hold the Republican majority in Lansing. Overall, though, the Nicholsons will not be spending as much this year on politics as they normally would during a presidential season.

John Rakolta Jr., chairman of the Detroit-based Walbridge construction company, was slow to warm to Trump — he backed Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio — but is now helping raise money for the candidate, even though his close friend and extended family member, Mitt Romney, is a leader of the Never Trump movement.

“I’m not going to give up and go home,” Rakolta says. “I want to see the Republican Party stay strong. It has the best message for the country. This goes beyond electing a president. If we’re going to be competitive with Democrats, we have to keep the infrastructure strong.”

He is not shying away from touting the virtues of a Trump presidency to potential donors.

“I’m not doing this holding my nose,” Rakolta says. “He offers the best choice for keeping our country secure and for creating jobs. We’re not cooking on all burners in this country.” And Hillary Clinton, he believes, will keep America on the same failed course.

As much as Weiser, Rakolta and other GOP fundraisers try to stress the binary choice of Trump vs. Clinton, Nicholson is still not comfortable picking one or the other.

“You’re going to see a lot of apathy this election,” he predicts. “A lot of people won’t be writing checks to anybody.”