'Window-shopping' GOP elites weigh Trump -- and the alternatives -- at high-profile Vegas gathering

By Fredreka Schouten, Gabby Orr and Steve Contorno, CNNUpdated: Sat, 19 Nov 2022 11:00:51 GMTSource: CNNFormer President Donald Trump is set to address the influential Republican Jewish Coalition on S

By Fredreka Schouten, Gabby Orr and Steve Contorno, CNN

Updated: Sat, 19 Nov 2022 11:00:51 GMT

Source: CNN

Former President Donald Trump is set to address the influential Republican Jewish Coalition on Saturday, days after becoming the first declared GOP candidate of the 2024 presidential campaign.

But the chandeliered ballroom at the opulent Venetian resort hotel in Las Vegas will teem with his rivals -- including potential chief nemesis Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis -- as some of the party's most influential donors weigh alternatives to the divisive former president.

Trump still retains a "following" within the party, Mel Sembler, a Florida real-estate developer and GOP donor who sits on the coalition's board, told CNN this week. But, he said, "I think people are getting tired of his controversies all the time."

"What concerns me is if he wins the primary and loses the general," added Sembler, who has not endorsed a 2024 candidate.

The annual leadership conference of prominent Jewish conservatives marks the first major gathering of GOP establishment forces since this month's midterm letdown for the party, which saw Democrats retain their hold on the Senate and make inroads in state governments around the country.

Republicans did flip the House but will hold a slim majority in January after the "red wave" their party envisioned all year failed to materialize.

Leading Republican figures in Washington and elsewhere are casting blame on Trump for his role in boosting far-right Senate candidates who faltered in the general election -- and for continuing to publicly nurse his own grievances about the 2020 election and his ongoing legal troubles. During his campaign kickoff Tuesday, he called himself a "victim" of a federal law enforcement system that he has spent years politicizing.

Trump's legal difficulties appeared to deepen Friday when Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed a special counsel to oversee the criminal investigations into the retention of national defense information at his Mar-a-Lago resort and parts of the January 6, 2021, insurrection.

Rather than seeing the party unify behind his third presidential bid, Trump faced immediate blowback. Minutes after his announcement, daughter and former senior White House adviser Ivanka Trump distanced herself from her father's campaign, saying she does "not plan to be involved in politics."

His announcement also overlapped with a high-profile book tour by his own former vice president -- and potential 2024 rival -- Mike Pence, who has spent the past several days reminding Americans of Trump's role in the violent US Capitol riot on January 6, 2021.

Perhaps the biggest blow to Trump's campaign infrastructure was the swift and public defection of several billionaire GOP donors -- including a close ally, Blackstone CEO Steve Schwarzman -- who said the country needed leaders "rooted in today and tomorrow, not today and yesterday."

Others are hedging their bets.

Among those playing the field is Miriam Adelson, the billionaire widow of Las Vegas casino magnate and RJC benefactor Sheldon Adelson. The Adelsons have donated nearly a half-billion dollars to Republican groups and candidates in the last four election cycles -- including tens of millions to boost Trump's presidential ambitions, federal records show.

Trump in 2018 bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom -- the nation's highest civilian honor -- on Miriam Adelson, citing her philanthropy.

Despite that relationship, Adelson intends to remain neutral in the GOP presidential primaries, an aide confirmed to CNN this week. Adelson, whose political contributions have slowed some since her husband's death in January 2021, has indicated that she will financially support the eventual GOP nominee, whether that be Trump or someone else.

RJC executive director Matt Brooks said Trump has won plaudits from coalition members for his stalwart support of Israel during his presidency and unilateral withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

Still, Brooks said, "people are window-shopping right now. There are people who are asking if we need a new direction and a new face."

The outsider

Even as Trump prepares to make his pitch to the RJC, his allies and aides have sought to position him as the outsider in the 2024 contest, despite his recent White House occupancy.

"President Trump is running a campaign that represents everyday Americans who love their country," campaign spokesman Steven Cheung said in a statement to CNN. "There are others who will answer to the political establishment, be beholden to corporations, and drag the United States into more unnecessary wars."

And his allies note that Trump's fundraising operation largely relies on a small-dollar donor base, reducing his reliance on the party's elite and giving him a potential edge over opponents who do not boast the same small-donation game.

He enters the 2024 campaign with more than $100 million in cash reserves across a sprawling network of political committees -- although federal law could constrain his ability to fully tap those funds for his campaign.

"He has proven he can raise a lot of money on his own," Michael Caputo, a former Trump administration official who remains close to the former president, recently told CNN.

Trump is not making the trek to Las Vegas but is scheduled to address the gathering live via satellite Saturday as part of a morning lineup that will feature several other potential rivals for the GOP nomination, including South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, newly reelected New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Trump's remote appearance was announced on Thursday, after it became clear that several of his potential 2024 rivals were scheduled to deliver their own remarks.

Marquee rivalry

DeSantis -- fresh off the momentum of his double-digit reelection victory in Florida -- is slated to address the group Saturday night during its gala dinner.

Trump recently has stepped up attacks on DeSantis, and another potential 2024 challenger, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

Two sources familiar with Trump's thinking said part of the reason he has lashed out is because he believes both governors are actively soliciting support from "his donors." Trump has told aides and allies that DeSantis especially is trying to pitch himself to deep-pocketed Republicans who helped bankroll Trump's reelection campaign.

A Republican fundraiser in Florida with knowledge of DeSantis' political operation said, "Of course he's talking to those people. They're fair game and every Republican is going to go after those donors because that's the smart thing to do, it's not with the mindset, 'Let's screw Trump.'"

The conservative Club for Growth, one of the biggest outside spenders in politics, already has broken with Trump and earlier this week circulated internal polling that suggested DeSantis could mount a serious challenge to the former president in early voting states and Florida, where both reside. The group plowed $2 million into DeSantis' reelection efforts this election cycle, according to Florida campaign filings.

David McIntosh, the former Indiana congressman who runs the group, declined a CNN interview request through a spokesman.

This week, as the contours of the new GOP majority in the House became clear -- DeSantis won praise from national Republicans for injecting himself into congressional map-making this year. In a rare move for a governor, DeSantis pushed state lawmakers to adopt his map, which controversially eliminated two districts represented by Black Democrats and gave the GOP the advantage in as many as 20 of 28 districts.

"That map created four new Republican wins," said a GOP consultant who has been close to Trump and asked not to be named to speak candidly about the 2024 race. "That's the practical reality of a conservative governor standing up to his own party and saying. 'We're not going to cut deals and do things the old way.'"

DeSantis this week sought to sidestep questions about the growing rivalry with Trump, urging people "to chill out a little bit" -- even as he touted his 19-point margin of victory in his reelection. CNN has previously reported that those close to DeSantis believe he does not intend to announce his plans before May.

"The smartest thing DeSantis could do is stay out of the fray for as long as possible," said the Republican consultant. "Don't stick your face in the frying pan too early."