There’s no denying that Donald Trump and his bluster have changed the tone, focus and, to a larger extent, rules of the 2016 Republican presidential primary season.
Nationally, he is driving the conversation. But what about here? It’s tough to tell.
Certainly, there’s no way to gauge Trump’s local popularity using the amount of money contributed to his campaign by local donors – because, at least through the primaries, he’s self-funding his run.
According to the Federal Election Commission, Trump’s campaign received zero dollars from our community in 2015.
“Certainly, Trump has changed the equation,” said Tom Lockwood, executive board chairman of the Indian River County Republican Club. “I’ve been to a few events with Trump supporters, and he seems to have a pretty strong following.
“But he’s funding his own campaign, so it’s hard to get a read on how much support he has here,” he added. “I’m somewhat perplexed, and I’m sure I’m not alone.”
After finishing a close second to Ted Cruz, the junior senator from Texas, in the Iowa caucuses, Trump easily won the New Hampshire primary. Trump leads the polls in South Carolina, where the Republican primary will be held Saturday.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, both of whom were projected to be among the frontrunners before Trump entered the race, failed to crack the top three in either of the first two states to vote.
Bush remains the local favorite, based on FEC-reported contributions to both his campaign and the independent super PAC (political action committee) supporting him.
The former governor’s campaign has raised more than $75,000 in the Vero Beach area – about $20,000 more than Cruz, $35,000 more than Rubio and $42,000 more than renowned neurosurgeon Ben Carson.
Those figures, however, pale in comparison to the more than $900,000 in local contributions to the super PAC backing Bush, Right To Rise USA, which has brought in historic amounts.
Four local donors to Right To Rise USA each contributed six-figure sums, with the biggest check written by Peace River Citrus CEO Bill Becker, who gave $350,000 to the super PAC.
The other big-money donors were: Thomas Corr ($250,000), CEO and head trader at the George E. Warren Corp.; Neill Currie ($205,510), retired CEO of RenaissanceRe Holdings Ltd.; and Evans Properties, a family run citrus company ($100,000).
Neither of the super PACs backing Cruz (Keep The Promise) or Rubio (Conservative Solutions) received any money from the Vero Beach area in 2015, but the super PAC supporting Carson (The 2016 Committee) took in $4,264, with the largest contribution – $1,562 – coming from Scott Buzby.
The largest local donor to the Cruz campaign was John Childs, the J.W. Childs Associates chairman and CEO, whose contributions totaled $27,000.
The Rubio campaign’s biggest local contribution came from island resident George Kasten, who gave $5,400.
As expected, an overwhelmingly large percentage of the local money donated to the campaigns and super PACs has come from barrier island residents, some of whom believe the party must expand its appeal to reclaim the Oval Office.
“There’s obviously a very clear desire of a majority of people in the Republican Party to move away from the far right and get to the mainstream of the United States,” Becker said. “We need to get away from people who are poking each other in the eye.
“A lot of Republicans, including myself, are hoping for someone who is fiscally conservative and socially moderate,” he added. “I think that’s where the party needs to be, and that’s why you’re seeing the governors starting to get some traction.”
Ohio Gov. John Kasich finished second and Bush was fourth in New Hampshire, where both enjoyed their best showings thus far.
Becker said he still supports Bush because of his performance as Florida’s governor and his connection to our community – family members spent winters in Vero Beach – but he has developed doubts about the candidate’s passion for the presidency.
After attending an April gathering with Bush at a Vero Beach home in April, then hosting a dinner party for him last summer in Nantucket, Becker told his wife, “I’m not impressed with Jeb. There’s no fire in his belly.”
He said other local Republican donors now share his concerns, so much so that they’re “holding back” on further contributions. FEC records show Bush’s contributions dropped from $37,400 in the second quarter of 2015 to $23,900 in the third quarter and to $14,000 in the fourth quarter.
Trump’s presence and attacks against Bush have hurt, but so has the crowded field. With 17 candidates going to the gate last fall, the Republican race resembled the Kentucky Derby, where the favorite rarely wins because the track gets too crowded.
The pack has been whittled to five viable candidates – Trump, Cruz, Bush, Rubio and Kasich – with Carson’s campaign on life support. But there are still too many horses on which to place a bet.
That’s why many local donors, particularly those who have backed Bush, have decided to wait and see who gets to the front of the pack with a real chance to win.
“There’s no doubt that a lot of people are sitting back and letting the process play out before they do anything more,” Becker said. “Once it gets down to two or three guys – probably two – then you’ll see more donors get back in.
“Super Tuesday ought to be very interesting,” he added, “and by the second week of March, we’ll have a better feel for where this is all heading.”