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GOP Megadonors Are Trying to Pull the Party Away From Trump. It Could Get Ugly.

The onset of the primary season is barely 10 months away, and the scramble for control of the GOP is intensifying.

Former President Donald Trump hands out MAGA hats and greets patrons during an off the record stop at a McDonald's restaurant during a visit to East Palestine, Ohio, on February 22, 2023.

Last month, in an extraordinary snub to Donald Trump, the Club for Growth, one of the biggest contributors to conservative political causes, left the ex-president off the list of invitees to its annual donor retreat, held this week in Palm Beach, Florida. Meanwhile, it made sure to invite a “who’s who” of Trump’s potential rivals in the upcoming GOP primary season: Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley, Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo, Kristi Noem, Tim Scott and Glenn Youngkin, Ted Cruz, Rick Scott, Chris Sununu and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy. (The latter being one of the few candidates to have actually thrown his hat in the ring so far.) All but Youngkin (who is busy negotiating Virginia’s budget this week) and Pompeo replied that they planned to be in attendance.

The Club for Growth, which focuses mainly on pushing a deeply regressive anti-tax agenda, has donated upwards of $150 million to candidates in the last two election cycles. Its retreat, held this year in Trump’s home state, is the Davos of the business-conservative world; its attendees the glitterati of greed and of Republican political ambition.

In excluding Trump, the megadonors, led by Club for Growth President David McIntosh, have essentially advertised on a huge roadside banner their intent to recapture the GOP from Trump and his evermore extreme, nationalist, MAGA followers.

Trump was not amused by the snub. He and his team have spent the past month, since the invite wasn’t issued to him, deriding the Club for Growth as “globalists,” which, in his parlance, is somewhat akin to dubbing them mass-murdering traitorous pedophiles. They are also, he has posted on Truth Social, “losers” and “political misfits.” And, poor souls, they are the “Club For NO Growth.”

And so, while DeSantis et al. are sunning it up at The Breakers, attending a meeting, the agenda for which is hidden behind a password so that only invitees have access, Trump will be joining a slew of other election-denying conspiracy theorists, including Marjorie Taylor Greene, Mike Lindell and Steve Bannon, at a Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) event several hundred miles to the north, in Maryland. There, he will be joined, briefly, by several of the Club for Growth attendees: Haley, Cruz, Ramaswamy and Rick Scott have all indicated they will jet in to give speeches — though it’s hard to imagine they will be anything other than sideshows to the main attractions: Arizona’s gubernatorial hopeful Kari Lake, who picked up Trump’s election denialist mantle, will speak on Friday night, and Lauren Boebert, one of the QAnon cadre in Congress, will be hosting a “women’s breakfast” on Saturday. Trump himself, with his relentless allegations of voter fraud and conspiracies designed to deprive him of a second term, will speak on Saturday as the headliner.

This has the potential to be more than a disagreement among friends. The Club for Growth and other big-business lobbies never fully trusted or liked Donald Trump. When they saw him as a winner, they reluctantly held their noses and cast their lot with him. Now, however, with Trump having lost the 2020 election, and then having spent the past two years undermining confidence in the U.S. democratic system by peddling increasingly bizarre and politically toxic election fraud theories, and with Democrats having handily defeated many of Trump’s hand-picked candidates in November, it’s clear they are shopping elsewhere for their 2024 standard bearer.

On the eve of the Club for Growth meeting, Trump went on a Truth Social tirade ending on an awkwardly ominous note: “No Growth Members know there will be RETRIBUTION!!!”

Trump has also recently called the GOP’s megadonor class, including Charles Koch and other pillars of the party’s donor-elite, “globalist and pro-China losers.” Bannon has termed them as “1,000% anti-Trump oligarchs.”

These are, increasingly, not the words of friends jousting among other friends for influence; instead, they are the clarion calls to internecine political warfare, which erupts only once in a blue moon and, when it does, can fracture a party not just into rival camps but eventually into rival parties. Trump has crafted the GOP’s base into a political cult the likes of which the U.S. has never before seen; and groups like the Club for Growth desperately fear that cult threatens to drag the party off of an electoral cliff if a sufficient bloc of the voters come to reject the evermore conspiracist mindset of Trump and his diehard followers.

The onset of the primary season is barely 10 months away, and the scramble for control of the GOP is intensifying. Trump wants to have a high-profile target to attack, but, since Haley and Ramaswamy aren’t breaking into double-digits in the polls, and DeSantis isn’t yet officially a candidate, the ex-president is floundering as he searches for his next worthy trolling victims.

Meanwhile, CPAC and the Club for Growth have chosen their sides in this brewing battle. This weekend’s two events, so very different in style and in tone, will likely be the opening shots in what is shaping up to be a very nasty, very public, tug of war for the future of the GOP.

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