Big Trump donors converge on Newsom recall

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Big Republican donors — including some prominent backers of former President Donald Trump — are zeroing in on a new target as they dig out from the wreckage of the 2020 election: California Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Major GOP benefactors are funneling cash into the effort to recall the first-term Democratic governor, who’s come under fire for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and his oversight of the state’s battered economy.

The two groups leading the recall push say they have raised a combined $3.2 million and expect to surpass $3.5 million by this weekend. Most of the cash has flowed in since photos emerged of a mask-less Newsom attending a crowded birthday party at an exclusive Napa Valley restaurant in mid-November. He has since apologized, but Newsom has suffered severe backlash, with some accusing him of failing to abide by the stringent coronavirus protocols he himself set forth.

Some of the biggest donors to the recall effort also bankrolled Trump’s 2020 campaign. They include Beverly Hills real estate developer Geoff Palmer, who has shelled out $150,000 to the anti-Newsom campaign, and Silicon Valley venture capitalist Douglas Leone who, with his wife Patricia Perkins-Leone, have given nearly $100,000. Retired construction equipment executive Howard Groff and his wife Susan Groff have doled out $75,000.

And while most of the givers so far are from within California, Trump fundraisers report seeing a surge of interest from major contributors near and far.

“Donors both in California and across the country are beginning to turn their focus to the California recall efforts,” said Caroline Wren, who was a top fundraiser on the Trump reelection campaign.

The fundraising totals pale in comparison to the massive sums raised by many candidates and party committees during the 2020 election. But the money has gotten the attention of Newsom and Democrats, and it’s increasingly clear that organizers are raising enough to give the recall effort a strong chance of gathering the petitions it needs to qualify for the ballot. That would force the first recall of a sitting California governor since 2003, when voters booted Democrat Gray Davis from office.

The cash influx underscores how energy continues to course through Republican donor circles following Trump’s defeat, with many looking for an outlet to keep fighting Democrats. Major givers are typically tapped out following a presidential contest, but some are diving right back into the recall, which could become the marquee election of 2021.

Bill White, a Georgia-based business development executive who raised nearly $5 million for Trump’s 2020 campaign, said he’d been encouraging California-based donors to get involved. White predicted that more contributors would engage if the recall qualified for the ballot, which would allow Republican candidates to run to replace Newsom later this year.

“There’s definitely money going there, and if it meets that next threshold, you’re going to see a lot of support for a potential candidate,” White said.

It isn’t just megadonors who are opening their wallets. Anne Dunsmore, a veteran GOP fundraiser who is helping to spearhead the drive, said in an email to donors Thursday that her organization, Recall California, had raised over $400,000 from more than 11,000 small contributors through direct mail. The average donation from those givers, she said, was $37.

Big-money national groups are also getting involved.

The Republican Governors Association has been monitoring the recall effort — but with an eye toward potentially investing in a recall election, as opposed to contributing to the signature-gathering. The group, which is closely tied to the party’s donor class, has been in touch with people close to the petition drive and has spoken with several potential candidates. The RGA recently commissioned a 1,200-person survey of a prospective race that was conducted by Bill McInturff, a pollster who was involved in the 2003 recall.

Organizers need to submit nearly 1.5 million valid signatures to the California Secretary of State’s office by March 17 to qualify for the ballot. Recall leaders say that by the end of this week they will have gathered 1.4 million signatures. They have set a target of submitting 1.8 million signatures in order to give themselves a cushion in case some are deemed invalid by election officials.

With contributors taking an increased interest, organizers are moving to capitalize. Dunsmore said in her email that a group of Silicon Valley donors are spearheading an effort to fund professional signature gatherers in order to meet the mid-March deadline. The group of contributors includes investor David Sacks, a former Newsom backer who has recently become an outspoken critic.

The single-biggest donor to the recall enterprise has been John Kruger, an under-the-radar Orange County investor who in December made a $500,000 contribution. Kruger has objected to Newsom’s decision to limit the size of religious gatherings as a means of curbing the coronavirus spread.

Also playing a major role has been San Francisco venture capitalist Dixon Doll, who has been active in Republican circles for years and spent tens of thousands of dollars to bolster former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s unsuccessful 2016 presidential campaign. Doll and his wife, Carol, have given nearly $100,000 combined to the anti-Newsom push.

Former California GOP Rep. Doug Ose, a wealthy real estate developer who also plans to contribute, said he’d been struck by the number of people who’d been reaching out to him about the drive to oust Newsom.

“My phone has blown up since yesterday,” said Ose. “I don’t know the magic sauce for making something viral, but it clearly is gaining increased interest up-and-down the state, that’s for sure.”

California political observers say a recall election would likely take place in late August or early September. The ballot would feature two questions: an up-or-down vote on whether Newsom should be removed from office, and then a decision on which candidate should replace him. Should a majority approve of a recall, the candidate with the highest vote share in the second question would become governor.

If the recall gets to the ballot, Republicans concede they’ll need to lean on big donors to unseat Newsom. Running TV ads in the massive state is a costly proposition, and California has become more Democratic-friendly since 2003. And despite his sinking poll numbers, Newsom already has more than $20 million in his campaign account and would be able to tap into a massive statewide donor network that’s fueled his political rise.

The roster of candidates to face him could swell to colossal size, if recent history is any guide. More than 100 candidates ran to succeed Davis in the 2003 recall, a list that included everyone from actor Gary Coleman to porn star Mary Carey. More than 55 percent of voters supported recalling Davis, handing victory to the highest vote-getter, professional bodybuilder and Hollywood star Arnold Schwarzenegger.

With another recall increasingly looking like a real possibility, major Trump donors from across the country are beginning to weigh in with their favored candidate for a Newsom replacement. Many of them have been reaching out to Richard Grenell, a Southern California resident and the president’s acting director of national intelligence, to encourage him to get into the race.

Hossein Khorram, a Washington State-based real estate developer who gave more than $100,000 to pro-Trump causes during the 2020 election, said in a text message that California had turned into a “welfare state” under Newsom and that “raising money for Governor Grenell would be an exhilarating experience I would not miss for any reason.”

White, who hosted a Trump fundraiser featuring Grenell during the election, predicted that the former Trump administration official would receive widespread financial support from the former president’s backers should he eventually decide to enter the race.

“If Ric was the candidate we’d be 100 percent behind him, 100 percent we’d do everything we can to help him and to help save California,” said White.

But while Trump donors are pining for Grenell, some California Republicans worry that anyone closely associated with Trump will drag down their prospects in a state where the former president barely scraped a third of the vote.

Meanwhile, other candidates have begun to draw attention within the state. Former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and wealthy businessman John Cox, who lost to Newsom by a wide margin in the 2018 election, have each announced their intention to run. Ose has said he is also considering a bid.

Whoever ends up running, there isn’t likely to be a lack of funding. Ose noted that the election would be one of the few major races in the country this year, ensuring it gets widespread attention.

“I think the prospect of a recall is of national interest to both parties and to any number of third-party players,” said Ose. “So I don’t think there is going to be any shortage of money on either side of the question of whether to recall Newsom.”

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