Trump got the voters on Super Tuesday, but his cash-hungry campaign needs more donors

Former U.S. President Trump holds a watch party event to mark the Super Tuesday primary elections at his Mar-a-Lago property

By Alexandra Ulmer

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Donald Trump had no shortage of votes in the Super Tuesday presidential primary. He swept to victory in an abundance of states. But as his legal fees and payouts balloon, Trump must pursue another constituency as he prepares for a general election matchup with President Joe Biden: Major donors.

Small donors have historically helped propel Trump, but over$540 million in legal payouts and millions more in legal fees together are putting the squeeze on him as he faces a long campaign through to the Nov. 5 election.

While much of Trump's Republican base skews white and working class, he retains support among some wealthy Americans who espouse conservative social values or are eager for Trump-led tax legislation that benefits the wealthy.

Trump's lone remaining rival Nikki Haley, who was favored by many in the traditional Republican donor class, exited the race on Wednesday, handing Trump an opportunity to scoop up her donors.

While some past Haley benefactors have started donating to Trump, others will shun Trump in favor of funding congressional races or opt to vote for him without donating, based on Reuters interviews with around a dozen donors and fundraisers.

An official at the pro-Haley super PAC spending group SFA said there would likely be a split among Haley donors, with some willing to back Trump and others uninterested.

When asked whether he would fund Trump, New York litigator and Haley donor Eric Levine said: "I will focus all my attention on helping Republicans win back the Senate."

Heavyweight Republican donor and hedge fund billionaire Ken Griffin donated $5 million to support Haley but has not given to Trump. Campaign finance watchdog OpenSecrets estimates he was the third-largest individual Republican donor in the 2020 presidential cycle.

In a statement to Reuters in January, Griffin too appeared to be focused on congressional races.

Four other significant Haley donors told Reuters they would not be donating to Trump. A fifth said he was still deciding. The donors asked for anonymity to share their deliberations freely.

The Trump campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment on his fundraising plans.


One complication for Trump: The more he needs funds for his legal defense, the more some donors say they are reluctant to send money that is meant to help promote his candidacy with voters but that could be used to pay legal fees.

"I'm not going to write him a check for $50,000 when I don't know where the hell it's going - to lawyers or who knows what else," said a major California-based donor.

"The biggest grumbling I hear from donors is they don't want to give money if Trump turns around and uses it on his legal fees," he added. He said he had heard that from more than half a dozen donors.

Trump is expected to make a fundraising trip to California in the next few weeks, according to a source briefed on the plans, which he cautioned were still tentative.

Trump already enjoys the backing of some major donors, including Timothy Mellon, heir to the Mellon banking fortune.

Billionaire Elon Musk, the CEO of electric vehicle maker Tesla, said on Wednesday that he will not donate money to either candidate in this year's election.

But a source reported Musk met with Trump over the weekend, and should he decide to donate to the former president, that could possibly correct Trump's financial lag against Biden singlehandedly.

Trump fell further behind Biden in fundraising in January, according to financial disclosures. Trump's cash holdings fell to just over $30 million while Biden, who is facing a less competitive process for his Democratic Party's nomination, said his campaign ended January with about $56 million in cash.

To be sure, Trump was outspent by Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016 and still went on to win, although he did not face the same legal headwinds.

Legal experts say Trump cannot use campaign funds to pay the damages in three New York civil cases because none are related to his campaign or his conduct as a president or political candidate.

One New York verdict is for $454 million in penalties and interest for fraudulently exaggerating his net worth and the values of his real estate holdings to secure better loan terms.

Another is for $83.3 million for defaming writer E. Jean Carroll by denying her claim that he raped her decades ago. A third is for $5 million for defaming Carroll and having sexually assaulted her.

However, the Trump political action committee Save America, which takes a 10% share of much of the money raised by Trump's main fundraising committee, has spent more than $50 million on legal expenses since last year, disclosures to the Federal Election Commission show.

(This story has been refiled to remove a repetitive paragraph)

(Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer. Additional reporting by Gram Slattery, editing by Ross Colvin and Howard Goller)