By Jonathan Swan - 04-24-16 10:30 AM EDT
Republican mega-donors, increasingly fed up with their party's circus-like presidential primary, are sitting on their checkbooks until the nominee is decided.
GOP campaigns and super-PACs saw dismal fundraising figures in March. John Kasich's campaign took in $4.5 million and his super-PAC $2.8 million for the month - numbers Bernie Sanders's campaign can beat on a good day.
And Ted Cruz isn't doing much better. After a strong start, his super-PAC's income has slowed to a trickle and his campaign took in just $12.5 million in March - less than half of Hillary Clinton's campaign haul and about a quarter of Sanders's total.
Interviews with major Republican donors and fundraisers reveal that many are fed up after early enthusiasm for unsuccessful candidates. Many of these donors spent millions on the super-PACs supporting Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, one-time favorites who dropped out of the race after getting throttled by Donald Trump.
Now, with Trump and Cruz the two likeliest nominees, a number of donors say they would rather sit it out and wait to see how the next two months play out before they open their checkbooks again.
"I have been called and asked for money and I said, 'Once we pick a nominee, then I will give money again,' " said Minnesota billionaire Stanley Hubbard, who gave an early $50,000 donation to Scott Walker's super-PAC but has made no significant investment since.
"The problem is that nobody prefers either of those two candidates [Trump or Cruz] and the third candidate [Kasich], no-one thinks he has a chance, so why waste your money?" Hubbard told The Hill.
Doug Deason, a multi-millionaire Texas businessman whose family spent $5 million supporting Rick Perry and has now thrown $200,000 behind a Cruz super-PAC, said the feeling among his donor friends goes beyond exhaustion.
He said many establishment donors believe their money has been wasted this cycle, with the only winners being the high-priced consultants who have gotten rich by charging commissions on ad buys.
Donors "are upset about how their money was spent and the bang they got for their buck. ... They are suspicious and rightfully so," Deason told The Hill.
"Somebody should be indicted over Right to Rise," he added, referring to the super-PAC that spent more than $100 million in a failed attempt to make Jeb Bush the Republican nominee.
"I would sue them for fraud."
"The Bush donors coming across to support Cruz in Dallas, and there are a lot of them, they are not stepping up with the money because they already shot their wad," Deason added. "They got totally screwed."
Deason said his family is considering investing more heavily in a Cruz super-PAC, but he needs to be persuaded that the cash would be put to intelligent use - either in the key primaries of California and Indiana, or to persuade delegates to vote for Cruz in the second or third ballot at a contested convention.
The money slowdown on the Republican side could cause problems in the general election.
Clinton's super-PAC Priorities USA has already reserved more than $120 million worth of advertising for the general election - securing bargain ad rates by booking so early. But given the uncertain status of the Republican race, no GOP super-PAC has been able to lay down a penny.
And both Clinton and Sanders have built campaign fundraising operations and donor lists that dwarf anything on the GOP side. Trump is mostly self-funding on the cheap and has made no effort to build a fundraising apparatus that could compete in a general election against the Clinton machine. The finance operations of both Cruz and Kasich are a bit better off, but still trailing the two Democrats.
Cruz's super-PACs began the campaign with aggressive early investments - including $10 million from New York hedge fund manager Robert Mercer and another $10 million from the Wilks brothers, Texas billionaire who made their fortunes in fracking. But recent Federal Election Commission (FEC) reports have shown a slowdown in Cruz's super-PAC fundraising.
The Hill's analysis of the latest FEC data shows that Cruz's seven main super-PACs finished March with a combined $21.4 million cash on hand - less than either Clinton or Sanders raised over the course of that month.
One of the few areas of conservative fundraising that is still enthusing donors is the "Never Trump" movement. The main anti-Trump group - Our Principles PAC - had its best month yet in March, raising $8.3 million and spending more than $11 million in its bid to stop Trump from becoming the Republican nominee.
The money is coming from a tiny group of committed donors. Shipping magnate Richard Uihlein gave $2 million, investor Cliff Asness gave $1 million and hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer gave $500,000.
Fred Malek, the finance chair of the Republican Governors Association, said the unsettled state of the GOP race is leading donors to hold back even though critical contests are coming up in California and Indiana - both primaries that Cruz can win and both states that could benefit from large-scale TV buys.
"Many donors now believe that as we close into the convention, the battle lines are more clearly formed and the candidates more clearly known and defined," Malek told The Hill.
"Therefore, factors other than super-PAC ads are likely to have more impact ... and it makes more sense to save resources for the general election."
John Jordan, a Republican mega-donor from California who spent $130,000 this cycle supporting Rubio, said another important reason donors are sitting on their checkbooks is the growing skepticism about the efficacy of super-PACs and paid advertising.
"I am not saying donors have reasoned it out in great detail, but they sure as hell haven't seen super-PACs pay off in the last few cycles," Jordan told The Hill.
Jordan singled out Karl Rove's Crossroads groups - which spent more than $175 million in the 2012 presidential cycle in efforts to unseat President Obama - and the Bush and Rubio super-PACs from 2016 as examples of groups that "fell flat on their face."
Lisa Spies, a top fundraiser for Mitt Romney's 2012 campaign who is raising funds for Senate Republicans, said fundraising is being affected by a natural "lull" in the fundraising cycle, but even accounting for the cyclical nature of the slowdown, the current malaise among GOP donors is notable.
"On our side, people are confused. ... They are tired," Spies told The Hill. "People are not into giving more. The feeling is let's wait and see.
"It's too up in the air to put money down."