'Window-shopping' GOP elites weigh Trump -- and the alternatives -- at high-profile Vegas gathering

Originally Published: 19 NOV 22 06:00 ET

Updated: 20 NOV 22 10:10 ET

    (CNN) -- Former President Donald Trump addressed the influential Republican Jewish Coalition on Saturday, days after becoming the first declared GOP candidate of the 2024 presidential campaign.

But the chandeliered ballroom at the opulent Venetian resort hotel in Las Vegas teemed with his rivals -- including potential chief nemesis Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis -- as some of the party's most influential donors weigh alternatives to the divisive former president.

Trump still retains a "following" within the party, Mel Sembler, a Florida real-estate developer and GOP donor who sits on the coalition's board, told CNN last week. But, he said, "I think people are getting tired of his controversies all the time."

"What concerns me is if he wins the primary and loses the general," added Sembler, who has not endorsed a 2024 candidate.

The annual leadership conference of prominent Jewish conservatives marked the first major gathering of GOP establishment forces since this month's midterm letdown for the party, which saw Democrats retain their hold on the Senate and make inroads in state governments around the country.

Republicans did flip the House but will hold a slim majority in January after the "red wave" their party envisioned all year failed to materialize.

Leading Republican figures in Washington and elsewhere are casting blame on Trump for his role in boosting far-right Senate candidates who faltered in the general election -- and for continuing to publicly nurse his own grievances about the 2020 election and his ongoing legal troubles. During his campaign kickoff Tuesday, he called himself a "victim" of a federal law enforcement system that he has spent years politicizing.

Trump's legal difficulties appeared to deepen Friday when Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed a special counsel to oversee the criminal investigations into the retention of national defense information at his Mar-a-Lago resort and parts of the January 6, 2021, insurrection.

Rather than seeing the party unify behind his third presidential bid, Trump faced immediate blowback. Minutes after his announcement, daughter and former senior White House adviser Ivanka Trump distanced herself from her father's campaign, saying she does "not plan to be involved in politics."

His announcement also overlapped with a high-profile book tour by his own former vice president -- and potential 2024 rival -- Mike Pence, who also spoke in Las Vegas and has spent the past several days reminding Americans of Trump's role in the violent US Capitol riot on January 6, 2021.

Perhaps the biggest blow to Trump's campaign infrastructure was the swift and public defection of several billionaire GOP donors -- including a close ally, Blackstone CEO Steve Schwarzman -- who said the country needed leaders "rooted in today and tomorrow, not today and yesterday."

Others are hedging their bets.

Among those playing the field is Miriam Adelson, the billionaire widow of Las Vegas casino magnate and RJC benefactor Sheldon Adelson. The Adelsons have donated nearly a half-billion dollars to Republican groups and candidates in the last four election cycles -- including tens of millions to boost Trump's presidential ambitions, federal records show.

Trump in 2018 bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom -- the nation's highest civilian honor -- on Miriam Adelson, citing her philanthropy.

Despite that relationship, Adelson intends to remain neutral in the GOP presidential primaries, an aide confirmed to CNN last week. Adelson, whose political contributions have slowed some since her husband's death in January 2021, has indicated that she will financially support the eventual GOP nominee, whether that be Trump or someone else.

RJC executive director Matt Brooks said Trump has won plaudits from coalition members for his stalwart support of Israel during his presidency and unilateral withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

Still, Brooks said, "people are window-shopping right now. There are people who are asking if we need a new direction and a new face."

The outsider

Even as Trump prepared to make his pitch to the RJC, his allies and aides had sought to position him as the outsider in the 2024 contest, despite his recent White House occupancy.

"President Trump is running a campaign that represents everyday Americans who love their country," campaign spokesman Steven Cheung said in a statement to CNN. "There are others who will answer to the political establishment, be beholden to corporations, and drag the United States into more unnecessary wars."

And his allies noted that Trump's fundraising operation largely relies on a small-dollar donor base, reducing his reliance on the party's elite and giving him a potential edge over opponents who do not boast the same small-donation game.

He enters the 2024 campaign with more than $100 million in cash reserves across a sprawling network of political committees -- although federal law could constrain his ability to fully tap those funds for his campaign.

"He has proven he can raise a lot of money on his own," Michael Caputo, a former Trump administration official who remains close to the former president, recently told CNN.

Trump did not make the trek to Las Vegas but addressed the gathering live via satellite Saturday as part of a lineup that featured several other potential rivals for the GOP nomination, including South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, newly reelected New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Trump's remote appearance was announced on Thursday, after it became clear that several of his potential 2024 rivals were scheduled to deliver their own remarks.

Trump opened the speech with lines straight from his standard stump speech, but he did offer a nod to the midterm elections and his White House bid.

"Breaking the radical Democrats' grip on Congress this month was vital. It was a great thing. But we have always known that 2022 was not the end, only the beginning on the battle to save our country," Trump said. "Now we have to take the fight straight to Joe Biden ... and then we have to take back the White House in 2024."

Marquee rivalry

DeSantis -- fresh off the momentum of his double-digit reelection victory in Florida -- addressed the group Saturday night during its gala dinner.

The governor made no mention of 2024 in his speech but touted his big reelection win -- he defeated Democrat Charlie Crist by 19 points -- and described Florida as being "a blueprint for success."

"In times like these, there is no substitute for victory. We in Florida are the light. Freedom will reign supreme with Florida leading the way," DeSantis said.

Trump has recently stepped up his attacks on DeSantis, and another potential 2024 challenger, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

Two sources familiar with Trump's thinking said part of the reason he has lashed out is because he believes both governors are actively soliciting support from "his donors." Trump has told aides and allies that DeSantis especially is trying to pitch himself to deep-pocketed Republicans who helped bankroll Trump's reelection campaign.

A Republican fundraiser in Florida with knowledge of DeSantis' political operation said, "Of course, he's talking to those people. They're fair game and every Republican is going to go after those donors because that's the smart thing to do, it's not with the mindset, 'Let's screw Trump.'"

The conservative Club for Growth, one of the biggest outside spenders in politics, has already broken with Trump and last week circulated internal polling that suggested DeSantis could mount a serious challenge to the former president in early voting states and Florida, where both reside. The group plowed $2 million into DeSantis' reelection effort this cycle, according to Florida campaign filings.

David McIntosh, the former Indiana congressman who runs the group, declined a CNN interview request through a spokesman.

Last week, as the contours of the new GOP majority in the House became clear, DeSantis won praise from national Republicans for injecting himself into congressional map-making this year. In a rare move for a governor, DeSantis pushed state lawmakers to adopt his map, which controversially eliminated two districts represented by Black Democrats and the GOP is now projected to hold 20 of 28 districts in the next Congress.

"That map created four new Republican wins," said a GOP consultant who has been close to Trump and asked not to be named to speak candidly about the 2024 race. "That's the practical reality of a conservative governor standing up to his own party and saying, 'We're not going to cut deals and do things the old way.'"

DeSantis last week sought to sidestep questions about the growing rivalry with Trump, urging people "to chill out a little bit" -- even as he touted his margin of victory in his reelection. CNN has previously reported that those close to DeSantis believe he does not intend to announce his plans before May.

"The smartest thing DeSantis could do is stay out of the fray for as long as possible," said the Republican consultant. "Don't stick your face in the frying pan too early."

'We keep losing and losing and losing'

Many of Trump's potential 2024 rivals spoke at the conference in Las Vegas, offering post-midterm assessments and making their pitch for how the party should move forward.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, an early ally of Trump, issued a long and passionate indictment of the former president on Saturday, casting Trump as a cancer on the Republican Party and the sole responsible figure for its recent election losses.

"We keep losing and losing and losing," Christie said. "The reason we're losing is because Donald Trump has put himself before everybody else."

Christie slammed Trump for recruiting candidates under the singular qualification that they deny the results of the 2020 election.

"That's not what this party stands for," the former governor said. "It's not what it should stand for in the future, and we've got to stop it now."

Christie pointed to midterm GOP defeats in the battleground states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, and warned that without a resurgence in those states -- especially in the suburbs -- Republicans held no hope of winning back the White House in 2024.

Echoing those fears, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu said that "candidate quality matters," while adding, "I got a great policy for the Republican Party: Let's stop supporting crazy, unelectable candidates in our primaries and start getting behind winners that can close the deal in November."

Sununu was initially courted to run for US Senate, but ultimately decided to run for reelection. The GOP nominee, retired Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc, who has pushed falsehoods about the 2020 election, went on to lose to Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan earlier this month.

Meanwhile, Florida Sen. Rick Scott, who headed the Senate GOP's campaign arm this election cycle, said Republicans' midterm hopes for a "red wave" did not materialize because the party focused too much on "how bad the Democrats are" and did not offer voters its own policy vision.

"The current strategy of most Republicans in Washington is to only be against the crazy Democrats -- and they're crazy -- and never outline any plan what we are for and what we will do. That is a mistake," the senator said.

Scott's comments come days after his failed bid to oust Mitch McConnell as the party's Senate leader.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who unsuccessfully ran for president against Trump in 2016, urged the GOP to try to broaden its appeal outside the party's base.

"We spend far too much time preaching to the choir; talking to the same 2.6 million people watching Fox News every night," Cruz said.

Cruz also said he had spoken at Senate Republicans' recent leadership election to urge the party to take a harder line against Democratic policies.

"Republicans in the Senate don't fight," he said Saturday.

Cruz said he urged GOP leaders to "pick two or three or four things that matter and say, 'We believe in it.'"

In his own remarks, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy touted the GOP taking control of the chamber in the midterms and promised that Republicans would be quick to wield their new subpoena power next year.

"We finally have a check and balance," the California Republican said, before pausing to prod the audience, "You can applaud that, that was a big victory."

Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, meanwhile, said Saturday that she will "have more to say soon" about a potential 2024 presidential run, while adding that she's "won tough primaries" before.

Haley, a onetime South Carolina governor, called on the GOP to "look in the mirror" after the party's lackluster midterm performance, saying, "Republicans spent as much time fighting each other as we did the Democrats."

"It is time to quit eating our own," Haley said.

Outgoing Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan took a hard stance against the former president Friday night, saying in Las Vegas that the Republican Party was "desperately in need of a course correction."

"Trump was saying that we'd be winning so much we get tired of winning. Well, I'm sick and tired of our party losing. And after this election last week, I'm even more sick and tired than I was before," Hogan said.

"Look, this is the third election in a row that we lost and should have won. I say three strikes and you're out. If you repeatedly lose to a really bad team, it's time for new leadership," he added.

This story has been updated with more information.

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