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Trump Critics Struggle to Raise Money for Primary Challenge

Congressional office

Mark Sanford, the most prominent primary challenger to President Donald Trump, has said he won't solicit contributions from his longtime donor base until he's "proven a measure of electoral success."

Bill Kristol has yet to fully activate a super PAC aimed at hurting Trump's reelection chances.

And Stuart Stevens, the top strategist for Sen. Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign, until he was prompted, could not recall the name of the super PAC he is advising that supports another Trump challenger, Bill Weld.

So far, not even the start of an impeachment inquiry against the president has energized the campaigns of those candidates, or aligned groups, seeking to deny Trump the Republican presidential nomination.

Still, outside spending by disenchanted "Never Trump"-type Republicans could diminish Trump's 2020 odds by wounding his candidacy even if stopping well short of denying him the nomination.

"For now, the idea that somehow, some way, some seven-figure guy or some seven-figure bundler, is going to break from the pack to go support one of these guys is just, I don't think realistic," said Reed Galen, a former Republican turned independent who worked in the past for George W. Bush and John McCain.

Weld, the former Massachusetts governor and the first Republican to announce a primary challenge to Trump, has struggled to mount a serious fundraising effort, according to the most recent Federal Election Commission filings. That's also been true for the pro-Weld super PAC America United.

At the end of June, the committee had raised only $60,000 and had less than $20,000 cash on hand. Stevens emphasized last week that fundraising is just starting. By comparison, New Day for America, a super PAC supporting former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, ended June with close to $414,000 cash on hand.

"The people that we're talking to are against Donald Trump," Stevens said. "And they were against Donald Trump before, so it's not like some light bulb went off. This may open up a new group of donors. I just don't know yet."

Weld was joined in the Republican primary race in recent weeks by Joe Walsh, a former tea-party-backed, one-term congressman from Illinois, and Sanford, the former South Carolina governor and congressman.

Since announcing for president in April, Weld has struggled to gain footing in New Hampshire even with frequent campaigning in the state. Sanford and Walsh both recently made initial visits.

Kristol, a director of Defending Democracy Together, a 501(c)(4) anti-Trump conservative group, said Trump's dealings with Ukraine and the impeachment proceedings have led to Never Trump donors feeling vindicated. And last week Republicans for the Rule of Law, a project of Defending Democracy Together, announced it had begun targeting digital ads at some congressional Republicans as "the first stage in a $1 million campaign urging Republicans to stand up for the rule of law and speak out against the president's abuse of power."

It could be a new ballgame, Kristol said, and raised the possibility of other Trump challengers getting into the race.

"I would say they're being seen as serious. I don't think people think they can win," Kristol said of the three current Trump primary challengers. "But I think you can be serious without having much of a chance of winning if you raise issues and show weakness in the front-runner."

That has resulted in a transition for Trump's Republican critics.

"Most of the Never Trumpers in the Republican Party, both donors and activists, are gradually becoming After Trumpers," said Dan Schnur, a former Republican turned independent who was national director of communications for McCain's 2000 presidential run.  He added: "Impeachment could force their hand, but right now, they're devoting their time and effort to thinking about what the Republican Party could or should be once Trump has left the political landscape."

Dating back to 1976, sitting presidents have a history of losing the general election after a serious primary challenge. But for Trump's Republican challengers, the case to be taken seriously has only become more difficult as a handful of state parties cancel their primaries and other nominating contests.

Walsh hasn't been shy about his struggles as a candidate and conceded before the impeachment inquiry that it had "not been easy to raise money." But he has been encouraged by interest and support from small-dollar donors.

There is less support from big donors now, even from the ones who had donated to him in the past.

"The vast majority of those donors, even though they like me, many of them are still on board the Trump train," Walsh said.

-- Hunter Woodall, Associated Press

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