President Donald Trump’s resurgent obsession with California and its policy machinations boils down to money — specifically, raising as much cash as possible from the state’s under-the-radar Republican base.
The president keeps talking up California’s problems like environmental regulations and homelessness to show the West Coast’s well-heeled donors that he is engaged on problems that affect their businesses and families, according to two sources familiar with the Trump reelection campaign.
Story Continued Below
Trump aides are realistic enough to know they cannot flip the state red in 2020, but they still want dollars flowing from California conservatives during the election that they can redirect toward efforts in states like Wisconsin, Michigan or Pennsylvania. Trump narrowly won these states in 2016 — and they will be crucial for his path to winning a second term.
“The president does not believe California is in play, but there is surprisingly a decent pot of money in fundraising in the state,” said one close White House adviser. “The same people who gave to his campaign have a list of problems they have with the state, and they’re running up against a Democratic state legislature while looking for creative solutions.”
Trump is more than happy to listen to their concerns at roundtables and private dinners and lunches. Trump supporter and California attorney Harmeet Dhillon said the president’s message to California-based donors this week behind closed doors included discussions of rising property crime, immigration and homelessness in San Francisco.
The four fundraisers Trump attended in Los Angeles, San Diego, Beverly Hills and the San Francisco area netted $15 million for Trump Victory, a joint fundraising committee made up of the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee, said one Republican official familiar with the events.
Trump’s donor base in California is bigger than one would presume for a blue state, even if many of its donors would prefer to remain under-the-radar given Trump’s divisiveness. In 2016, between May and the November election, the Trump campaign and the RNC took in roughly $11.2 million in donations of at least $5,000 or more from California residents, according to data from the Federal Election Commission.
That included donations from Steven Mnuchin, who worked on the Trump campaign and later became Treasury Secretary, and Tom Barrack, Trump’s longtime billionaire friend currently under investigation by federal prosecutors.
In 2019, Trump’s support from California Republicans comes from real estate industry executives, players in California’s huge agricultural sector — long a supporter of and geographic home to California Republicans — and technology executives who have broken with the industry’s generally liberal bent.
This includes Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal and an entrepreneur, as well as donors who are not household names, including: Geoffrey H. Palmer, a real estate developer; Barbara M. Grimm-Marshall, owner of Grimmway Farms; entrepreneur Jarrett Streebin; and Oculus founder Palmer Luckey, according to Federal Election Commission records.
Two close advisers to the White House said the Trump campaign always raises the majority of its money from donors in California, New York, Texas, and Florida, given the wealth in the four states.
Trump’s attention to California-specific issues helps make donors feel heard, they added, especially since Trump has never been able to tap into establishment Republican money in any meaningful way in states like Connecticut, Massachusetts or New Jersey.
The Trump campaign also intends to continue to elevate the state as a cautionary example for what it considers an overly liberal government run amok, compared to the #MAGA worldview Trump has created. The campaign is casting California as socialism on steroids, with the state suddenly the president’s favorite political foil.
Democrats control more than two-thirds of the California Legislature while Republicans have fallen to third in voter registration, trailing independents. Even longtime GOP bastions such as Orange County have turned blue, a major reason Republicans hold only seven of the state’s 53 seats in Congress.
“There is a growing sense that California is just out of control,” said Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House and a longtime friend of Trump’s who serves as an informal political adviser. “The president is ultimately going to run a campaign of contrasts. The party that cannot fix Baltimore also cannot fix San Francisco and cannot fix the homeless problem there. He is looking for opportunities to draw the contrast between the two Americas, and I think it is greatly to the left’s disadvantage.”
Trump certainly played up that theme during his visit.
On Air Force One during the ride back to Washington D.C., he announced the Environmental Protection Agency would soon give San Francisco a notice of environmental violations related to its homelessness problem. The president said pollution was flowing into the ocean in California because of waste in storm sewers caused by objects like used needles.
“It’s a terrible situation — that’s in Los Angeles and in San Francisco,” he said on the plane. “We can’t have our cities going to hell.”
“The President is underlining the failure of liberal leadership in major cities, in California and elsewhere, to draw a contrast with the success of his own policies. And the success of his fundraising in California is evidence that there are millions of Golden State residents who enthusiastically support his re-election,” said Tim Murtaugh, director of communications for the president’s re-election campaign.
“It is also important for California Republicans to stay engaged, because there are a number of House seats we can regain with President Trump’s help at the top of the ticket,” Murtaugh added.
Attorney Dhillon, who rode with Trump in his motorcade in California and had previously attended a White House social media summit enlisting conservative voices, rejected the notion that Trump was “retaliating” against California’s Democratic leaders.
“I think there’s a lot of interest here despite the one-party rule” in what the president has to say, added Dhillon.
The president also always loves a good foil — from the New York Times to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to state political figures and business leaders in the nation’s most populous and arguably bluest state.
“There are a lot of bogeyman who reside in California,” joked one source close to the campaign about the president’s most recent visit. “You have Big Tech and Hollywood,” giving the president ammunition for Twitter, rallies, and his 2020 re-election bid.
Scott Bland contributed reporting.