INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — Wealthy Republican donors gathered for an annual conference fretted Sunday that President Trump’s provocative rhetoric was obscuring a record of policy success and could sink the GOP in midterm elections.
The high dollar contributors, attending the Koch political network’s winter seminar at a tony desert resort 150 miles east of Los Angeles, lauded Trump’s domestic and international accomplishments in Year 1 of his administration. It was a pleasant but welcome surprise for a group that was initially disinclined toward Trump and opposed to him in the 2016 primary.
But for many, the president’s coarse, often mean-spirited behavior is wearing as thin as ever. And, now they worry it could be stirring up a political hornets nest for Republicans in Congress that could sweep them out of power on Capitol Hill in November.
“If I had gone into a coma two years ago and woke up today and just read what has been accomplished, I’d be thrilled — shocked and thrilled,” Tom Shepherd, who runs a chemical manufacturing company in Cincinnati, said Sunday during a reception with reporters.
Then Shepherd finished his assessment. “There’s an awful lot about President Trump that is regrettable — his commentary, his general commentary. I think that it’s largely unnecessary, ugly.” And, added Shepherd’s wife, Nancy: “distracting.”
Liz Wright, a donor from Colorado who voted for Libertarian Gary Johnson in the general election, said she worries Trump will do lasting damage to the Republican Party and that conservative policy gains will be undone, as key demographics like women and minorities reject the GOP because of their opposition to the president.
“As a person, I still think the same way about him as I did before — not the greatest human being. I’m not a fan of him, but I think he’s done an amazing job of putting through policies that really are changing the trajectory of the country,” Wright said. “Similar to the way Obama really hurt the Democratic Party…we are at risk of Trump doing the same thing for the Republicans.”
President Obama won re-election in 2012, but Democrats were decimated in the midterm elections on Obama’s watch, losing a record number of seats in Congress and, overall, about 1,000 seats in state and local governments across the country.
About 550 donors decamped for the weekend to the Renaissance Esmerelda Indian Wells Resort and Spa, near Palm Springs, Calif., for the Koch network’s annual political and policy conference. They spent three days immersed in seminars, being encouraged to increase their involvement, and hearing from Republican VIPs.
The spotlight was on policy, like the Koch network’s new efforts to reform the criminal justice system and reinvigorate K-12 education. Yet underneath the optimism for these initiatives and backslapping over passage of the GOP tax reform bill that the Koch network supported was anxiety about fall.
“The midterm is going to be hard,” Gayle Werner-Robertson, a Koch network donor, warned in impromptu remarks to the full session. “Let’s make America great again!”
To help Republicans withstand a possible blue wave, the Koch network is planning to invest nearly $400 million promoting conservative policies and protecting the GOP in November.
In an evening reception, about 15 network donors joined reporters to discuss policy, their assessment of Trump and Republicans in Congress and the upcoming elections. In candid conversations, many conceded that Republican incumbents in their states are in trouble.
Frayda Levy, who started the New Jersey chapter of Americans for Prosperity, the Koch network's main grassroots political organization, said the danger GOP House members face in her state — where Democrats are expected to invest heavily — is very real and not overblown. John DeBlasio, a donor and first-time conference attendee from Illinois, is worried about Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill.
Roskam holds a suburban Chicago district, the sort where educated white women are prevalent. Despite the booming economy, they don’t like Trump. Additionally, the Republican tax bill has been a hard sell in upscale suburban strongholds in blue states that usually vote for Republicans but believe the new law could raise their taxes.
“Educated suburban white women have decided that they’re not interested,” DeBlasio said. “People tend to react in a sense they want to protect themselves…Trump doesn’t give people a sense of security, particularly that demographic.”
But, it wasn’t all doom and gloom from this crowd.
Some are hopeful that as the economic expansion continues, Trump and congressional Republicans will get the credit, especially since Democrats unanimously opposed the federal tax overhaul. Others said they even liked the president’s tweeting and blunt style.
“I feel it’s refreshing and I like the fact that you’ve got somebody who’s not so filtered on everything and trying to play into whoever’s asking the question,” Jill Lynch, a donor from Iowa, said.
Doug Deason, a Republican donor from Texas who supported Trump early on, dismissed criticism of the president’s public persona as immaterial.
He predicted House Republicans would hold their majorities in the midterm, keeping their losses to single digits in the House and pick up seats in the Senate.
“This tax reform bill is going to be incredible, we’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg so far,” Deason said, adding: “I love that he tweets and essentially renders the mainstream media irrelevant.”