Nikki Haley lost Iowa. Then she lost New Hampshire. Now, some of the biggest donors in the Republican Party — a Trump-resistant donor class that has fueled her candidacy for months — are at least opening the door to former President Donald J. Trump.
A network of some of the country’s wealthiest Republican donors gathered this week at a Florida winter meeting held by the American Opportunity Alliance and heard from top aides to both Mr. Trump and Ms. Haley. The gathering on Monday and Tuesday was one of the first significant steps in the reluctant drag back to the reality of Mr. Trump for some of these donors, after aides to Mr. Trump received no such invitation to the group’s fall retreat.
Ms. Haley has a series of fund-raisers in the coming days, and held one in New York City on Tuesday night. Money will not be an obstacle for her candidacy. But privately, some of the party’s major donors — including some who are supporting Ms. Haley — say they are ready for the contest to come to an end, in order to focus on President Biden, and concede that Ms. Haley has little chance of overtaking Mr. Trump absent some unforeseen event.
At the American Opportunity Alliance retreat, Ms. Haley had far more backers than Mr. Trump did. Kenneth Griffin, a billionaire hedge-fund executive and major Republican donor who attended the retreat, gave $5 million to her super PAC this month, according to a person close to him.
Before Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida dropped out of the race, he and his allies had anticipated support from Mr. Griffin because the investor had given generously to him in the past. But Mr. Griffin was disappointed by what he saw as an incompetent campaign coupled with profound policy mistakes, such as Mr. DeSantis’s description of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a “territorial dispute,” according to several people familiar with his thinking.
Mr. Griffin had been holding out for a younger candidate who could challenge Mr. Trump, and it took him months to decide to support Ms. Haley. He praised Ms. Haley in a statement to reporters, saying that “America would be well served by someone with her foreign policy credentials and policy priorities in the White House.”
But speaking at an event earlier on Tuesday, Mr. Griffin admitted that her path was “narrower” than it was two months ago, before Mr. Trump won Iowa and New Hampshire. The $5 million he contributed to Ms. Haley’s super PAC, while a significant sum by any normal accounting, is a relatively modest donation for Mr. Griffin. In 2022, he spent $50 million trying to defeat Gov. J.B. Pritzker of Illinois, a Democrat.
Another donor, the Las Vegas developer Robert Bigelow, is not part of the A.O.A. network but had supported Mr. DeSantis with a $20 million donation to his super PAC. This week, he said he was giving the same amount to Mr. Trump.
Olivia Perez-Cubas, a spokeswoman for the Haley campaign, said: “No one said this would be easy, but we’re continuing to run a smart campaign that will ensure Republicans don’t keep losing. Nikki is the only thing standing in the way of a Trump-Biden rematch that 70 percent of Americans don’t want.”
Susie Wiles, a top adviser to Mr. Trump’s campaign, told the A.O.A. gathering at the Four Seasons in Palm Beach, Fla., a simple story, with the help of charts, that depicted Mr. Trump as the inevitable Republican nominee. She described to the donors how he would win in the fall and said the campaign would welcome support from the party’s top donors, according to three people familiar with the event.
Ms. Wiles’s invitation to the A.O.A. event was the first time the group, which holds two meetings a year, had hosted a representative from the Trump camp in the 2024 primary cycle. At their fall meeting last year in Dallas, only advisers to Ms. Haley, Mr. DeSantis and Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina were invited. Both Mr. DeSantis and Mr. Scott have since dropped out of the presidential race.
Ms. Haley’s campaign manager, Betsy Ankney, gave at the A.O.A. meeting what two people described as an impassioned pitch, calling her candidate an alternative to a chaotic and unpopular presidential nominee who could cause a domino effect of House and Senate losses for the party in November.
Ms. Ankney laid out what she portrayed as damning facts about the Trump candidacy. Her litany included the $83.3 million Mr. Trump was ordered to pay last week in a defamation case filed by the writer E. Jean Carroll, whom a previous jury found he had sexually abused, according to the people familiar with her remarks.
Ms. Ankney acknowledged that Ms. Haley, the former South Carolina governor and United Nations ambassador, faced an uphill battle to defeat Mr. Trump. But she insisted that Ms. Haley would stay in the race as long as she had money and momentum, the people said.
Ms. Haley has longstanding ties to a number of the American Opportunity Alliance’s donors, and the network doesn’t move in unison. Nonetheless, Ms. Wiles’s presentation to the group of largely Trump-resistant donors reflects that many of them are finally, after much hemming and hawing, entering the acceptance stage of the grief cycle. Whether those who are affronted by Mr. Trump decide to join him, sit out the primary or stay on the sidelines in a general election remains to be seen.
Ms. Wiles’s presentation came just days after the former president, in a post on his social media website, Truth Social, threatened to freeze out any major donors who give to Ms. Haley. Ms. Wiles acknowledged her candidate’s comments but cited the various ways her team had tried to sew up the nomination for Mr. Trump as quickly as possible. For example, she highlighted how the Trump team had worked behind the scenes, with a team of veteran strategists, to have state Republican parties change rules so that he could accrue as many delegates as possible.
She also promoted the Trump campaign’s powerful online fund-raising operation and questioned Ms. Haley’s general election prospects, saying she doubted the former president’s die-hard base of supporters would vote for Ms. Haley. Mr. Trump has been blasting Ms. Haley for appealing to Democrats and independents in open primaries, and his advisers have said she crossed a line by saying over the weekend that she had confidence in the New York jury that found he had defamed Ms. Carroll.
The presentations, and their reception by the assembled donors, were described by three people who were there or briefed on the matter and who were granted anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the meeting.
The winter meeting of the group — founded a decade ago by wealthy investors, including Paul Singer and Mr. Griffin, both hedge fund magnates — came at a critical juncture in the Republican primary race. Mr. Trump, fresh off decisive victories in Iowa and New Hampshire, hopes to crush Ms. Haley in her home state of South Carolina in the primary on Feb. 24, dealing her candidacy a most likely fatal blow.
For the Trump team, which is simultaneously battling the four criminal indictments Mr. Trump was charged with in 2023, spending money against Ms. Haley through the month of February, weeks before one of the trials may begin, is an unwelcome proposition.
This week’s event, as several people described it, was far less confrontational than the last A.O.A. meeting. At that meeting, the DeSantis team in particular faced questions that were borderline hostile, according to people present.
One ally of Ms. Haley, speaking anonymously because the person was not authorized to discuss the event publicly, praised Ms. Wiles for showing up to face what would be a skeptical audience.
“The bridge has never been burned,” said a senior Trump adviser, Chris LaCivita, when asked in an interview about the Trump campaign’s attitude toward major Republican donors like Mr. Singer and Mr. Griffin, who have resisted Mr. Trump.
“The bridge is there,” Mr. LaCivita added. “It’s up to them whether they want to cross it. These are all smart people. They know there’s no pathway to victory, no matter what Nikki and Co. dream up.”