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Wall Street donors weigh options

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Wall Street executives have been speaking with strategists and fellow donors to address a question that’s been dogging them since November 2020: Who are they going to support to take on former President Donald Trump in the 2024 GOP primary?

For some, the answer is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, according to people familiar with the conversations. DeSantis is the only Republican who’s polled in second place to Trump in recent primary polls.

DeSantis has yet to officially declare his candidacy for president. Trump, meanwhile, is raising millions of dollars off an indictment brought against him by a Manhattan grand jury. A super PAC urging DeSantis to run for president said it has raised $30 million since its launch less than a month ago. The first GOP primary debate is scheduled for August.

Blackstone CEO Steve Schwarzman is seriously considering backing the Florida governor for president, according to a person familiar with his thinking. A spokeswoman for Schwarzman did not return a request for comment.

Schwarzman, who spent millions trying to get Trump reelected in 2020, had said in a statement to CNBC that he believed it was “time for the Republican party to turn to a new generation of leaders” and that he planned to back one of those contenders in the GOP primary for president. Ken Griffin, the billionaire CEO of investment giant Citadel, has said that he plans to back to DeSantis if he gets into the race.

Many Republican fundraisers on Wall Street, however, aren’t so eager to jump in. Some fear backing a candidate that could lose to Trump. Others are worried about getting in the middle of a bitter battle between their favored candidate and the former president, according to donors and political strategists who work for wealthy financiers.

“They don’t want to get in a middle of a dog fight,” a Morgan Stanley executive, who’s donated to Republicans for years and is sitting out of the primary fight for now, told CNBC. “No one wants to be on the losing side,” the person added.

“I think most people favor DeSantis over Trump but it’s unclear that [DeSantis] can win,” a Wall Street donor strategist told CNBC.

Some of the people in this story declined to be named in order to speak freely about private conversations.

Thomas Peterffy, a billionaire who founded the electronic brokerage firm Interactive Brokers, told CNBC that he and his allies are still trying to figure out which Republican has the best chance to beat Trump and then President Joe Biden. Peterffy has even donated more than $360,000 to a pro-DeSantis political action committee called Friends of Ron DeSantis.

“The issue is that the candidate has to pull to the right to have a chance in the primary, but the further they go the more difficulty they’ll have with the general,” Peterffy said. “We are hoping for somebody who can convince us that they can straddle this issue.”

Still, since he dominated in his Florida reelection bid last year, DeSantis’ stock has risen for a growing group of Wall Street executives, including Schwarzman.

In January, a Philadelphia fundraising event organized by Daniel DiLella, the CEO of real estate investment firm Equus Capital Partners, featured DeSantis, according to Gorr Sahakian, who was once an analyst at Bank of America Merrill Lynch before becoming a senior vice president at H. Hovnanian Industries.

Sahakian, who spoke to CNBC earlier this year, said that the fundraiser was in support of the Friends of Ron DeSantis PAC, and the governor spoke to attendees about his time running Florida. Sahakian contributed $10,000 to the PAC the same month of the fundraiser and said he could support DeSantis if he were to run for president.

DiLella has donated at least $80,000 to the Friends of Ron DeSantis PAC, according to state records. He did not return requests for comment.

Mark Gerson, the co-founder of financial and business advisory firm Gerson Lehrman Group, will support DeSantis if he runs, Gerson told CNBC in an email.

“He is a man of great vision, intelligence and broad-based concern who studies the issues carefully, comes to rigorously conceived positions deriving from principle and data — and executes courageously and very effectively,” Gerson said. “If he runs for President, I will enthusiastically give my full support!”

Gerson donated $3,000 to DeSantis’ 2018 campaign for governor and just over $100,000 to the Friends of Ron DeSantis PAC between 2018 and 2022, according to state records.



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