Bob Mercer’s Influence on Politics Wanes as New Donors Emerge

| June 5, 2019 | 0 Comments

Two years ago, hedge-fund investor Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah had the president’s ear. Now, on the eve of midterm elections, a different group of Wall Street executives enjoys access to the Oval Office.

The Mercers are playing a less-important role backing conservative politicians, according to campaign finance filings and people close to the matter, even as a handful of other finance executives boost their contributions during the latest election cycle.

“They’ve fallen off the grid,” a leading member of the conservative movement said of the Mercers. “We don’t hear much from them.”

It is a marked step back for a pair who two years ago seemed well-positioned to influence the new administration.

At an August 2016 fundraiser on Long Island, Ms. Mercer approached then-candidate Donald Trump and encouraged him to hire Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway to stabilize his flailing campaign. Mr. Trump agreed, and the Mercers entered the president’s inner circle. After the election, Mr. Trump attended a costume party at Mr. Mercer’s home and Ms. Mercer advised the president on certain appointments.

The Mercers, though, experienced unexpected blowback from their forays into politics—which friends say prompted them to shift to a lower-key approach, with smaller political contributions and little regular communication with Mr. Trump or members of his administration.

Other financial executives, meanwhile, have gained more clout.

Blackstone Group LP Chief Executive Stephen Schwarzman, for example, has regular phone conversations with Mr. Trump, according to people close to the executive, to discuss economic policy and other matters. Mr. Schwarzman didn’t back Mr. Trump during the presidential election but shortly afterward chaired the since-disbanded White House Strategic and Policy Forum.

In recent months, Mr. Schwarzman has informally advised Mr. Trump on certain topics, the people say.  A spokeswoman for Mr. Schwarzman wouldn’t comment.

Mr. Schwarzman has boosted his political donations, even as the Mercers have pulled back. This year, as of Oct. 26, the Blackstone co-founder made $12.8 million in disclosed political contributions to Republican candidates, political-action committees and outside groups, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, making him the third-largest Republican donor. By contrast, Mr. Mercer made $5.9 million in disclosed political contributions.

In 2014, the last midterm-election year, Mr. Mercer made $9.7 million in political contributions, and he gave $25.6 million during the 2016 election year, making him one of the party’s top donors, the Center says.

Among other Wall Street executives, Kenneth Griffin, founder of hedge fund Citadel Investment Group Inc., and brokerage founder Charles Schwab have given more this year to conservative causes than Mr. Mercer.

Some of Mr. Mercer’s political bets have gone awry. This past June, he gave $500,000 to a political action committee backing Kelli Ward, who lost Arizona’s Republican Senate primary in August. Ms. Ward drew criticism for accusing the family of the late Sen. John McCain for timing the announcement of the end of his cancer treatment to undercut her campaign.

Over the past year, Mr. Mercer has backed a PAC called Black Americans for A Better Future, which encourages the involvement of more black men and women in the Republican Party, and a PAC supporting U.S. national security adviser John Bolton.

“There were high expectations that they would be huge players in the administration, but that’s not what they want,” said Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee, who has received support from the Mercers.

Mr. Mercer couldn’t be reached for comment. A spokesman for Ms. Mercer wouldn’t comment.

Mr. Mercer for years played a crucial role at his hedge fund Renaissance Technologies, while he and his daughter became more involved in conservative and other causes, aiming to upend a Republican establishment friends say they had become disenchanted with. They backed Cambridge Analytica, the data firm that forged ties with President Trump’s 2016 campaign, the conservative website Breitbart News and right-wing firebrand Milo Yiannopoulos.

After the election, the Mercers fielded intense criticism. Some Renaissance investors and employees grew uncomfortable with Mr. Mercer’s political activities, according to people close to the matter, while Ms. Mercer has spoken of receiving death threats and dealing with protesters in front of her home.

Mr. Mercer and his daughter hadn’t prepared for the negative reaction, friends say.

“They were so much more successful in the political arena than they expected, it took off like a rocket,” said Brent Bozell, a friend who runs the Media Research Center. “There’s bitterness…people have disappointed them.”

Mr. Mercer agreed to step down as co-chief executive officer of his firm, shifted his Breitbart stake to his daughters, and broke ties Mr. Yiannopoulos and Mr. Bannon, who eventually quit the administration.

Today, the Mercers remain close with Ms. Conway but don’t have another conduit to communicate with Mr. Trump or his advisers, according to people close to the matter. The Mercers tell friends they continue to support Mr. Trump and are pleased with his policies.

Lately, Mr. Mercer has focused on his firm, while Ms. Mercer has been involved in issues far from the headlines, such as working to boost free speech on college campuses, the friends say.

A few weeks ago, Ms. Mercer was honored at a Washington, D.C., gala where she said shared concerns about the level of discourse on college campuses, saying schools “churn out a wave of ovine zombies steeped in the anti-American myths of the radical left, ignorant of basic civics, economics and history, and completely unfit for critical thinking.”

“I will not be silenced,” she said.

Rather than attend the event, Mr. Trump sent a letter of appreciation, an attendee says.

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