Trump or Cruz? No Sweat, Wall Street's Big Republican Donors Say

  • Bankers learning to ignore insults and accept front-runners
  • `Be optimistic,' billionaire says about Trump in White House

Trump Jumps to 11-Point Lead in CNN/ORC Iowa Poll

John Damgard wasn’t letting U.S. politics bring him down as he got ready for golf at Huka Lodge on Wednesday morning in New Zealand.

Ted Cruz and Donald Trump have been crushing the moderate Republicans he prefers, hurling insults at bankers and hedge fund managers and flying high as the first primaries near in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. But Damgard, a former head of the Futures Industry Association, is one of the many Republican donors from the financial industry who aren’t rattled.

“Not a bit,” said Damgard, a top defender of derivatives in Washington until he retired in 2012. “Doesn’t bug me. In the middle of the campaign a lot of people say things that they think are going to help them get elected.”

As the candidates that Wall Street backed with millions of dollars have stumbled and banks have become punchlines and punching bags, financiers are wrapping their heads around what life with the New York billionaire or Texas senator in the Oval Office might look like for them. And some don’t mind what they see.

One reason is the toughness that Democrats have promised, with Bernie Sanders planning to take apart the mightiest firms and Hillary Clinton pledging new fees and rules. Another is that Cruz and Trump have enjoyed longstanding ties to business and finance.

‘Cockeyed Optimist’

“Hold on, hold on, hold on,” billionaire investor Ken Langone said this week when asked if the success of the Republican front-runners upset him.

For one thing, according to Langone, a Home Depot Inc. co-founder who’s given New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s super PAC at least $250,000, anything can change before the primaries. Life goes on even under President Trump, Langone said, before getting even sunnier.

“The cockeyed optimist that I am, maybe, just maybe, he might turn out to be one of the greatest surprises America ever had,” he said. “You got to be optimistic.”

Even so, the race has been doubly embarrassing for the industry’s deep-pocketed Republicans. Nominees have showered insults instead of love on big business, with Cruz ridiculing Manhattan money and suggesting he’d let big banks go bankrupt, while Trump has said hedge fund managers get away with murder. Trump also mocked Cruz this week for failing to disclose loans from Citigroup Inc. and Goldman Sachs Group Inc., where the senator’s wife is on an unpaid leave from her job as head of its Houston wealth-management unit.

And by trampling Wall Street’s favorite candidates in national polls, Trump and Cruz have made vast cash contributions and super-PAC donations look silly. Bankers boast about spending political money just as astutely as they invest at work, but their favorites have struggled. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Ohio Governor John Kasich, two candidates who have worked on Wall Street, have lagged. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is long gone, and Florida Senator Marco Rubio hasn’t broken through.

Hallway Pass

Some Wall Street Republicans refuse to embrace Trump or Cruz. Bill Oberndorf, who co-founded the investment firm SPO Partners & Co. and has contributed more than $1.5 million to Bush super PAC Right to Rise USA, may give more. He can’t stand the prospect of Cruz or Trump in the White House, saying they’re unqualified and have the wrong temperament to be president.

Steve Bartlett, who advises financial companies on regulatory issues and headed the Financial Services Roundtable until 2012, said Trump and Cruz aren’t real conservatives, and he wants Republicans to work to bring them down. “Bad things happen to people that sit and assume that nothing bad can happen,” the ex-congressman said.

His successor at the lobbying group, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, is calmer. He didn’t mix it up with Cruz as the two passed recently in a Washington hallway, when the 2012 presidential candidate offered a quick hello to the 2016 star. They asked each other how they were doing, Pawlenty said, and moved right along.

Both candidates may be attacking his industry on the trail, he said, but neither is naïve about how Wall Street works. Trump has spent his life in Manhattan, “so he’s no stranger to these issues,” and “Cruz’s spouse worked or works for Goldman Sachs.”

Manhattan Money

Investor Rob Arnott, a libertarian who supports Cruz and despises Trump, has a theory about why his moderate peers might accept the billionaire.

“The Republican establishment views Trump as someone sufficiently inept that he’ll need them, and they can control the agenda,” said Arnott, who heads asset management firm Research Affiliates LLC, a sub-adviser for Pacific Investment Management Co. “Their view is: Better somebody who has no obvious core political values.”

There’s also reason to imagine Cruz wouldn’t be so bad for Wall Street. Even though he mocked “New York values” at a debate this month, saying the city is “focused around money,” he’s asked for some of it. It cost $10,800 to be on the host committee when Cruz raised funds at Wall Street law firm Sullivan & Cromwell last month, according to Politico.

Cruz has an appreciation of the industry, according to Mike Ference, a lobbyist and partner at S-3 Group in Washington, where his recent clients include JPMorgan Chase & Co. and McGraw Hill Financial Inc.

“He likes to have a populist bent,” said Ference, a senior policy adviser for Eric Cantor when the Virginia Republican was House Majority Leader. “But in reality he understands how the markets work, he understands what makes them move.”

Cape Kidnappers

Christie supporter Joe Grano, who used to run UBS Group AG’s U.S. wealth-management business and now heads business-strategy adviser Centurion Holdings, could adjust to Trump. He’s a good negotiator and wouldn’t be “as dangerous as some people think,” Grano said.

A person involved in government relations at one of the largest U.S. banks, who asked not to be identified, said Trump might be bad overall but wouldn’t come after Wall Street out of the gate like Sanders. Even donors more worried about Trump didn’t focus on his jokes about women, references to Mexicans as rapists or his call to halt Muslim immigration.

Cruz doesn’t frighten one former Goldman Sachs executive who watched the senator help his wife, Heidi, woo clients to a unit that caters to people and families with average investments at the firm of more than $40 million. The senator knows bankers, went to the same Ivy League schools, understands their needs and has taken their money, he said.

Damgard, who’s been a friend of the billionaire Koch brothers for decades, said before his New Zealand golf game started that he prefers Bush, Rubio or Christie.

“But I don’t think either Cruz or Trump are necessarily the end of the world,” he said. After Huka Lodge, he was heading to play at a place called Cape Kidnappers. “They’d be so much better than the other side.”