February 22, 2024


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As Trump Slumps, Republican Donors Look to Save the Senate

8 min read

President Donald Trump’s weak poll numbers and a surge of Democratic cash flooding key Senate races have jolted top Republicans and intensified talk among party donors and strategists about redirecting money to protect their narrow Senate Republican majority amid growing fear of complete Democratic control of Washington in 2021.

Almost no one is talking openly about abandoning Trump at this point. A total collapse at the top of the ticket, Republican strategists and donors agree, would only make holding the Senate harder.

But maintaining the Senate is an urgent imperative for the GOP: A Democratic Senate could offer a glide path for liberal Supreme Court nominees from a President Joe Biden, or block Trump’s judges if he won a second term. And right now, Senate Republican incumbents and candidates are losing badly in the money chase not just in the top Senate battlegrounds — states like Maine, Arizona, Colorado and North Carolina — but also in deep red states, such as Montana, where seats are now increasingly up for grabs.

Five of the most endangered Republican senators up for reelection were outraised by a combined $18.5 million in the second quarter by their Democratic challengers, recent campaign filings show.

The private discussions about whether to shift resources toward imperiled Republican Senate candidates reflect a mix of factors: a lack of confidence that Trump will beat Biden; fear that the president is already a drag on down-ballot candidates; desire to maintain a GOP “firewall” on Capitol Hill if Biden prevails; and the belief that money is not among Trump’s myriad problems.

A series of national polls last week showed Trump stuck double digits behind Biden, who now tops 50% in many surveys. The president has more than three months to rebound, of course, and he is flush with cash and continues to raise large sums online. But the trend on the Republican political landscape is toward erosion, not growth.

Biden himself told a group of journalists last week that he could see his party winning as many as 53 Senate seats this year. And on Friday, as the Senate candidates struggle to raise money, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report shifted its race ratings in 20 House seats — all in favor of the Democrats.

In interviews, more than two dozen top Republican donors and strategists said that Trump’s political fate would be far more contingent on his own behavior and ability to navigate the COVID-19 crisis and the struggling economy than any additional infusion of fundraising. Yet any efforts by donors to retrench to the Senate will be a delicate balance. Trump not only maintains an iron grip on the Republican base that every Republican senator on the ballot will need to mobilize but also a penchant to lash out at the first signs of disloyalty.

“As Republicans get more and more in tune, it’s hold the Senate at all costs,” said Dan K. Eberhart, an energy executive and a major Republican donor. “The House is gone. And the White House is looking increasingly like an uphill battle. This is not a good picture for us.”

Eberhart, who contributed $100,000 to Trump’s efforts in June, is now focused on the Senate and preparing an independent expenditure radio campaign in Montana to bolster the fortunes of Sen. Steve Daines, who some private Republican polls show has fallen behind his Democratic challenger, Gov. Steve Bullock.

Bullock is among the wave of Democratic challengers who raised more in the second quarter than their Republican rivals, according to campaign filings made last week. In North Carolina, a relatively unknown Democratic challenger, Cal Cunningham, nearly tripled Sen. Thom Tillis’ haul, raising $7.4 million to $2.6 million. In Maine, Sen. Susan Collins, the Republican, was substantially outraised by her Democratic opponent, Sarah Gideon, who collected more than $9 million, compared with only $3.6 million for Collins.

And in Arizona, Mark Kelly, a Democrat who is a former astronaut and the husband of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, raised almost $12.8 million. His nearly $24 million in the bank is more than twice as much money as Sen. Martha McSally, the Republican incumbent, reported in a race a number of Republican officials fear is slipping away.

Democrats must win a net of three new seats and the White House to take control of the Senate, or four seats if Trump is reelected.

“We could be in big trouble in the Senate,” said Fred Zeidman, a Republican fundraiser in Texas. “If we lose the White House, then we’ve lost everything. The Senate has to be the firewall.”

Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican majority leader, has been warning donors in dire terms about permanent and systemic shifts that could come about in a fully Democratic-controlled Washington next year: adding Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., as states, expanding the Supreme Court, and the end of the legislative filibuster, which has previously served as an institutional brake on congressional majorities, according to people who have heard his pitch.

“We recognize that the Senate is the backstop,” said Scott Reed, the chief strategist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, calling it the group’s “top priority” in 2020. The Democrats, he said, would “put the entire business community on the menu,” he said.

Despite his grip on the party base, Trump has never fully ingratiated himself with the full spectrum of traditional Republicans, particularly some major contributors.

Frank VanderSloot, a major Republican donor in Idaho who has given more than $800,000 to Republican candidates and committees since 2017, said that the Senate was his top priority and that voters and donors alike were being turned off by Trump’s “arrogance” and tweets.

“He surprised us all last time when he won the first election,” VanderSloot said. “But I think the chance of us having a Democrat, Joe Biden, as president is pretty high.”

“Somebody’s got to protect the country from foolishness,” he added of the Democratic agenda. “The only hope is the Senate.”

Some of the party’s most generous donors, including the hedge fund managers Paul Singer and Kenneth C. Griffin, have been notably absent from the rolls of donors to Trump’s campaign and affiliated super PAC. But Griffin and Singer gave a combined $6 million in federal donations last month, including $750,000 to a super PAC targeting a Democratic-held Senate seat in Michigan.

Democrats are chiefly defending two seats. One is in Alabama, where Sen. Doug Jones is seeking a full term after winning a special election against an opponent accused of sexual misconduct with teenagers. The other is in Michigan, where the Republican challenger, John James, who is seeking to become the second Black Republican in the current Senate, has proved a rare fundraising bright spot, regularly outpacing Sen. Gary Peters.

But Democrats are on offense and are outraising their Republican counterparts across most of the map, in places including some deeply Republican states that are not typically considered competitive, such as Alaska, South Carolina and McConnell’s home state, Kentucky. His Democratic opponent, Amy McGrath, narrowly survived a June primary but has proved herself a fundraising phenomenon, raising more than $47 million since she entered the race. Democratic candidates also raised more money than Republican incumbents in Georgia, Iowa and Colorado in the second quarter.

And in South Carolina, Jaime Harrison, a former state Democratic Party chairman, raised $13.9 million in his bid to unseat Sen. Lindsey Graham — more than $5 million more than Graham.

“That’s a crazy number,” Henry Barbour, a Republican strategist and Republican National Committee member, said of Harrison’s haul. Barbour said he believed Graham would ultimately prevail but of the broader landscape he added, “I think people were more confident about the Senate a few months ago.”

Democratic candidates have gained a financial edge largely with a wave of online donations that Republicans, other than Trump, have struggled to match. Some strategists see the cash — and the lack thereof — as a measurement of excitement.

“The challenge that the Senate has is President Trump is the only one garnering any type of enthusiasm,” said Bryan Lanza, a former aide to Trump’s 2016 campaign. “He’s the only one driving small donors, because that’s where the action is taking place. The president is pushing policy grabbing people’s attention.”

The fate of Senate candidates has been increasingly yoked to the top of the ticket. In 2016, every state that elected a Republican senator also voted for Trump, and every state that elected a Democratic senator voted for Hillary Clinton. And in 2018, all five Senate incumbents who lost were defeated by challengers from the party that carried their state in the 2016 presidential contests.

Strategists in both parties expect that kind of polarization to continue, making it hard for Republicans to distance from Trump.

In Maine, which split its electoral votes four years ago, Collins recently called for a remarkable 16 debates between now and November, in what appeared to be an effort to draw out and define her opponent separate from the broader national mood. In Iowa, a state that Trump carried in 2016 but which appears more competitive in 2020, Sen. Joni Ernst, a Republican, deployed a similar tactic, calling for six debates with her Democratic challenger.

“In 2016, numerous Republican Senate candidates ran ahead of Donald Trump in their home states. That may be more challenging to accomplish in 2020 given the stamp that President Trump has put on the Republican Party,” said Whit Ayers, a veteran Republican pollster.

Key Republican officials are rallying to defend the fragile Senate majority.

Former President George W. Bush, who has been cool to Trump’s reelection, headlined a virtual fundraiser at the end of June for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. And former House Speaker Paul Ryan, who had regular disagreements with Trump, held a fundraising call last Monday to raise money for Rep. Roger Marshall, who is running for a Senate seat in Kansas and faces a primary against Kris Kobach, an anti-immigration crusader. Mainstream Republicans warn that Kobach’s nomination could cost the party the seat.

And last month, John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Senate Republican, held a private call pitching to the board of the Republican Jewish Coalition, which counts some of the party’s most generous contributors as members.

Billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson has typically given his huge sums late in the campaign cycle — he and his wife gave $50 million to super PAC dedicated to electing Senate Republicans in 2018 — and is still the party’s most sought-after contributor. Super PAC funds can be crucial but also are not controlled by the candidates themselves.

“It’s time to wake up and get off the sidelines,” Brad Todd, a Republican strategist working on multiple Senate races, said of his party’s donors, both big and small, arguing there was “no need to redirect” money away from the White House.

“What needs to happen,” Todd said, “is Republican donors need to give more.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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