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As Trump Slumps in Polls, Republican Donors Look to Save the Senate

2020-07-20 22:59:56

Follow our live coverage of the 2020 election between Joe Biden and President Trump.

President 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 Mr. 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 imperative for the G.O.P.: A Democratic Senate could offer a glide path for liberal Supreme Court nominees from a President Biden, or block Mr. 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 conservative states, such as Montana, where seats are now increasingly up for grabs.

Five of the most endangered Republican senators up for re-election were out-raised 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 Mr. Trump will beat Joseph R. Biden Jr.; fear that the president is already a drag on down-ballot candidates; desire to maintain a G.O.P. “firewall” on Capitol Hill if Mr. Biden prevails; and the belief that money is not among Mr. Trump’s myriad problems.

A series of national polls last week showed Mr. Trump stuck double digits behind Mr. Biden, who now tops 50 percent 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.

Mr. Biden himself told a group of journalists last week that he could see his party winning enough Senate seats this year that it would have 53 seats come January. And on Friday, as the Republican Senate candidates struggled 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 Mr. 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 campaign cash. Yet any efforts by donors to change their focus to the Senate will be a delicate balance. Mr. 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.”

Mr. Eberhart, who contributed $100,000 to Mr. 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 Senator Steve Daines, who some private Republican polls show has fallen behind his Democratic challenger, Gov. Steve Bullock.

On Monday, new campaign filings showed that the billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife contributed $25 million to a super PAC dedicated to electing Senate Republicans in June, his biggest contribution of the 2020 cycle so far.

A wave of Democratic challengers raised more in the second quarter than their Republican rivals, according to campaign filings made last week, including in Montana. In North Carolina, a relatively unknown Democratic challenger, Cal Cunningham, nearly tripled Senator Thom Tillis’s haul, raising $7.4 million to $2.6 million. In Maine, Senator Susan Collins, the Republican, was substantially out-raised by her Democratic opponent, Sara Gideon — more than $9 million to $3.6 million.

And in Arizona, Mark Kelly, a Democrat who is a former astronaut and the husband of former Representative Gabrielle Giffords, raised almost $12.8 million. His nearly $24 million in the bank is more than twice as much money as Senator Martha McSally, the Republican incumbent, reported in a race a number of Republicans 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 Mr. Trump is re-elected, since the vice president acts as a tiebreaker.

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

Senator 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 United States Chamber of Commerce, calling it the group’s “top priority” in 2020.

Despite his grip on the party base, Mr. 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 Mr. Trump’s “arrogance” and tweets.

“He surprised us all last time when he won the first election,” Mr. 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 Mr. Trump’s campaign and affiliated super PAC. But Mr. Griffin and Mr. Singer gave a combined $7 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 and 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 fund-raising bright spot, regularly outpacing Senator Gary Peters.

But Democrats are on offense and are out-raising 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 Mr. McConnell’s home state, Kentucky. His Democratic opponent, Amy McGrath, narrowly survived a June primary but has proved herself a fund-raising phenomenon, raising more than $47 million. 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 Senator Lindsey Graham — more than $5 million more than Mr. Graham.

“That’s a crazy number,” Henry Barbour, a Republican strategist and Republican National Committee member, said of Mr. Harrison’s haul. Mr. Barbour said he believed Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign. “He’s the only one driving small donors, because that’s where the action is taking place.”

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

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


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