Politics & Policy

Anti-Trump Donors May Shift Money to Republican Senate Hopefuls

Trump campaigns in Appleton, Wisc., March 30, 2016. (Scott Olson/Getty)

It’s a difficult time to be a Republican running for Senate.

In the best of presidential years, down-ballot races tend to play out at the mercy of the national campaign, which takes up much of the oxygen in the media, on the airwaves, and in general conversation. But this year that effect could be amplified, because many of the major Senate battlegrounds also happen to be presidential swing states — Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Nevada — and because Donald Trump is poised to potentially emerge atop the Republican ticket.

Trump’s nomination would undoubtedly force the party’s Senate hopefuls to answer for the unending stream of controversies he leaves in his wake — Democrats have made no secret of the fact that this is their strategy. But it might also have an upside: Many Republicans suspect that the deep-pocketed GOP donors who abhor Trump could choose to spend their money helping defend the Senate from Democrats instead.

“I think if anything, [GOP donors will] give more to Senate campaigns. . . . A lot of people would be very worried, and they’d want more than ever for the Senate to be solid, so they could stop the things that Clinton wanted to do,” says major Republican donor Stan Hubbard, who has contributed to anti-Trump efforts. “I think it would help them raise money both on the House and the Senate side.”

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Fundraising will be especially important for Senate Republicans in a year when the map puts them on defense. Ten of the twelve competitive — or potentially competitive — Senate races this cycle are for seats currently held by a Republican. Democrats have a number of opportunities to pick up the net five seats they need to retake the upper chamber in any number of ways.

For some Republicans donors, that makes spending on Senate races “an insurance policy,” says Chuck Warren, a Republican political consultant and bundler. The Supreme Court vacancy left by Justice Antonin Scalia’s death has heightened the anxiety for Republicans. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court announced that it had deadlocked on a case regarding union dues, illustrating just how much power the next president could have in nominating a new justice. “I’ve heard from six donors on that issue alone,” Warren says the day after the decision was announced.

Thus far this cycle, Republican Senate hopefuls have not struggled for money. But the bar for fundraising might also be higher.

But it’s a weird time to be raising money from Republican donors. The uncertainty in the presidential race, which looks unlikely to come to a conclusion before the convention in July, has unnerved many who gave generously to GOP candidates in previous cycles. Over the past six months, they have seen some of the party’s strongest apparent contenders — all-star governors and senators — get picked off one by one. They have watched as the billionaire business magnate who few believed would ever run, and who even fewer believed would still be in the race at this point, defied all predictions to become the clear front-runner. And they remain bewildered that the millions of dollars spent against him — perhaps too late — have failed to turn the tide.

The result is a Republican donor class suddenly anxious about its own impotence. Donors, one GOP fundraiser tells National Review, “are just very confused why their money is not turning into momentum.” Another fundraiser notes a pronounced “hesitancy” among big donors who at this point in previous cycles were more willing to part with their money.

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“I feel like right now, since Rubio dropped out, there’s just this kind of devastation that has taken place within the donor class and the Republican establishment class, where they can’t understand what’s going on . . . and they don’t know how to fix it,” says the first fundraiser.

To be sure, these convulsions are largely occurring among the bigger donors, who tend to back more establishment candidates. Among donors more inclined to support conservative candidates who run against the establishment, fundraisers say they continue to have success. “The atmosphere for fundraising is excellent,” says Brant Frost IV, a Georgia bundler who is fundraising for Ted Cruz, along with several congressional and state-level candidates. Frost focuses on smaller-dollar donors, but says that candidates who are willing to “fight the Washington cartel” — or, on the state level, the “Atlanta cartel” — continue to receive a willing ear from donors.

#share#The National Republican Senatorial Committee, which is charged with electing Republicans to the Senate, has long planned for Trump’s possible nomination — a leaked memo from September outlined a detailed plan for helping Senate candidates weather some of his more outlandish statements — and is aware that Trump might enable them to tap donors who would otherwise be focused on the presidential race.

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Thus far this cycle, Republican Senate hopefuls have not struggled for money. But the bar for fundraising might also be higher.

“I had a senator come into my office literally last week and was asking, he’s in a battleground state, and I said, ‘Well, how much money do you need to raise?’” Warren recalls. “He says, ‘I need to raise about $20 million between now and September.’”

On its own, resolving the party’s presidential race will help Senate candidates because it will free up some oxygen. “Clarity alone will shift attention back to senate candidates,” says GOP consultant Brad Todd. The presidential race, for now, has been the “perfect excuse to put people off.”

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Some groups have started publicly saying the Senate races will be their focus instead of the House races. The Koch brothers’ network, as the Washington Post reported last week, will likely focus on the Senate above all else. Already, various entities in the network have spent money on Senate races in Nevada, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, and “we have a lot of activity in targeted Senate states coming this spring,” James Davis, a spokesman for Freedom Partners, one of the groups in the network, tells National Review.

“I certainly think that that is the message that is being conveyed privately to Republican donors: That, look, especially with the Supreme Court in the balance right now, it’s paramount that we keep control of the Senate,” says Republican consultant Brian Walsh, a former NRSC communications director.

#related#For now, fundraisers and bundlers say they are not seeing any particular change from the norm in fundraising for Senate races. Eric Tannenblatt, an Atlanta political operative who raised money for Jeb Bush this cycle and was Mitt Romney’s national finance co-chairman in 2012, says he isn’t seeing the same level of hesitancy among donors in down-ballot races as he is among those at the presidential level right now. “I know that there probably is pause being taken on the presidential race right now. I don’t see that on the congressional side because I think people want to make sure that we maintain the majorities in the Congress,” he says.

That could change if Trump becomes the nominee. Former NRSC executive director Rob Jesmer predicts that Trump’s presence as the face of the ticket would put some donors in the “full fetal position. And I think money will probably start going to House and Senate committees in a disproportionate form to try to hold onto majorities.”

But, he notes, “We’re a little ways from that now.”

— Alexis Levinson is the senior political reporter for National Review.

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