Increasingly convinced that President Donald Trump’s election chances are grim, top Republican donors, lobbyists, and operatives are directing their attention to the Senate in hopes of keeping a majority in the chamber and, with it, a check on a future President Joe Biden.
Top GOP money men said that efforts to shift resources to Republicans running for the Senate have been happening for weeks, as Trump’s chances have not improved—indeed, worsened—and as the party’s candidates have been dramatically outraised.
“There is no discussion among donors about giving money to the president,” said one prominent GOP donor. “The discussion among donors, bundlers and check writers is about the Senate seats.”
But among seasoned GOP operatives, the imperative to prioritize down-ballot races has only increased in recent days amid Trump’s shaky debate performance and his infection with COVID-19. The argument is one of political triage: the party must use the specter of uniform Democratic control of Washington to save more viable Republicans, not just in the Senate—where the party very well could retain control—but also the House, where continued minority status seems almost assured.
Tom Davis, the former head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said he had sent Rep. Tom Emmer (R-MN), the current NRCC chair, a memo laying out the case for selling voters the benefits of a divided government, with the implication that they would support congressional Republicans if they viewed them as a bulwark against Biden.
“This is the time you have to make tough decisions,” Davis said, of the party allocating its resources. “You have to let voters know there is a price if you sweep Democrats into office.”
“There are a lot of people who voted Republican for years till Trump,” he added. “They haven’t changed their philosophies. So, they’re still getable. You have to make the argument that, ‘Look, you can displace Trump, but you still need a Republican Senate to hold Biden in check.’”
Republican veterans say there is a template for trying to focus the party’s attention and resources on down-ballot races while allowing the presidential candidate to drift. The GOP was able to do so successfully in 1996, with the party holding both chambers of Congress even as Bill Clinton coasted to re-election. Should Biden win this go around, Republicans can only afford to lose three Senate seats, as they’re likely to gain one in Alabama.
The circumstances are far different 24 years later for other reasons as well. All of the sources interviewed for this piece acknowledged that the strategy carried risk, mainly because it is assumed that the party’s prospects writ large are tied to Trump’s core supporters coming out in droves.
And yet, signs that some in the GOP are thinking of subtle ways to cut bait are starting to appear. Several operatives pointed to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s increased warnings about Democrats expanding the Supreme Court, pushing for Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia to be granted statehood, and axing the legislative filibuster—all propositions whose likelihoods are predicated on Biden winning.
“He’s already moving into those talking points. And that is by design ” said one top GOP operative.
There are also signs that some of Trump’s biggest financial supporters of yore are now devoting more resources to holding onto the Senate than they are to re-electing the president.
Steve Wynn, the disgraced casino mogul who ran fundraising for the Republican National Committee early in Trump’s tenure, took a brief hiatus from high-dollar political giving after dozens of people relayed allegations of sexual assault and misconduct against him (Wynn denies the allegations, but resigned from his eponymous company, Wynn Resorts, in early 2018). Those allegations were reported by the Wall Street Journal just days after Wynn cut a $500,000 check to America First Action.
After his fall from grace, Wynn’s political giving mostly dropped off. But it resumed in a big way this year. In 2020 alone, he’s given $4 million to the Senate Leadership Fund and $1.5 million to American Crossroads, making him the latter’s single largest donor as it tries to beat back a challenge to Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC). Wynn has also donated to McConnell’s campaign and PAC this year, and made six figure contributions to the National Republican Senatorial Committee and one of its joint fundraising accounts.
He has also contributed to the Trump campaign this year, but the sums are significantly smaller—under half a million dollars to Trump Victory, a joint fundraising committee benefitting the RNC and the Trump campaign, and under $400,000 to the RNC. He’s given nothing to pro-Trump super PACs since that donation in early 2018.
Among the GOP’s donor base in business and finance, the incentive structure is increasingly geared towards hanging onto levers of power that could check a Democratic administration—even if it means cutting bait when it comes to the White House. One top Republican lobbyist, for instance, said that corporate clients have become increasingly invested in trying to retain GOP control of the Senate for fear of the tax legislation that could originate from a Nancy Pelosi-run House and find its way to Biden’s desk.
“Divided government is good for most donors and most of corporate America,” the lobbyist stressed.
And a major GOP donor based in the Midwest said that donors were increasingly focused on the Senate contests—at the expense of the presidential—because they have come to view Trump’s campaign as an irrational entity in which to invest. Mere minutes after that donor talked up the virtues of propping up Senate institutionalists, Trump tweeted that he was unilaterally ending negotiations over a COVID-related stimulus deal. The donor promptly called back.
“What’s happening in the stock market proves my point,” he said, a sense of exasperation evident in his voice. “Everything was up and now it’s down 300 points cuz a guy sent a tweet. I don’t care if it’s the head of Goldman Sachs or a food bank. They’re gonna say, this is crazy.”
The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment. But the president has been in this predicament before. Following the release of the Access Hollywood tapes at this very same juncture during the 2016 presidential campaign, there was a growing chorus of Republicans calling for the party to consolidate ranks around congressional candidates for the inevitability of a Hillary Clinton presidency. Trump went on to win.
This time around, Trump’s base of financial support is arguably more considerable. Putting aside the more than $400 million raised by his re-election campaign through August, he also now enjoys the backing of two high-dollar super PACs, America First Action and Preserve America PAC.
But the president also trailed Biden by nearly $60 million in cash on hand at the end of August, the most recent reporting period. His campaign has taken down ads in various states as an effort to consolidate and prioritize resources. And there is scant desire among the formal GOP party operatives to come to the aid of a candidate who has spent his time in the political spotlight mocking, degrading, and attacking them.
“Why should the party put more effort into winning the race than the president himself?” asked Rory Cooper, a longtime Republican operative and unapologetic Never Trumper. “President Trump is by all evidence doing more harm than good to his re-election chances. Three out of four voters don't approve of his response to COVID, meaning this includes his own supporters, and yet he triples down on what they don't like. He hasn't led a credible poll since February. Republicans need to work to hold the Senate and sell a check on a Biden agenda.”