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Republicans pour cash into Senate races as Trump trails in polls

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Republican donors are pouring an unprecedented amount of cash into some of the country’s most hotly contested Senate races in a sign that the party’s backers are increasingly focused on holding on to the second chamber in case Donald Trump loses the presidency.

So far, eight of the most competitive Republican Senate campaigns have raised a combined $128m in this cycle, according to a Financial Times analysis of Federal Election Commission data. That is more than three times as much as the $41m they had raised at this point in their previous races.

Officials on several of the campaigns told the FT they were on track to blow past their last quarterly fundraising hauls when they reveal their third-quarter numbers next month.

Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator for South Carolina, who is facing a well-funded Democratic challenger, has raised $26.4m for his campaign, almost four times as much as he pulled in at this point in his previous race. Susan Collins in Maine has raised more than three times as much as she did last time.

The influx of cash in to the Senate races comes as Mr Trump’s presidential campaign has struggled to keep pace with the fundraising power of his rival Joe Biden and the Democratic National Committee. In August, the Democratic challenger raised $364.5m versus Mr Trump’s $210m.

Republican donors and strategists said the huge injection of money into the Senate campaigns at a time when Mr Trump is struggling financially showed many of the party’s top fundraisers are worried about holding on to the second chamber, which they view as an insurance policy against losing the White House.

With less than two months until election day, Mr Trump is trailing roughly 8 points behind Mr Biden in national polls. Although there are some signs that the race is tightening in swing states, very few polls put Mr Trump in the lead in these battlegrounds.

Dan Eberhart, a Republican Trump donor, said “some of the money that might have been destined for super [Political Action Committees] supporting the presidential campaign” is now “headed towards trying to influence key Senate races”.

Mr Eberhart said Republican donors “are getting flooded with calls and emails” from Senate incumbents facing increasingly competitive races against Democrats, who are also pulling in much more cash than they have in the past.

He added: “I hope the polls have it wrong like they did in 2016. But . . . Republicans need to develop a campaign strategy committed to protecting the Senate at all costs — even if it means sacrificing the Oval Office.”

He added: “Our incumbents are in a bad way, even in reliably red states, and they are being swamped by Democratic fundraising. Democrats have been able to broaden the map, forcing the [Republican National Committee] to spend on states they normally wouldn’t have to.”

Several top donors — including Sheldon Adelson, the casino owner, Diane Hendricks, a Wisconsin billionaire, and Hushang and Shahla Ansary, a wealthy Texas couple — have not given money to Mr Trump since February or earlier but have recently funnelled cash to Republican senators.

For instance, Mr Adelson and his wife Miriam have not donated to the president or any of the groups supporting his campaign since they made contributions totalling $1,161,200 in February. Rather than donating to America First, the Trump super-PAC that can accept unlimited donations, they have instead donated more than $25m to Republican Senate efforts since June. In the last election, the couple gave $20m to a Trump super-PAC.

Alex Conant, a Republican strategist who worked on Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign, said the Trump campaign continued to receive an influx of small online donations but that “a lot of the [major] Republican donors [are] focused on keeping the Senate”.

He added: “These Republican donors are heavily invested in Republican senators and keeping Mitch McConnell the majority leader . . . Keeping the Senate Republican is a good hedge against Biden winning.”

While Republicans are hoping to pick up new Senate seats in Alabama, Michigan, and potentially Minnesota, they will have to win a significant number of these eight hotly contested races if they are to hold on to their 53-47 majority.

Line chart showing how Trump and Biden are doing in the US national polls

In an interview with CNN on Wednesday, Mr McConnell gave his party a 50-50 shot of holding on to control of the Senate, noting that more than half-a-dozen races were too close to call. “That’s why I describe it like a knife fight in an alley,” the Senate majority leader said. “Everybody’s slugging it out.”

In the lead-up to November, many of the Republican incumbents are struggling to keep pace with Democratic Senate challengers.

In Arizona, Martha McSally has been out-raised by Democratic challenger Mark Kelly by about 50 per cent, while North Carolina Republican Thom Tillis is behind Democrat Cal Cunningham by roughly the same percentage.

In Maine, Democratic candidate Sara Gideon has raised nearly twice as much as sitting Republican Ms Collins, while in South Carolina, Mr Graham, a three-term Republican senator, is being narrowly out-raised by Democratic challenger Jamie Harrison in a state that has not sent a Democrat to the Senate in two decades.

A RealClearPolitics average of polls shows Ms McSally trailing by 11.3 points, Mr Tillis by 3 points, and Ms Collins by 4.5 points. Mr Graham is leading the polling average by 8 points.

Katon Dawson, the former head of the South Carolina Republican party, said Mr Graham — a favourite Democratic target because of his unwavering support for Mr Trump — was now in the “first competitive” race of his Senate career.

He said that Mr Harrison, who has raised $29m for his bid to flip South Carolina, had pulled in “a staggering amount of money” for a Democrat competing in the traditionally Republican state, which was a “real pain in the ass” for Mr Graham.

2020-09-13 09:08:03

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