G.O.P. Senate Hopefuls Leave Campaign Trail for Beltway Money Circuit
WASHINGTON — Rushing to raise money and close yawning gaps with their Democratic rivals, every Senate Republican nominee in a competitive race is taking precious time from the campaign trail to come to Washington this week and next to gather money before Congress leaves for the fall.
Fund-raising invitations obtained by The New York Times reveal days full of dinners, receptions and even some free meet-and-greets — schedule-fillers the candidates hope they can use to make a good impression and pick up a check on the spot.
Two thousand miles from Phoenix, Blake Masters, the Republican challenging Senator Mark Kelly of Arizona, made a campaign pitch on Wednesday evening alongside Senator Mitch McConnell in a conference room near the Capitol. Mr. Masters accused his Democratic rival of portraying himself as a moderate while voting like a liberal.
“We don’t need as much money as Kelly, just enough to get the truth out,” Mr. Masters said, according to notes from a person who was in the room, which was filled with lobbyists who had paid $1,000 per political action committee to attend.
As political fund-raising goes, Mr. Masters was making a modest ask, and he isn’t the only Republican to downgrade his financial goals.The Republican Senate hopefuls, many of them first-time candidates, have little choice but to race from lobby shop to steakhouse alongside the party leaders some of them castigated in their primaries but who now serve as lures for access-hungry lobbyists.
The reasons are wide-ranging. Republican small-dollar fund-raising has dried up in the face of soaring inflation. Former President Donald J. Trump’s relentless appeals for his own committees have siphoned cash that would typically go to candidates or party committees. And the party’s novice Senate nominees lack the sort of wealthy donor networks that more experienced candidates have nurtured for years.
“These are candidates that have never run for office before and never done the work necessary to develop relationships at the grass-roots or donor level in their own states or nationally,” said Jack Oliver, a longtime Republican fund-raiser. He then alluded to the way that many of them claimed their nominations: “If you can just go on Tucker or get Trump to endorse you, you don’t have to go meet with voters or donors.”
For some major contributors, summer has just wrapped up, the temperature hasn’t much changed, and the election feels some time away. The advent of widespread early and mail voting, however, along with the need to reserve airtime on local television stations, means there’s little time left for the candidates to gather the cash they need.
“To donors it’s early, to candidates it’s late,” as Lisa Spies, a Republican fund-raising consultant, put it.
Of course, candidates of both parties have long jetted into the nation’s capital to raise money from the influence industry. And even as this year’s Republican class struggles for cash, the candidates have support from outside super PACs, most notably the one Mr. McConnell effectively controls, to ensure that they remain financially competitive. (Mr. McConnell’s group, the Senate Leadership Fund, accounted for 90 percent of the money spent on television this week in the Ohio Senate race, and an even greater percentage in North Carolina.)
The State of the 2022 Midterm Elections
With the primaries over, both parties are shifting their focus to the general election on Nov. 8.
- Inflation Concerns Persist: In the six-month primary season that has just ended, several issues have risen and fallen, but nothing has dislodged inflation and the economy from the top of voters’ minds.
- Herschel Walker: The Republican Senate candidate in Georgia claimed his business donated 15 percent of its profits to charities. Three of the four groups named as recipients say they didn’t receive money.
- North Carolina Senate Race: Are Democrats about to get their hearts broken again? The contest between Cheri Beasley, a Democrat, and her G.O.P. opponent, Representative Ted Budd, seems close enough to raise their hopes.
- Echoing Trump: Six G.O.P. nominees for governor and the Senate in critical midterm states, all backed by former President Donald J. Trump, would not commit to accepting this year’s election results.
Mr. McConnell has asked his fellow Republican senators to contribute 20 percent of the money from their leadership PACs this election, an increase over past campaigns, according to a Republican official familiar with the request.
“This is why God invented super PACs,” said Scott Reed, a veteran Republican strategist.
Yet the frenetic cash dash around Washington, shortly before early voting gets underway in many states, underscores the urgency Republicans are feeling to cut into Democrats’ fund-raising advantage. A major part of the motivation: Candidates receive substantially better television advertising rates than super PACs, so an individual campaign dollar goes further on the air.
A spreadsheet of television advertising reservations shared by a top Republican strategist this week makes clear why many in the party are alarmed about their fund-raising deficit. Head-to-head, Democratic candidates have been sharply outspending their Republican rivals for weeks. In some states, like Arizona, New Hampshire and North Carolina, the G.O.P. nominees hadn’t aired even a single commercial in their own right through August and into September.
Even in Georgia and Nevada, perhaps the two states where Republicans have the best chance to flip Democratic-held seats, the Democratic incumbents are overwhelming their G.O.P. challengers.
From the week of Aug. 14 to the week of Nov. 6, Senator Raphael Warnock of Georgia had over $30 million in television reservations, while his Republican challenger, Herschel Walker, had just over $7.8 million booked. In the same time period, Senator Catherine Cortez Masto, Democrat of Nevada, had over $16 million in television reservations while her Republican opponent, Adam Laxalt, had just over $6 million reserved.
In key Senate races, top Democrats are raising millions of dollars online every month. In August alone, Mr. Warnock received nearly $6.8 million from more than 200,000 contributions, and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes of Wisconsin raised nearly $6.3 million from more than 120,000 donations.
In Arizona, Mr. Kelly raised $5.7 million from more than 170,000 donations on ActBlue in August. That sum is more than Mr. Masters had raised in total from when he began his campaign in 2021 through mid-July 2022, the last date that data is available.
The Democratic advantage has been mitigated by outside Republican spending, including some hybrid advertising between the G.O.P. candidates and the Senate Republican campaign arm.
But the disparity in candidate fund-raising explains why so many Republican Senate hopefuls have swapped public appearances at home for private events on more financially fertile terrain. It is Washington this week and next. Last week it was Florida, where the National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman, Rick Scott, squired eight candidates around his state and Sea Island, Ga., a resort community where his committee hosted a weekend donor retreat for many of the same contenders.
What’s striking about the candidates’ schedules is how much work they’re putting in for relatively little financial payoff at a moment when some of the top-raising Democrats have stockpiled tens of millions. Individuals are limited at giving $2,900 to candidates, and PACs can contribute only up to $5,000.
This coming Tuesday, Dr. Mehmet Oz, the Republican nominee for Senate in Pennsylvania, has Washington fund-raising receptions lined up at 10:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., each hosted by a different group of lobbyists.
It will be Dr. Oz’s second trek to the Beltway in a week: This past Tuesday, he was at the Northern Virginia home of Matt and Mercedes Schlapp, Republican operatives and Trump enthusiasts, where $5,800 granted a couple admission to an event and a photo with the television doctor turned Senate candidate.
Mr. Laxalt, too, put in long hours far from Nevada. After attending the events in Florida and Georgia last week, he spent Tuesday at a $2,900-per-person dinner in Virginia’s well-heeled hunt country. Mr. Laxalt then came back to Washington to attend a series of events on Wednesday with lobbyists and Republican senators, concluding with an “Evening Cigar With Adam Laxalt Hosted by Premium Cigar Association” that cost $250 per person or $500 per PAC to attend (no word on if the cigar was extra).
“The math is really simple: You can’t get there at $2,900 a pop,” said Mr. Reed, the Republican strategist.
That’s not stopping the hopefuls from trying, however.
Mr. Masters, who’s facing a Grand Canyon-size fund-raising gap with Mr. Kelly, charged only $500 per person to attend the reception with Mr. McConnell on Wednesday.
The next day, the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors hosted Mr. Masters for an afternoon gathering that was even more modestly priced.
“This is a meet-and-greet, not a fund-raiser, so an opportunity for anyone who would like to meet the candidate to do so without having to make a financial commitment — though they would obviously welcome contributions!” Jade West, the wholesalers lobbyist, wrote in an email to potential attendees.
Of all the Senate G.O.P. nominees, Mr. Masters may have criticized Mr. McConnell the most fiercely in the past. But that didn’t stop Mr. McConnell and his deputy, Senator John Thune of South Dakota, from hosting events for Mr. Masters and J.D. Vance, the party’s Senate nominee in Ohio and another candidate who took aim at the Senate leadership during the primary season.
Mr. Vance had a paltry $628,000 in the bank at the start of this month.
Mr. Oliver said that while it was probably too late to do now, Republicans should have lifted their Senate candidates’ fund-raising by creating a competition among the party’s would-be 2024 presidential candidates to see who could have raised the most for each of the top contenders.
But, Mr. Oliver lamented, Mr. Trump and Fox News shape the G.O.P.’s wholesale politics today, all but determining primaries and therefore consuming the attention of candidates and their campaigns.
“Relationship politics don’t exist anymore,” he said. “But that means it’s hard for J.D. Vance to go to Toledo and raise money because when you need a $500 check there, they don’t know you.”
Shane Goldmacher contributed reporting.