Campaigns

Congress is on the line in 2018. But groups are already spending on Trump 2020

Some political groups are spending millions of dollars ahead of the midterm elections to support a candidate who is not on any ballot next month — President Donald Trump.

Even as Republicans fight to keep control of Congress, at least six political action committees have spent more than $9 million to promote Trump’s re-election on TV, by phone, by mail and online since he took office, according to a McClatchy analysis of Federal Election Commission filings through Tuesday.

Those same groups have spent only about $1.2 million supporting Republicans candidates for the House and Senate, according to the analysis.

“Donald Trump is the force of the movement,” said Eric Beach, co-chairman of Great America PAC. “He’ll help Republican candidates win their elections.”

Republicans fighting to retain majorities in Congress in a year when the president’s party traditionally loses ground have largely been outraised by their Democratic counterparts. Democrats need a net gain of 23 seats in the House and two in the Senate to gain control of the chambers.

“It is quite unusual to use scarce financial resources to boost a president just weeks before the midterm elections instead of supporting the candidates in House, Senate and governors’ races who are actually on the ballot.,” said Brendan J. Doherty, a political science professor at the U.S. Naval Academy who tracks presidential fundraising. “This spending strategy is consistent with the president’s own approach.”

Trump is the first U.S. president since at least the 1970s to raise money for his own re-election campaign during the first two years of his term. His re-election campaign has already raised more than $50 million, according to the campaign’s most recent fundraising report, which provides information through the end of June.

This is absolutely uncharted territory,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in politics. “I can’t recall ads specifically for the president this early.”

By comparison, Trump’s predecessor, Democrat Barack Obama, didn’t raise money for himself until his third year in office. The political action committees supporting him didn’t spend money on him before 2010, the year of the first midterm elections in Obama’s first term.

“I don’t remember any spending in 2010 that would have been specifically pro-Obama,” said Rufus Gifford who was the fundraising director for the Democratic National Committee during the 2010 election, before heading up fundraising for Obama’s re-election campaign in 2012.

Trump’s campaign did not respond to a request to comment.

Not all Republicans are better off with ads mentioning Trump, especially since some of the most vulnerable Republicans in the House are in districts won by Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.

“Does it help the House and Senate candidates?” Krumholz asked. “Not if they’re running away from him. It’s really race by race.”

But Trump’s midterm strategy shows he believes the party’s fortunes in the midterms are tied to him.

He has been headlining boisterous Make America Great Again campaign rallies several times a week in states that backed him in 2016, including North Dakota, Missouri and West Virginia, trying to persuade supporters to vote for Republican candidates.

Trump estimates that a third of attendees are not traditional Republican votes, according to someone familiar with his strategy. Beach, meanwhile, said an additional 30 million people are listed on Republican voter lists this year because of Trump’s election in 2016.

“Get out in 2018 because you’re voting for me,” Trump said last month in Springfield, Missouri.

Great America PAC, which spent the most of any group backing President Trump’s 2016 bid, now is spending more than $4.6 million in 2017 and 2018. It has spent $145,000 on Senate candidates and $11,000 on House candidates.

The Committee to Defend the President spent roughly $4 million during that same time period. It has spent more than $850,000 on Senate candidates and $70,000 on House candidates.

“Engaging his voters — who are not the political establishment’s traditional targets — is essential to salvaging the midterms and winning in 2020,” said Ted Harvey, chairman of Committee to Defend the President. “Trump voters don’t vote for congressman so-and-so in District 1; they vote for President Trump. The only reason they’ll come out and vote in 2018 is to support the president.”

Four other groups devoted less than a $1 million combined on pro-Trump costs, led by the Tea Party Majority Fund, which spent $275,000.

The money is primarily being spent on online and TV ads but also on phone banking, mailers and related expenses.

The total amount spent promoting Trump is likely much higher. America First Policies has spent money on Trump, primarily on TV ads promoting the president, his policies and his accomplishments, but did not file independent expenditures reports with the FEC because the spending does not expressly advocate for the election or defeat of a federal candidate, according to spokeswoman Erin Montgomery.

“Fact. Over 80 percent of President Trump’s media coverage is negative,” the narrator in one of the ads by America First Policies says.. “Fact. Trump passed more legislation in his first 100 days than the last 11 presidents, including confirming a Supreme Court justice, tripling the number of ICE agents to secure the border, fighting to ban travel from countries of concern. Don’t be fooled by journalists with an agenda.”

America First Policies — and its related super PAC America First Action — have disclosed more than $8.5 million in outside spending to help other Republican candidates. Montgomery said the PAC will actually spend more than $20 million on GOP candidates.

America First Policies was founded by a number of former staffers from the 2016 Trump campaign, including digital media director Brad Parscale and spokesperson Katrina Pierson. Both left the group and are now working for Trump’s 2020 campaign. America First Action counts former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer among its current advisers. Spicer has been paid at least $30,000 since July for his work for the group, according to FEC filings.

“If Trump goes down, so goes the party,” said John Feehery, a veteran Republican political consultant who worked on Capitol Hill. “So spending some money helping to shore up his reputation makes sense for all Republicans.”

Ben Wieder: 202-383-6125, @benbwieder

Anita Kumar: 202-383-6017, @anitakumar01
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