General Election Fundraising Important to Support House and Senate Candidates

The Daily 202: Donald Trump may be outraised in the general election. How much will that hurt the Republican Party?

Matea Gold 

Billionaire real estate mogul Donald Trump may be financially outmatched in the general election by Hillary Clinton – and while it might not determine his fate, it could hurt the Republican Party.

Now crowned the presumptive nominee, Trump is turning his attention to financing a general election campaign, an endeavor that would run around $1 billion for any other candidate.

Trump, of course, is not like other candidates. One of his big distinctions -- until now -- has been his proclamation that he is self-funding his presidential bid. And he has laid out serious cash, giving or loaning his campaign $36 million through the end of March. (He also accepted $12 million in donations during that time.)

But the New York businessman acknowledged Wednesday that he cannot finance his bid for the next six months, unless he was willing to “to sell a couple of buildings,” as he said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” Instead, he told the Wall Street Journal, he plans to create a “world-class finance organization.”

That leaves a couple of options for Trump, who is scheduled to hold a fundraising strategy meeting this morning, he told my colleague Robert Costa. He could:

1)      Urge his base of supporters to turn on a gusher of small donations, a la Bernie Sanders

2)      belatedly form a traditional bundling operation

3)      tacitly bless a super PAC, the kind of big-money vehicle that he has repeatedly decried

If he is going to compete head-to-head with Hillary Clinton, Trump is going to need all three tactics. The former Secretary of State raised $217 million for her campaign through April, thanks to a four-decade-old network of donors that she and her husband Bill Clinton built and an aggressive online strategy to expand her small donor base. On top of that, Clinton has a well-funded array of allies ready to blitz Trump on the air and on the ground, including Priorities USA, a super PAC that has already raised $67 million, and advocacy groups such as Planned Parenthood and organized labor.

It’s very late in the game to be figuring out a fundraising strategy, Fred Malek told me. “Every presidential candidate in recent history has started his or her fundraising operation up to two years in advance of the election,” said Malek, who served as Sen. John McCain’s national finance chairman in 2008 and was a major fundraiser for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in 2012. “By the time they got even close to sealing the nomination, let alone the convention, they had in place a well-organized group.”

Trying to assemble a traditional fundraising network would require Trump to seek support from a donor class he has repeatedly excoriated, as we wrote today. 

“It’s going to be very hard to bundle for someone who has basically vilified donors,” said political fundraiser Lisa Spies, who led Romney’s finance outreach to women and the Jewish community.

But does Trump need to match Clinton’s dollars? The former reality show host proved in the Republican primary contest that his ability to command free media attention undercuts the financial advantages of his opponents. He spent just $47 million through the end of March – while Ted Cruz shelled out $70 million, and the pro-Cruz super PACs tens of millions more.

“What if he gets enough value out of earned media that he doesn’t need $1 billion?” asked Robert Kelner, a veteran GOP campaign finance attorney. What if Trump could get by just raising small contributions from his loyal supporters, staying true to his pledge to be independent of (other) big donors?

Trump himself Wednesday raised the notion he would bring in at least $1 billion with the party – only to quickly question whether he needed that much cash. “I’m not even sure that’s necessary, because I have a big voice, I go on shows like yours, I explain the truth and people seem to go along with it,” he told NBC’s Lester Holt.

The one hitch: the Republican National Committee needs those wealthy contributors. Traditionally, the presidential nominee forms a joint fundraising committee with the party, a set-up that allows the candidate’s well-heeled supporters to write large checks to the national party and its state affiliates. That money is used to finance the quadrennial get-out-the-vote efforts, massive operations that lift not only the White House nominee, but down-ballot candidates.

Romney established such a fund in April 2012, and it ended up raising $493 million, thanks in large part to the expansive donor network he had cultivated. Clinton started a similar effort last fall called the Hillary Victory Fund, which accept checks as large as $356,100 a year.

Trump is now just beginning to negotiate the details of such an agreement with the party.

Even without a victory fund in place, RNC still in much better financial shape the DNC, having raised $135 million this cycle to the Democrats’ nearly $88 million. The party already has dispatched hundreds of staffers into the field around the country.

“We’re going to have a victory fund set up very shortly, and I think the Trump campaign has made it very clear they intend to do everything they can to help the team,” said RNC communications director Sean Spicer. He said the campaign will be able to provide a list of supporters “who have been very active in their campaign, and a vast network of business people and others who could very helpful to us.”

But some GOP financiers have already made it clear that with Trump at the helm, they will put their resources into congressional races, rather than the national party.

“The donors I have spoken with are all focused on the House and Senate,” Spies told me. “Do I think that is going to hurt the RNC victory [fund]? Yes. I still think they will continue to outraise the DNC…But I think donors are going to feel more comfortable giving to someone who actually asks for and appreciates them giving their money. I’m very nervous for the RNC.”


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