Why Senate Republicans Are Worried About RNC

Political committee's fundraising disappoints strategists focused on holding GOP majority

Clockwise, Republican Sens. Patrick J. Toomey, Rob Portman, Richard M. Burr and Kelly Ayotte all could benefit from increased RNC spending this campaign season. (CQ Roll Call file photos)
Clockwise, Republican Sens. Patrick J. Toomey, Rob Portman, Richard M. Burr and Kelly Ayotte all could benefit from increased RNC spending this campaign season. (CQ Roll Call file photos)
Posted May 19, 2016 at 5:00am

Senate Republican operatives are worried that the Republican National Committee will be unable to make key investments in important battlegrounds if it doesn’t find a way to replenish its depleted coffers.  

At the end of March, the RNC had $16 million on hand , according to documents filed with the Federal Election Commission, half the amount it had at a similar point in the last presidential race.  

More startling is the RNC actually has less money than the National Republican Senatorial Committee, whose fundraising usually lags far behind the national party’s. The Senate GOP’s political arm had $20 million on hand as of March 31 – $4 million more than the RNC.  

Officials at the national party dispute that they have a fundraising problem. They say the committee is raising record amounts of cash and spending it on a robust field operation.  

Other Republicans are also confident that now that the RNC this week signed a joint fundraising agreement with Donald Trump , its fundraising will grow exponentially.  

But those hopes have been met with skepticism among the men and women running Senate Republican campaigns, who rate the RNC’s cash situation as a top concern.  Several agreed to speak to Roll Call but asked that their names not be used, fearing reprisal from the committee.  

One Senate GOP official said that on a scale of one to 10, he rated his worry over the committee an eight. Another said feeling on the matter ranged from “nervous” to “outright concern.”  

“They need more money this time than they did last time, and it looks like they’re going to have less,” said one battleground race strategist, who requested anonymity to speak candidly without fear of reprisal from the committee.  

The strategist added: “Among people who know how to win, it’s a widely held concern.”  

Related: Meet the Senate Republican Candidate Who Won’t Vote for Trump

RNC officials point out that the committee has raised a record $137 million so far this election cycle. They say since the beginning of the cycle, they have been committed to building a robust and early field operation that will pay off in November of 2016 — even if that means not stockpiling a large cash reserve.   

“The RNC is building the largest data-driven ground game in the party’s history and we’re further ahead at this point of the cycle than we’ve ever been,” said RNC spokeswoman Lindsay Walters. “We’ve had state directors in battleground states for over 1,000 days focused on electing Republicans up-and-down the ticket, Hillary Clinton and the DNC began making hires in the last few weeks.”  

Walters said the committee’s focus is “building the data and field program infrastructure to get-out-the-vote for all Republican candidates this fall and we’re doing it bigger and better than we’ve ever done it before.”  

She pointed to spending in battleground states like New Hampshire. She said the committee has spent 1,290 percent more at this point in the cycle there than 2012.  

In Ohio, she says the group has spent 2,341 percent more.  

Officials with the National Republican Senatorial Committee didn’t respond to several requests for comment.  

Ground Game Concerns over the RNC’s cash situation center on whether it can fund a full-fledged ground game in the run-up to the general election.  

Traditionally, the political organization spends millions of dollars on battleground states for door-to-door canvassers and phone banks – what one GOP operative described as the “bread and butter” of turning out Republican voters.    

That has extra significance in 2016, because many states likely to be a presidential battleground also will host a competitive Senate race. The campaigns of GOP senators like Patrick J. Toomey in Pennsylvania, Rob Portman in Ohio, Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire, and Richard Burr in North Carolina would be in line to benefit from the RNC’s spending, allowing their campaigns to aim their own spending elsewhere.  

One New Hampshire operative estimated that in 2012, the RNC spent $3 million turning out voters in the Granite State. The senator, this source surmised, likely expected a similar investment to help her re-election campaign in 2016.  

These intra-party worries are also percolating just as the committee this week signed a fundraising agreement with the party’s presumptive presidential nominee, Donald Trump.  

The committee and Trump will actually have two so-called Joint Fundraising Committees, Trump Make America Great Again Committee and Trump Victory, the latter of which will also raise cash with the aid of 11 state party committees.  

The arrangement with the state parties will let donors contribute as much as $449,400, an enormous sum that side-steps the normal $2,700 cap on contributions to candidates.  

[Related: Trump, RNC Strike Deals on Fundraising

The relative lateness of this year’s joint fundraising agreement, a consequence of the party’s drawn-out presidential primary, mostly explain the RNC’s lackluster fundraising, according to some party fundraisers. And the fact that an agreement is in place now means that things are expected to change.  

“I don’t think they’ll catch up to the same number they did in 2012,” said one GOP fundraiser. “They’re six to eight weeks behind. But are they still going to raise a lot of money? Ya, they are.”  

The fundraiser – who cautioned that Trump still has a lot of work to do to build a national fundraising network – estimated that Trump and the RNC would reach about 80 percent of what Romney and the RNC did in 2012, enough in his mind to sufficiently fund the battleground operations.     

“I think we’re going to be OK,” he said. “That’s my gut feeling.”  

Super PACs Step Up Other Republicans say that in light of the RNC’s fundraising, Republican-aligned Super PACs have helped fill the void by raising big dollars and spending heavily on TV ads. The candidates themselves, they say, have also seen their fundraising pace increase, in part because well-heeled donors wary of Trump have directed their money to help the GOP hold its slim Senate majority.  

Related: Trump’s Charm Offensive Impresses Senate GOP

And even if the RNC’s spending doesn’t come through, many are confident that the campaigns can handle the fallout.  

“The best Senate campaigns have basically built the kind of infrastructure that it takes to win elections, and this is the kind of infrastructure the RNC is largely unfamiliar with,” said the Senate battleground strategist.

 If they aren’t successful, however, the men and women running these Senate campaigns say they know at least one group that’ll receive the blame.

“If we fall short in the last four months because of a lack of funding,” said one Senate operative, “there would be a lot of finger-pointing.”  

Contact Roarty at alexroarty@cqrollcall.com and follow him on Twitter @Alex_Roarty

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