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Amid troubles, Trump has huge cash advantage for 2020

But Democrats have already raised $700 million from small-dollar donors giving $200 or less

President Donald Trump may have many barriers in the way of a smooth campaign, but fundraising will not be one. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
President Donald Trump may have many barriers in the way of a smooth campaign, but fundraising will not be one. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

For all the drama surrounding President Donald Trump — an unfolding House impeachment probe, former aides in prison and his personal consigliere reportedly under federal investigation — there’s one worry he doesn’t face: money for his 2020 campaign.

The White House incumbent, who took the unprecedented step of opening his reelection coffers the same day he took the oath of office in 2017, recently reported holding more than $83 million for his next race. Trump has raised a total of $165 million so far. Plus, he’s helped haul in millions more for the Republican National Committee, which will help all GOP candidates get the vote out, while outside organizations allied with the president have amassed their own big bundles of political money.

Trump’s eye-popping trove of treasure will likely face unparalleled scrutiny, though, with allegations of foreign contributions and other possible campaign finance violations swirling around the president and his close confidants, past and present. 

Democrats probably won’t catch up to the president’s receipts, but campaign finance experts and political operatives in both parties insist Trump’s eventual opponent will have sufficient cash to be competitive. Opposition to Trump has been a major motivator of Democratic donors, especially those giving in small increments. 

“Once they settle on a nominee, the Democrats certainly will see an uptick in support,” said James Bopp, a Republican campaign finance lawyer who counts the Trump campaign among his clients, though he notes he is speaking for himself. 

“Everyone’s going to have enough money to do their campaigning,” agrees Wiley Rein partner Jan Baran, another high-profile GOP political money lawyer. 

Democrats, in general, are not hurting for political money heading into 2020. In the third quarter of 2019 alone, Democratic presidential candidates brought in more than $190 million, compared with the Trump campaign’s $43 million.

Small-dollar donors who give $200 or less have sent $700 million this year to Democratic committees and candidates, up and down the ballot, using the ActBlue online platform, the company disclosed recently.

And Democrats have raised 60 percent to Republicans’ 40 percent of all federal money in the 2019-20 election cycle, said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign giving.

“It may indicate the brakes are off and we’re just careening toward the most expensive presidential election cycle ever,” Krumholz said.

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Too much cash?

Even as the Trump campaign spends big on lawyers, political consultants and digital advertising, some campaign finance experts say the law of diminishing returns in presidential races can be a factor and that once a candidate has saturated the country with a message, money at some point doesn’t offer much more bounce.

“You don’t need as much as he has,” said Michael J. Malbin, executive director of the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute and a political science professor at the University at Albany, State University of New York. “What he has is helping him to build an even stronger social media platform than what he had last time, and what he had last time was very strong.”

The windfall marks a big shift from 2016, when the unlikely Republican nominee and real estate mogul loaned his campaign $50 million and fell short of the haul by Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee. In 2016, total presidential campaign spending by candidates and outside groups dipped to $2.4 billion, down from a high of almost $2.8 billion in 2008, according to Krumholz’s research.

It took time for the GOP money machine to get behind Trump, but in both 2016 and again for 2020, he has proven himself a major draw for small-dollar donors. 

“As we all know, the Trump campaign has been fundraising since Inauguration Day of 2017, and so it’s been really a pretty well-oiled machine ever since then and now is really masterfully handling opportunities for fundraising like the impeachment,” Krumholz said, noting the Trump operation raised $5 million in the first 24 hours after Democrats formally launched the impeachment inquiry on Sept. 24. 

Bopp, whose law firm collected $25,000 from the Trump campaign during the third quarter of this year, said Trump’s money shows he has a highly motivated base of supporters.

“Trump is going to be in a much better position to compete with the huge spending that he will face,” Bopp said. “He enjoys extraordinarily broad support within the Republican Party, unprecedented support, in my experience.”

Keeping tabs

The president’s campaign also will likely see unprecedented scrutiny, both Republicans and Democrats agree.

The Trump campaign itself is not directly embroiled in any major scandals currently about its sources of money or its spending. But Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, donors to a pro-Trump super PAC called America First Action and associates of Trump personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, were arrested in October for allegedly disguising foreign sources of political money.

“While I don’t think money is directly going to determine who is the next president, controversy over money could well be a campaign issue,” said Rick Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine.

At the center of Democrats’ impeachment probe is Trump’s effort, along with Giuliani’s reported help, to encourage Ukrainian officials to dig up dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden and the business dealings of his son Hunter, a former lobbyist who served on the board of Burisma Holdings, an energy company in Ukraine.  

Even domestic sources of campaign money may become an issue in the 2020 general election.

Top contenders among the Democrats — including the elder Biden and Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont — reject donations from registered lobbyists and from the PACs of corporations. Warren also said she won’t accept donations in excess of $200 from the executives of fossil fuel companies as well as those working for large pharmaceutical, banking, technology and private equity companies.

Most other presidential candidates, though, do not put such limitations on individual donations, and those contributions could offer Republicans an opportunity for criticism, though GOP candidates aren’t taking steps themselves to limit political money from corporate executives.  

In the closing weeks of the 2016 race, Trump unveiled his “drain the swamp” portfolio, but in reality as president he has welcomed recent lobbyists to his administration and does not prohibit their donations.

Longtime lobbyist Haley Barbour, founder of the BGR Group and a former Republican National Committee chairman and Mississippi governor, has given the individual maximum of $5,600 to Trump’s reelection campaign, records show.

Lamar Smith, the former Texas congressman who is now with the lobbying and law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, transferred $10,000 of his congressional campaign money to Trump Victory, one of two joint fundraising committees.

Trump Victory also reports donations from the National Rifle Association’s Political Victory Fund, the prison company Geo Group’s political action committee, and $160,000 from Murray Energy Corp., an Ohio coal mining company that filed for bankruptcy last month after closing facilities in West Virginia.

Trump Victory gets most of its money in large donations, or contributions in excess of $200. All but roughly $95,000 of Trump Victory’s $65 million haul for the 2019-20 cycle have come in increments of more than $200 — and many are well above that threshold. For example, big donor Linda McMahon, who ran the Small Business Administration until earlier this year, donated $360,600 on June 3 to Trump Victory, federal election records show.