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Will Big Money Republicans Break the Democratic Wave?

They’re fleeing from Trump—and finding a wiser way to spend their millions.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

As I pointed out earlier in the week, there are a lot of reasons to question whether Democrats can ride a Donald Trump nomination to a wave election and retake the U.S. House of Representatives in November. While Democrats relish the prospect of flipping 30 seats, they may not have nearly enough strong candidates to pull it off—no matter how much Trump drags down the other GOP candidates. And new plans being hatched by a collection of major funders of Republican campaigns suggest that the biggest hurdle to capitalizing on the rise of Trump may be, paradoxically, the rise of Trump. 

An outbreak of anxiety among conservatives that Trump would be a toxic presence atop national ballots has led to an alternative financial strategy, The Washington Post reported on Wednesday. Instead of using the sacks of money reserved to push a Republican into the White House, big-money funders will instead retrench, and focus on saving Congress. 

The Koch brothers, who have earmarked $900 million for the 2016 races, are part of this effort, along with Karl Rove’s Crossroads network and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Crossroads already rolled out an ad opposing Democratic challenger Ted Strickland (the former governor running for Senate in Ohio against incumbent Rob Portman), and the Kochs have one up supporting New Hampshire Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte, who will face Democratic Governor Maggie Hassan. The Post found $23.5 million in total outside spending on congressional races already this year, including $5 million in Ohio, home to the Strickland race. It’s fair to assume that most of that came from Republican-friendly groups.

It’s amusing to see the Big Money Boys fleeing in terror from the man favored by Republican voters to carry the banner of the party. But the Kochs and their allies have probably stumbled onto the best strategy for focusing their prodigious sums of cash in any election—not just this one. Put simply, down-ballot spending gets more bang for the buck than throwing money at the presidential race.

These funders got a lesson in this throughout the primary cycle. No matter how much money they used to build up Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, or a seemingly endless array of establishment-lane favorites, they couldn’t force voters to support them. By the end of 2015, the spending had almost a negative correlation with voter preference.

But as I said back then, you’d be mistaken to extrapolate from those results that money doesn’t matter in politics anymore. Presidential elections require relatively less money per vote because it’s the biggest story in politics for two years, and every potential voter in the country gets bombarded with information about the candidates from every conceivable angle. Ad blitzes simply have less value when there’s near-universal awareness of the race. It’s in those contests where nobody is paying attention where a lot of money can move numbers.

That was proven in 2010, when conservative super PACs outspent liberals three-to-two in state legislative races, winning 675 seats for Republicans across the country. Those Republicans drew district maps in 2011 that helped to cement Republican dominance in the U.S. House for the next decade. It was a relatively low level of spending, only around $30 million. But it yielded enormous results.

Right now, conservative PAC money appears focused on Senate races, where the Republican majority is more tenuous. But with potentially more than a billion dollars to draw from, some of that cash will inevitably filter into House races, where it is likely to have a far greater impact. You can simply overwhelm an unknown candidate with disproportionate spending on campaign ads, defining them for voters before they get a chance to define themselves. That’s especially true for the not-so-stellar crop of candidates Democrats are relying on to take back the House, many of whom haven’t raised much money at all.

Scott Reed of the Chamber of Commerce told the Post his organization would even go further down the ballot, targeting “folks who are running for sheriff” and other hyper-local races. The smaller the election, the greater difference the money can make. In response, Democrats will surely try to nationalize the congressional races, linking a vote for any Republican candidate to a vote for Trump. But it’s hard to nationalize a sheriff’s race.

If Democrats were fully prepared to counteract this blitz, I would have a bit more confidence that they could successfully ride the anti-Trump wave. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee have raised virtually identical amounts this cycle; the NRCC has a couple million more in cash on hand. But conservatives dominate the outside PAC money chase. And Democratic PAC donors are far less likely to abandon the presidential contest and transfer money to House races (much less to local contests). House Majority PAC, the main outside spending group for House Democrats, has just $7.6 million in cash currently available for the fall campaign. The Kochs and their counterparts are talking about hundreds of millions.

The true irony here is that, without Trump at the top of the ticket, conservative funders would pour money into the presidential race, just as they did unsuccessfully in 2012 with Mitt Romney. Democrats in the House and Senate would get a relative reprieve. But now that the conventional wisdom considers Trump unelectable, the funders have pivoted to performing triage on congressional Republicans. Unfortunately for the Democrats, they may learn a valuable lesson from that for future election years—how much further their money goes as they travel lower down the ticket.

The sweet spot for Democrats would be the improbable nomination of someone just as distasteful to a national electorate, like Ted Cruz, who would likely siphon more super PAC dollars into his campaign, draining them from down-ballot candidates who’d be simultaneously tarnished by running on a ticket with him. But that’s unlikely to happen, fever dreams of a contested convention notwithstanding. The looming scenario is that Trump not only blocks Republicans from the White House, but that he transfers enough resources to help block Democrats from majorities on Capitol Hill.