By Tory Newmyer
March 26, 2016

Saturday Morning Post: The Weekly View from Washington

Add this to the reasons the 2016 presidential campaign has all the makings of a Trump-branded affair: It is by far the priciest in history with vanishingly little to show for it. All told, the candidates and their affiliated super PACs pulled in more than $1 billion total through February, more than double the haul through the same point in the 2012 cycle. The extra money sloshing through the process has hardly improved it. Witness the back-and-forth this week between Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz over their wives — an exchange that on Friday descended to supermarket tabloid smears.

Then again, Trump, as he enforces the debate’s Morning Zoo-worthy terms, has spent less than anyone. And those Republican donors with the means and motivation to try to stop him have found trusted old tools, like big investments in attack ads, suddenly ineffective. That was the lesson from Florida, where anti-Trump forces swamped the state, airing 4,300 ads against him in the week ahead of the March 15th primary, to no avail. The billionaire’s win there knocked out home-state Sen. Marco Rubio, the establishment favorite, and marked a turning point in the race.

Now, some of the deepest pockets in the conservative movement have decided if they can’t beat Trump, they can at least work to limit his damage to the GOP. Among others, the Koch network, which has pledged to spend as much as $900 million on the election, is mulling whether to skip the presidential race altogether to focus on shoring up Republican margins on Capitol Hill. The idea would be to pay, dearly, for a firewall that protects their Congressional contenders from a potentially disastrous performance at the top of the ticket. Democratic House and Senate candidates across the map already are preparing to handcuff their opponents to Trump; so rightwing donors would pony up to try to redefine those races as local affairs, somehow isolated from national crosswinds. That’s a difficult task in any presidential year, never mind one set to determine the Supreme Court’s balance of power. Throw in Trump’s world-blotting profile, and it’s not clear what amount of outside spending could keep him out of the down-ballot mix. Or put another way, the project raises a new billion-dollar question: If money can’t stop Trump’s rise within the party, how far can it go to stop the rest of the party from collapsing around him?

Tory Newmyer
@torynewmyer
tory_newmyer@fortune.com

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