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Republican Problems Go Deeper than Trump

May 23, 2016, 6:53 PM UTC
Demonstrators hold placards as they protest outside of the Republican National Committee where presidential Donald Trump was meeting party leaders on May 12, 2016 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. / AFP / Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Photo by Mandel Ngan—AFP via Getty Images

Donald Trump is not the only thing killing the GOP.

The turmoil resulting from Trump’s status as presumptive Republican nominee overshadows a bigger problem for the party in the 2016 election and beyond: A base unhappy with the rest of its candidates down the ballot.

Democrats have two factors going in their favor. They have a wider network of grassroots supporters giving money to party candidates. And Democratic leaders also exercise more control and are freer to pick congressional candidates they think have the best chance of winning. Those two elements may at first seem at odds with each other, but they aren’t.

“The GOP base hates [their party],” said Jennifer Duffy, a congressional analyst for the Cook Political Report.

That animosity helps explain the rise of Trump. It also helps explain why Democratic Senate candidates are crushing GOP rivals in small donors fundraising. The same grassroots enthusiasm that has helped Sen. Bernie Sanders raise $185 million, largely from small donors, is fueling Democratic Senate campaigns.

According to figures compiled by the Cook Political Report based on Federal Election Commission filings covering activity through the end of March, nine Democratic candidates have raised more than 20% of their total this election cycle from donors giving $200 or less. Most of those Democrats have raised more than $800,000 via such contributions.

Former Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold, who is running in a rematch against GOP Sen. Ron Johnson, has raised $4.5 million from small donors, about 42% of his total. That has helped Feingold outraise Johnson overall. The Tea Party favorite has pulled in $9.8 million, but a comparatively small $1.2 million – 12.7% of his total – comes from small donations.

Johnson’s grassroots fundraising may compare poorly to his opponent, but it amounts to the second biggest such total among GOP candidates. No Republican has raised more than $100,000 and 20% of their campaign funds have come from small donations.

This gives Democrats more cash to air ads and work to turn out supporters on Election Day. Democratic Rep. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois has raised $2.2 million from small donors, 27% of her $7.8 million total. That’s enough to give a money edge in her bid to oust Republican Sen. Mark Kirk, who has raised $5.7 million, with just $472,000 via small donations. North Carolina Democratic candidate Deborah Ross has raised $436,000 from small donors, 23% of her $1.9 million raised. That’s helped her compete with incumbent Sen. Richard Burr, whose $6.7 million raised has come almost exclusively — 96% — from big donors.

Democrats’ hierarchal approach to congressional elections will also give the party an edge in the fight for control of the chamber. From the presidential race to House contests, Washington Democrats pick candidates in a manner Republicans do not even try to match.

“There is a more D.C.-based, top-down power structure in the Democratic Party,” said a Republican strategist for a political action committee aiding Senate Republicans. “It doesn’t exist in the Republican Party.”

Led by New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, Democrats’ leader-in-waiting, the party has put its thumbs on the scales to recruit those candidates, like Hassan, Feingold, and Strickland, with the best odds of ousting incumbent Republicans.

In an extraordinary spectacle last month, Democratic leaders imposed their will in the Pennsylvania Democratic primary. Washington Democrats did not want former Rep. Joe Sestak as their candidate against GOP Sen. Pat Toomey. Democrats said they feared the headstrong and idiosyncratic former Navy Admiral would not run the kind of campaign they felt would maximize their chances. In a state where a registration edge gives Democrats a head start in a presidential year, the party sought reduced risk.

“We want a professional campaign,” said Lauren Passalacqua, a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokeswoman. “He couldn’t get it together.”

Democrats recruited Katie McGinty, a former chief of staff to Gov. Tom Wolf, to run against Sestak. McGinty has never held elected office, which means she has little background for opponents to attack.

The party convinced President Obama and Vice President Biden to endorse McGinty. The campaign committee sent staff and spent $4 million to help McGinty launch a late advertising blitz to edge out Sestak late last month.

“It was total power play,” Duffy said.

The move stood out because Democrats usually impose favored candidates in private.

By contrast, Senate Republicans’ campaign arm stays out of primaries, as a rule. After being burned in 2010 by a wave of Tea Partiers who beat the party favorites in primaries, Republican bosses have mostly quit trying to dictate outcomes in primary fights.

“They still have a Tea Party problem,” Duffy said. “They can’t bigfoot in primaries.”

Meanwhile, GOP officials are arguing that outside groups like American Crossroads, which spent big to help Rep. Todd Young beat rabble-rousing Rep. Marlin Stutzman in a primary fight in Indiana, will help the party hold onto the Senate.

So far, Republican incumbents have been able to avoid embarrassing primary defeats to anti-establishment candidates. Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, for example, easily overcame a primary challenge in March.

But GOP senators are still being bullied by their base. In Kansas, Sen. Jerry Moran, who helped his party win back the Senate majority as head of the Senate GOP’s campaign arm, faced attacks and a primary threat when he suggested that Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland should receive a hearing. He ultimately reversed his position.

Senate Republicans like Toomey and New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte have to worry about Republican voters who gave Trump blowout primary wins in their states even as they face stiff Democratic challenges. Ayotte’s recent announcement that she will support Trump drew quick attacks from Democrats. But with the threat of a primary challenge, she may have felt she had no choice.

Democrats too have to contend with intra-party disarray. In race for the Florida senate seat Marco Rubio is vacating, Democratic Party leaders are all in for Rep. Patrick Murphy, who is gearing up for an August primary against mercurial progressive Rep. Alan Grayson.

Grayson has hung in against Murphy in polling even as he wages war against Democratic leaders and deals with an ethics investigation.

In a smaller-scale version of Bernie Sanders’ fight with the Democratic establishment, Grayson’s bid has been funded by small donors. Grayson has raised $2.7 million in the race. Just over 51%, $1.4 million, comes from small donations.

“It’s a fundamental remaking of campaign finance,” Grayson said in an interview on Thursday. “It is revolution and a revolution that goes right to heart of the nature of government. I tell people that I am unbought and unbossed. Why? Because I don’t have to beg people for $5,000 and $10,000 checks in exchange for favors.”

The spat between Grayson and the Democratic Party, like Bernie’s battle with the party, is real, but pales in comparison to Republican infighting.

Murphy remains the favorite in Florida, and his win would mark another case in which Democratic leaders imposed their preferences on individual state races. And in the presidential race, Sanders’ success in challenging Clinton does not change the reality that her all-but-assured nomination gives her party’s establishment the candidate they wanted.

On the GOP side, Donald Trump lacks outright support from the House Speaker and both living former Republican presidents. The party’s 2012 nominee, Mitt Romney, has called Trump a fraud.

Trump isn’t healing that breach. “I don’t think it’s imperative that the entire party come together. I don’t want everybody,” he said earlier this month. “Let them go their own way.”