McConnell warns Democrats are 'on fire' as GOP falls behind on fundraising and polling
Posted October 12, 2020 5:42 p.m. EDT
CNN — Republican candidates are increasingly worried about President Donald Trump's unpopularity and the drag it might be having on races down the ballot, as Democratic candidates rack up stunning fundraising numbers in the final weeks of the campaign.
"Democrats are on fire," the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told lobbyists on a call recently, according to someone familiar with the comments, as he urged loyalists to help close the gap in the waning days of the campaign.
McConnell was referring to the massive fundraising advantage Democratic campaigns find themselves with -- which now includes South Carolina Democrat Jamie Harrison's record-breaking $57 million raised in his race against Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham.
But the GOP's fundraising woes may be a lagging indicator of what party leaders can see from current national and state-level polling: the President and the Republican party are losing ground -- and running out of time to gain it back.
Anxiety is coursing through the ranks of Republicans, particularly across the key Senate races that are critical to holding the party's majority. The alarm hit a crescendo on the night of the first presidential debate, as several top Republican strategists watched Trump's performance in "astonished horror," in the words of one senior adviser to a top-tier Senate race.
"The President gave no rationale to an argument for a second term. He gave no rationale for why voters should elect Republicans," the veteran GOP adviser told CNN, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid alienating the White House. "He didn't help himself, but he certainly didn't help hold the Senate."
Recent polls in Iowa and Arizona, states Trump won in 2016, show the President trailing with his Democratic opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden. In those same states, Democratic Senate candidates hold the same or even greater leads over the Republican incumbents.
And in South Carolina, where Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by 14 points, a recent Quinnipiac poll found Biden down by just 1 point and the Senate race between Graham and Harrison tied at 48%. Even Senate seats in solid-red states like Alaska and Kansas are considered newly competitive.
"The enthusiasm on the other side is evident," said one Republican operative. "The fact that we're talking about being tied in Kansas, a seat we haven't lost since 1932, that just tells you everything you need to know. It's a really bad environment."
The fundamentals of the general election have changed little in the past several months. Biden has consistently led in national and critical-state polls as voters remained sour on the President's handling of the coronavirus pandemic. The major shift in the public perception of Biden or the pandemic that Republicans were hoping has simply never arrived.
That's been clarified by recent events -- Trump's combative debate performance and his positive Covid-19 test -- that failed to change the direction and instead compounded the underlying conditions of the presidential race.
The GOP's money gap is illustrative. Dan Eberhart, an energy executive, says the party's Senate leadership are sounding the alarm about the Democratic lead to Republican donors like himself.
"The fundraising advantage has allowed Democrats to expand the map and make even safe Republican seats competitive this cycle. The spending is overwhelming GOP incumbents and forcing them to abandon their strategy in favor of negative attack ads," Eberhart said.
The fortunes of Republicans are inextricably tied to the President, party strategists say, because each senator needs the President's base. The outcome of the 2018 midterm elections showed the perils for Republicans without Trump on the ballot.
"It's impossible to distance yourself from the President," Neil Newhouse, the lead pollster for the Republican presidential campaigns of John McCain and Mitt Romney, tells CNN. "It's better to define differences with your opponent."
Endangered Republicans are working hard to draw these distinctions. Graham, for instance, told CNN that Harrison's big fundraising fundraising haul in the last quarter was "very impressive," but predicted there would be "backlash" against his Democratic rival.
"Liberals hate me after Kavanaugh and helping Trump seems to be an unpardonable sin," Graham said. "There is definitely a backlash building back home about this, I'll tell you that - about the money, trying to buy the state."
But the ticking clock means some candidates have begun to draw minimal but noticeable distance between themselves and the President. In her recent debate against Democratic challenger Mark Kelly, Republican Sen. Martha McSally of Arizona was pressed multiple times about whether she was proud of her support for Trump. She dodged the question.
"I'm proud that I'm fighting for Arizonans on things like cutting your taxes," McSally said. "I'm proud to be fighting for Arizona every single day," she later added.
Others have made the smallest concessions to political reality. Texas Sen. John Cornyn told the Houston Chronicle that Trump "let his guard down" in his handling of the pandemic, which he called a lesson "to all of us that we need to exercise self-discipline." North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis told Politico that "the best check on a Biden presidency is for Republicans to have a majority in the Senate."
And McConnell said earlier this month that he hasn't been to the White House since early August, citing a difference in coronavirus protocols at the White House and in the Senate.
McConnell, one of the savviest Republican tacticians in Washington, has instructed his vulnerable members to do whatever they need to win their races, including mounting an argument that a Republican-led Senate would provide a check on Joe Biden, should he be elected in November. That approach has been used judiciously, people familiar with the matter say, for fear of alienating the White House.
Privately, McConnell has voiced frustration at some members of the Washington establishment for failing to increase its fundraising for Republican senators. But recalcitrant GOP donors are hardly the party's biggest problem heading into Election Day.
"Money isn't everything, but Trump is proving to be an anchor around the necks of even the safest Senate Republicans," Eberhart said.