As Trump dominates nomination race, major GOP donors who backed Haley shift focus to Congress


As former President Donald Trump marches closer to the Republican presidential nomination, some conservative outside groups and donors opposed to his candidacy say they now must redouble their efforts to win the Senate in November.

And some fret that with Trump at the top of the ticket – a scenario growing more likely with his decisive back-to-back victories in Iowa and New Hampshire – the task of holding the House and flipping the Senate will grow harder, even in a year when the Senate electoral map strongly favors the GOP.

“If Trump ultimately is the nominee, the threat of a repeat of the last three elections and a Democrat sweep increases dramatically – making the Senate and the House that much more important,” said Bill Riggs, a spokesman for Americans for Prosperity Action.

The group, aligned with billionaire industrialist Charles Koch, has spent millions promoting former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley as the best GOP candidate to defeat Trump in the primary, since endorsing her in late November. AFP Action leaders, who will discuss their political plans with the network’s donors at a Southern California gathering this weekend, say they continue to support Haley – despite her bruising loss Tuesday in New Hampshire and the “steeper road” she faces in her home state. Polls show Trump with a big lead in the Palmetto State’s February 24 primary.

But the Koch officials say the group’s biggest 2024 investment will come in Senate contests, with a prime focus on flipping Democratic-held seats in six states: Michigan, Montana, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. It’s already endorsed in three of those primaries with more announcements to come.

In a recent AFP Action memo that appeared to hedge its bet on Haley, Emily Seidel, a top official, said the Senate represented the organization’s “highest probability play” to guard against what she called “One Party Progressive rule” in Washington.

Eric Levine, a New York-based donor who has backed Haley and plans upcoming fundraisers for GOP Senate candidates, said a day after Trump’s New Hampshire win: “It’s all hands on deck for the Senate.”

He said he holds out little hope of Republicans retaining the House after a court ruling last month ensured New York Democrats will have ultimate control over the redrawing of New York’s 26-seat congressional map ahead of this year’s elections. (A court-drawn Empire State map in 2022 helped Republicans flip four seats in the midterms – victories that allowed the GOP secure its current, narrow majority in the House.)

“The Senate is absolutely critical to saving the republic,” Levine said.

For his part, Trump is threatening to blacklist donors who continue to support Haley, writing on social media that anyone who contributes to her moving forward “will be permanently barred from the MAGA camp.”

Art Pope, a Republican from North Carolina and a longtime Koch donor, is backing Haley’s candidacy and said Trump’s threat only “emboldens” him to further support her.

“I and most Americans do not respond well to a bully,” Pope told CNN.

Doug Deason, a Republican donor from Texas who also will join the Koch conclave over the weekend, has donated to several GOP candidates – including Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Trump – this election cycle.

But he thinks Haley has reached the end of the road.

“I really like Nikki,” Deason said. “But I just think she’s kind of painted herself in the establishment role that most Republicans just don’t want.”

Despite his early dominance, Trump’s critics point to troubling signs for the party in the general election should he become the GOP’s standard-bearer – including his angry rhetoric Tuesday night in New Hampshire that mocked Haley’s post-election speech and her “fancy dress.”

In another warning for some Republicans, CNN’s exit polls show Haley won by a wide margin the third of the New Hampshire GOP electorate that identified as moderate or liberal – a bloc with whom the eventual nominee will need to make inroads. Additionally, 42% of the electorate said Trump – who faces criminal charges in four separate cases – would be unfit for the presidency if convicted of a crime.

“It’s every man for himself,” one Republican member of Congress said this week of the prospect of sharing a ballot with Trump.  “It is going to be chaos and mayhem and a free-for-all. You have to look after you.”

“You’re going to have to make (the campaign) about what you’ve done or what you’re going to do locally,” added the lawmaker, who requested anonymity to speak freely about Republicans’ electoral challenges this fall.

Democrats, of course, face an enormous risk of their own this year with the top of their ticket. CNN’s most recent Poll of Polls shows President Joe Biden with an average 60% disapproval rating.

Democrats and allied independents currently control the Senate 51-49.

Republicans, however, have the big advantage in this year’s Senate races – defending just 11 seats compared with 23 held by the other side. Three of those Democratic seats are in states Trump won easily in 2020.

But, in the 2022 midterms, a favorable map blew up for Republicans, in part, because some Trump-backed candidates flamed out in the general election.

This time around, Republican Senate leaders worked to forge close ties with Trump.

Montana Sen. Steve Daines, the head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, was the first member of Senate GOP leadership to back Trump’s presidential bid. Several other prominent Republicans have recently begun to close ranks behind the former president.

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) speaks during the Republican Caucus lunch press conference at the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, U.S., January 17, 2024. REUTERS/Leah Millis

“The NRSC is being smart to work with Trump and instead of against him since he has proven he can torpedo our Senate races,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist. “Looking at our map, there’s absolutely no reason Republicans shouldn’t win the Senate.”

But given the polling showing Trump’s underperformance among independents, that “makes candidate quality in the Senate races even more important,” he added.

Trump has privately told many of his advisers and allies that he believes he made too many endorsements during the 2022 midterm elections and is planning to stay out of many of the upcoming congressional fights, three sources familiar with the discussions said. That decision is in part due to his preoccupation with his own campaign, the sources said, but he also doesn’t want to alienate key blocs of conservative voters by engaging too deeply in Republican primaries.

Yet Trump has not removed himself entirely from the process and has chosen to put his finger on the scale in a series of crucial races for candidates he believes in personally and thinks could help Republicans secure the Senate majority, assist him on the campaign trail or prove useful in the Senate, post-2024, if he were to reclaim the White House.

Arizona Senate candidate Kari Lake, a fierce Trump ally who has stumped for the former president this year, is a prime example. He delivered an early endorsement in October for Lake, who ran unsuccessfully for Arizona governor in 2022.

Of the three Trump-won states where Democrats are defending Senate seats – West Virginia, Montana and Ohio – the former president has taken sides in two of those races.

He endorsed Ohio Senate candidate Bernie Moreno in December, following encouragement from a top ally –the state’s junior senator, JD Vance – to get behind behind the wealthy businessman during a meeting at Mar-a-Lago, CNN previously reported.

In the case of Moreno, who is running in a crowded GOP primary, Trump views his endorsement as something that will help narrow the field in a meaningful way, a source familiar with the former president’s thinking told CNN.

Trump also endorsed West Virginia Senate candidate Jim Justice, someone he likes personally, the sources said. Justice, a second-term governor, faces US Rep. Alex Mooney, who is backed by the conservative Club for Growth — a group Trump has battled with in past years. The stakes are lower in West Virginia, a state Trump won by nearly 40 points in 2020 and where Republicans are expected to pick up the seat now held by outgoing Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin.

Trump, however, has steered clear so far of wading into Montana’s Senate race, despite the efforts of hard-line GOP Rep. Matt Rosendale to attract his endorsement.

This year, Senate leaders also have made clear that they will take a more hands-on approach in GOP primaries than they have in the past.

Top GOP Senate recruits include retired Army Capt. Sam Brown in Nevada, businessman Tim Sheehy in Montana and former hedge fund executive Dave McCormick in Pennsylvania – who lost the 2022 GOP primary for the state’s other Senate seat to Trump’s pick, celebrity physician Mehmet Oz. All three have been endorsed by AFP Action.

In the 2022 midterms, Oz went on to lose to John Fetterman as Democrats flipped the seat and retained control of the Senate.

This year, the Keystone State will once again be awash in campaign money and advertising as part of the crucial “blue wall” of Rust Belt states – including Michigan and Wisconsin – that Biden flipped from Trump on his way to winning the White House in 2020.

Even as the GOP coalesces around McCormick in his bid to oust three-term Democratic Sen. Bob Casey, he and other Republicans on the Senate ballot this year will have to “walk a fine line,” said Pennsylvania Republican strategist Vince Galko.

“He’ll need to make this race about the Biden-Casey record and not about the Trump rhetoric,” he said, “which is easier said than done.”

CNN’s Daniel Strauss contributed to this report.

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