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GOP lawmakers huddle with donors to discuss winning control of Senate

CLEARWATER BEACH, FLA. — Republican senators and major donors huddled at a private yacht club Monday in this quiet beach enclave outside of Tampa to discuss their strategy for taking back the upper chamber.

Republicans have been buffeted over the past week about speculation of whether they can capture the upper chamber without winning Missouri, a race that had seemed in their grasp before Senate candidate Todd Akin created a firestorm last week with comments about “legitimate rape.”

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Twenty-seven miles away from throngs of police officers, delegates and reporters at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, senators had lunch with some of their biggest supporters in an elegant clubhouse of the Carlouel Yacht Club.

Sens. Orrin Hatch (Utah), Bob Corker (Tenn.), John Barrasso (Wyo.), Ron Johnson (Wis.), Jerry Moran (Kan.), Roy Blunt (Mo.) and Jon Kyl (Ariz.) attended the meeting.

Bursts of wind and rain made it too wet to enjoy the waterside tennis courts, private beach or marina, but the donors were focused on the more pressing challenge of how to broaden the offensive against Democratic-held seats. Republicans need to pick up at least four seats to control the Senate if President Obama is reelected in November.

Political analysts have downgraded Republican chances of defeating Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) after Akin’s comments prompted Crossroads GPS, a Republican super-PAC, to pull its ads in Missouri. And the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) has stated that it won’t commit resources to Missouri unless Akin withdraws from the race.

Republicans fear that Akin’s refusal to get out could keep the Senate in Democratic hands.

Some of the NRSC’s biggest donors met with Chairman John Cornyn (R-Texas) to discuss ways to help GOP candidates in states that were seen as less likely pickups.

Cornyn introduced Rep. Connie Mack (R), who is challenging Sen. Bill Nelson (D) in Florida; New Jersey state Sen. Joe Kyrillos, who is running against Sen.

Robert Menendez (D-N.J.); and former Texas solicitor general Ted Cruz, the heavy favorite to succeed Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas).

Polls show the Mack-Nelson race is competitive, while Menendez is heavily favored to win reelection.

An attendee said Cruz, who is expected to win easily in the red state of Texas, pledged to raise money for other candidates.

Sources said Cornyn did not discuss Akin’s future as a candidate.

Donors left the meeting saying they remain optimistic of capturing the Senate, emphasizing their chances of winning races that political analysts for most of this election cycle have considered tougher GOP opportunities. They said presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney also could give Republican candidates in Virginia, Ohio and other states a boost by pulling ahead of Obama.

“Momentum at the top of the ticket could very well provide the boost a lot of Senate candidates in tough races could use to get over the hump,” said Matt Dolan, a Republican donor and attorney from Maryland.

One donor said Republicans also could win in Wisconsin or Hawaii, arguing that Democratic infighting during the primary season in Obama’s home state could give former Republican Gov. Linda Lingle a path to victory.

Another attendee noted a recent Mitchell poll that showed Republican Pete Hoekstra with a 1-point lead over Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.). However, a Detroit News poll from a few days ago gave Stabenow a 7-point lead over Hoekstra. Political analysts say Hoekstra has an uphill battle to oust Stabenow.

The enthusiasm of Republican donors intensified last month, when the NRSC outraised the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, $6 million to $5.84 million.

Major donors included a media mogul who said he supported Obama in 2008 but decided to back Romney in 2012 because he believes the president’s economic policies have proved ineffective.

Most donors who spoke to The Hill requested anonymity, expressing their preference to stay out of the spotlight. The NRSC kept the meeting low profile by not publicizing its address and holding it across the bay from the convention center.

Donors were split about Akin’s impact on the battle for control of the Senate. Two said they would not give him any money and said he should drop out of the race. Another said he would give to Akin “in a heartbeat” and said it would be “disproportionate” punishment to force him from the race when his comments were made from a sincere desire to limit abortions.

The donor who expressed support for Akin said he could still beat McCaskill and predicted the furor of his comments would die down next month.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has called for Akin to step aside, told reporters from USA Today on Monday, “We can take the Senate without Missouri. It’d be a lot easier to take it with Missouri.”

Cornyn and McConnell will meet with another group of major donors at a private breakfast Tuesday morning. A Senate Republican source said only that it would take place at an “area hotel.”

Donors said they were happy with Romney’s campaign and that he could take a decisive lead over Obama by outperforming him in this fall’s debates.

One said he thought it unlikely that Josh Mandel could defeat Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) or that former Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) could beat Democrat Tim Kaine in Virginia unless Romney wins in those states.