GOP donors fret about Dem wave

The nation’s top conservative donors and fundraisers are increasingly alarmed by the prospect of a midterm election wave that could cost Republicans control of the House.

But the party’s deep-pocketed donors aren’t ready to abandon their efforts to keep the House in GOP hands — not yet at least. 

More than a half-dozen senior Republican donors and fundraisers interviewed by The Hill acknowledged that protecting the Senate majority might at some point become the only sensible investment for Republican donors.

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There is growing frustration among donors with the GOP-controlled House — most recently over the passage of a massive budget that donors are describing as an affront to their fiscally conservative principles.

But for now, the party’s moneyed class believes the House majority will hinge on just a handful of races. Donors are moving ahead as if their dollars could be the determining factor in whether Republicans maintain a majority.

Democrats need a net gain of 24 seats to win back the House.

“Myself and many others are very concerned that this could be a wave year for the Democratic Party and for their candidates,” said Art Pope, a North Carolina businessman and top GOP donor.

“But I still think the House will be closely contested, and whether there’s a Republican or Democratic majority could depend on one or two seats,” Pope said. “That means right now, every seat in the House is just as significant as any seat in the Senate.”

From Denver to Dallas and Chicago to Raleigh, N.C., Republican donors are being hit with polling that shows the Democrats with a double-digit lead in the generic House ballot. 

There is concern about the growing number of GOP lawmaker retirements. Some are blaming President TrumpDonald John TrumpGrassley: Dems 'withheld information' on new Kavanaugh allegation Health advocates decry funding transfer over migrant children Groups plan mass walkout in support of Kavanaugh accuser MORE for the advantage Democrats have in enthusiasm, believing the president will be a drag on Republican candidates in the midterms.

And history will be against the Republicans, as the party in power tends to lose seats during a president’s first midterm cycle.

“There are only two ways for a Republican candidate to run: unopposed or scared,” said Chart Westcott, a conservative donor and biotechnology investor from Dallas. “The energy is there on the left. If you’re not seeing it, it’s because your head is in the sand.”

Donors interviewed by The Hill acknowledged the bleak outlook but insisted there is still time for the party to turn it around, pointing to polls that show the public is warming to the GOP’s tax overhaul.

They believe the prospect of House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiDems see Kavanaugh saga as playing to their advantage Democrats opposed to Pelosi lack challenger to topple her Sinema, Fitzpatrick call for long-term extension of Violence Against Women Act MORE (D-Calif.) becoming Speaker will send conservative voters to the polls in droves.

And some say the panic over the GOP’s electoral prospects in 2018 has spurred a bunker mentality among GOP donors, who are — at least for now — rallying to protect the president from a Democratic-controlled House.

Some pointed to the GOP’s fortunes in the Senate, where 10 Democrats are seeking reelection in states that Trump carried in 2016, arguing that donors view the House as a luxury they can afford to fight for because of the tough map Democrats face in the upper chamber.

“It’s challenging. When you look at the historical trends, it could be tough to keep the House,” said Brian Ballard, a Republican National Committee fundraiser and former lobbyist for the Trump Organization. 

“But the Senate map looks so good for us right now, it’s freeing up money for those who have maxed out to the Senate to do more to protect the House. That’s been the mentality of a lot of folks that I’m talking to. They know that if the Democrats take the House they’ll be looking to bury the president with investigations.”

Still, tough decisions lie ahead.

If the fundamentals don’t turn toward the GOP as Election Day nears, some donors say the party may have to decide if the House is worth defending.

“There’s a good chance we’re not going to have both chambers again,” said Chris Wright, a conservative donor and oil industry executive from Colorado. “If you can only have one, you’d rather have the Senate because the judiciary matters are key. We’ve got to keep confirming conservative justices, and that means keeping the Senate.”

The network of groups run by billionaire conservative donors Charles and David Koch has pledged to spend up to $400 million on politics and policy during the 2018 midterms, including up to $20 million on promoting the GOP tax overhaul.

The network declined to break down how much would go toward the House and how much toward the Senate. But the early ad buys have focused on attacking Democratic incumbents in the Senate running in red states.

Americans for Prosperity, a Koch-backed group, has already spent about $8.5 million on ads attacking Sens. Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyDoug Jones to McConnell: Don't 'plow right through' with Kavanaugh The Memo: Tide turns on Kavanaugh McCaskill to oppose Kavanaugh nomination MORE (D-Ind.), Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillNelson campaign to donate K from Al Franken group to charity 'Kavanaugh' chants erupt at Trump rally in Missouri The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by United Against Nuclear Iran — Kavanaugh, accuser say they’re prepared to testify MORE (D-Mo.) and Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampGOP plays defense on ObamaCare’s pre-existing conditions Doug Jones to McConnell: Don't 'plow right through' with Kavanaugh Heitkamp knocks GOP challenger for 'disturbing' comments on Kavanaugh allegations MORE (D-N.D.) for voting against the GOP tax bill, making up nearly half of the pledged spending total allotted for the tax push. All three senators are considered top targets for Republicans.

A representative for the group acknowledged that the splashy ad buys had been focused on the competitive Senate races in the early going, but said that millions more would be pumped into initiatives that will benefit down-ballot candidates through grass-roots initiatives happening on the ground that don’t get as much attention.

But some individual donors are already looking to hedge their bets, encouraging donors to be more strategic by considering opportunities to drag a specific House candidate across the finish line, rather than showering the national party with cash.

“I’m going to be judicious in picking the horses myself,” said John DeBlasio, a Chicago-based investor. “In elections like this, you vote where you can make a difference on good candidates that can rise above the noise.”

That lesson is especially salient for GOP donors after Republican state Rep. Rick Saccone lost to Democrat Conor Lamb in a special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th District earlier this month, even though Trump carried the district by 20 points only 14 months ago.

DeBlasio singled out Rep. Pete Roskam (Ill.), a moderate Republican representing a district in Chicago’s northwest suburbs that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGraham: There's a 'bureaucratic coup' taking place against Trump Fox News poll shows Dems with edge ahead of midterms Poll: Democrats in position to retake the House MORE carried by 7 points in 2016, as a candidate he’ll be investing in.

Of course, the national party and House GOP campaign arm will not lack for funds.

The Republican National Committee is a fundraising juggernaut and Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanDems see Kavanaugh saga as playing to their advantage How does the 25th Amendment work? Sinema, Fitzpatrick call for long-term extension of Violence Against Women Act MORE (R-Wis.) is raising tens of millions of dollars for his caucus.

Still, Republicans have been alarmed by data in recent months showing nearly two-dozen House Democratic challengers outraising GOP incumbents in competitive districts.

“Money has never been a problem for our party and I don’t think it will be for this cycle either, although we could be outgunned in some places, which is unusual,” said Westcott, the Dallas businessman. “But it’s foolish to cede the House. You have to defend every seat and every district. Folks will be looking to get the most bang for their buck, but I don’t think anyone is saying we shouldn’t fight this battle.”

--This report was updated at 8:26 a.m.