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GOP seeks midterm reset as inflation, abortion temper ambitions


Republican leaders are scrambling to shore up their chances to win back both the House and Senate as inflation concerns fade, Democratic enthusiasm for protecting abortion rights surges and new fundraising challenges emerge in the crucial final months of the campaign.

GOP officials have been mixing up their advertising spending, with a new focus on issues like crime, plans for a major policy rollout meant to reclaim voter attention and moves to send reinforcements for struggling Senate candidates.

Leaders have also been working, with mixed success, to cool down intraparty squabbles over their own strategic missteps and the quality of candidates in pivotal Senate races.

“I don’t think anybody sees it as particularly productive, unless it’s for the Democrats, for there to be a lot of internal conflict among Republicans,” said Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.). “But I think everybody’s goal is the same, and that is to get the majority back in the Senate. If we do, I think everybody will sort of settle down. If we don’t, then I think the blame game starts.”

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) put out calls this past week for his fellow GOP senators to unify and focus on fundraising, after spending much of the last month on the phone with donors attempting to make up for party shortfalls. House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) has been rallying his members to refocus their message around policy arguments that he plans to formally introduce on Sept. 19 to create a clearer contrast between his party and President Biden on issues like immigration, crime and the economy.

The messages of unity were meant to dampen distracting divisions that have emerged within the party over controversial Senate candidates backed by former president Donald Trump and the ability of the party to fully fund campaigns in the face of an enormous Democratic financial advantage in key states.

Republicans remain favored to win the House, given the narrow margin they need to overcome and historical tail winds, say strategists for both parties. But the size of their potential victory is now in doubt, and the possibility that Democrats could pull off an upset has emerged, with McCarthy failing to repeat the net 60-seat prediction he made in November.

Interpretations of the 14th Amendment have been key in extending a slew of legal protections including civil rights, same-sex marriage, and abortion rights. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

In the Senate, both parties see something of a coin flip for control, with a broad expectation that the current Democratic polling leads in states Arizona, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania will narrow over the coming months and the outside chance that other states like North Carolina or Colorado will become more pivotal. There are also signs that more Democrats may be motivated to vote in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, which protected national abortion rights for nearly 50 years.

Much of the controversy inside the GOP circles has centered on Sen. Rick Scott (Fla.), who heads the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the party’s main Senate fundraising arm. He angered his colleagues in February with a policy plan that called for tax increases, publicly clashed with McConnell over how much to intervene in primaries and recently had to order a shuffling of campaign reservations in key states after fundraising shortfalls emerged, particularly among online donors.

Now the committee’s drama is spiraling as the loss of confidence keeps many big donors away.

“This situation with Rick Scott and the NRSC is a buzzkill for donors,” said Scott Reed, a veteran Republican elections strategist, who still believes the GOP is well-positioned to win the Senate. “It looks dysfunctional.”

Inside the NRSC, the mood has been defiant in recent weeks, with senior staff and Scott projecting defiance, and little sign that either Scott or McConnell plans a public reconciliation. The committee’s executive director, Jackie Schutz Zeckman, in August instructed staff who don’t do fundraising to pitch in with making calls for the committee. Republican senators not facing reelection have spoken with each other about getting more involved in the effort.

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In a memo to donors this week, Scott sought to quash the concerns by attacking his critics and demanding discipline from the GOP ranks.

“Any so-called Republican who aids and abets the enemy is in fact trying to defeat Republican candidates and is a traitor to our cause,” he wrote of his unnamed critics who have been attacking him in the press. “But these small people will not win.”

Some of the party’s top donors gathered in Orlando this weekend, where they heard from Scott, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and a bevy of Senate candidates and Republican operatives about the political landscape.

Scott, who is not up for reelection, continues to feed frustration by traveling the country, even in these final months, to support his own political ambitions. He attended a $1,000-per-seat fundraising luncheon in Tampa on Friday for his personal political committees, which he has been using to raise his public profile ahead of a potential 2024 presidential campaign, according to an invitation obtained by The Washington Post. On Saturday, he was booked to travel to Iowa — the first-in-the-nation presidential caucus state, where the Senate contest is not considered competitive — to attend a tailgate event before the annual football game between the University of Iowa and Iowa State University.

His critics were also enraged last month when, days after the NRSC changed ad reservations in Nevada, Arizona and Pennsylvania, Scott flew on his private plane via Dublin for a week-long vacation in Italy, according to flight records. Word soon leaked that he was on a yacht.

NRSC staff have said many of those cut reservations have been reallocated to different ad efforts for the same candidates, and that total spending is still on track to grow over the coming weeks. Scott will return to Florida next week for a series of fundraisers for other senators.

“The NRSC has been spending heavily over the summer to support our candidates and define the Democrats and it’s working. Across the board, our candidates are in a better position now than they were at the beginning of the summer,” said NRSC spokesman Chris Hartline. “We are well-positioned to win in November and take back the Senate majority. Period.”

The outlook for the Senate has been complicated by continued struggles of first-time Republican candidates to raise money and gain traction.

“This is yesterday’s kind of crew running on yesterday’s issues, with zero personality and zero optimism,” said one Republican strategist, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to provide a candid assessment. The strategist was referring to candidates like Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, Blake Masters in Arizona and J.D. Vance in Ohio, all of whom were pushed to victory in brutal primaries by a Trump endorsement.

Concern is especially high in Arizona, where both the NRSC and the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC tied to McConnell, canceled ads last month — though the NRSC has been rebooking. Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly’s campaign and Democratic groups spent three times more than the Republican side on TV and radio ads in August, and they have reserved $45 million more through November compared to about $16 million on the Republican side, according to data from the tracking firm AdImpact.

After a difficult and draining primary, Masters spends at least several hours each day calling donors, according to a person familiar with his schedule, and he held a fundraiser with McConnell in Washington this week. A person familiar with the meeting said McConnell assured Masters that he’s fully behind him and wants to do everything he can to help him win.

Others have been waiting to see if billionaire investor Peter Thiel, who put $15 million behind Masters in the primary, will fund him in the general election. The political action committee that used Thiel’s money, Saving Arizona PAC, started booking $1.5 million in ads this week — but it is new funding that did not come from Thiel, according to a person familiar with the spending.

“It doesn’t look like there’s much of a plan, at least in Arizona,” said Barrett Marson, a Republican strategist in the state. “If Peter Thiel and SLF stay out, that is likely a death knell, unless forces beyond either candidate’s control intervene, like inflation getting worse or gas prices going to $5 in the state.”

‘It’s a rip off’: GOP spending under fire as Senate hopefuls seek rescue

The funding shortfalls at the NRSC, where Scott placed a big bet on digital outreach, match party-wide struggles to get supporters to respond to emails and texts. That has caused internal hand-wringing inside the party committees, particularly about the projections made by certain vendors and the broader party’s decision to devote so much energy to appeals featuring Trump, who remains the best fundraising draw.

After keeping pace in donations under $200 through January, the Republican House and Senate committees have seen their monthly donations fall just as similar contributions to their Democratic counterparts have grown, according to Federal Election Commission records. In June and July, Democrats in the House and Senate committees raised about twice as much as their Republican counterparts in smaller donations.

“Everyone is incredibly angry and thinks they are under attack,” said one person familiar with the NRSC’s inner workings. “There is deep dissatisfaction that they have missed digital numbers. No one understands really why it went so poorly. No one really understands how it works, but everyone knows it’s why we are so screwed.”

There have been some successes on the House side, with 94 candidates reporting through the end of July at least $500,000 in donations on WinRed, the GOP’s primary digital fundraising, compared to 28 last cycle, according to a person familiar with the tally.

Some senators this week tried to downplay any concerns, noting that the final months of a campaign are often the most lucrative and that the Republican bet on digital fundraising could still pay off.

“There was an investment made by the NRSC, and it was a different approach than we’ve used in the past, but that they believe it’s an investment that’s going to return value over the next 60 days, and that’s when you start spending money after Labor Day,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who added that he plans to continue supporting the committee out of his own campaign account.

Such tactical concerns pale, however, in comparison to the broader shifts in the national mood that have played to Democrats’ favor.

Biden’s Gallup approval rating jumped six points, from 38 percent to 44 percent before Labor Day, after Democrats passed their signature climate and health care legislation. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York in August showed “substantial” declines in Americans’ inflation expectations. Gasoline prices, in particular, are down more than $1 dollar a gallon since their June peak, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Gallup’s economic confidence index, which measures American views of both current conditions and outlook, has similarly bounced back from a June low point to reach levels from March and April after the start of the Ukraine war. Steve Moore, a former economic policy adviser to Trump, said he has communicated to GOP lawmakers that they should be prepared to expand the party’s message beyond inflation this fall.

“This is one of the things I’m telling Republicans: ‘Yes inflation is high, but it is coming down,’” Moore said. “Inflation is not going to be like it was in March and April with huge increases, and I think broadening the message is going to be necessary.”

That shift is already showing up in the Republican advertising mix. About 1 in every 6 ads mentioned “gas prices” in July, but only 1 percent of ads mentioned the words in early September, according to AdImpact data. In their place, “crime” has become a central message of Republicans, with the word being used in 29 percent of ads, up from about 12 percent in July.

In competitive Midwest House races such as ones in Minnesota and Michigan, there’s been a marked shift since June of 18- to 35-year-old voters becoming more engaged and viewing Biden and Democrats more favorably, driven by student debt relief and the Supreme Court’s abortion decision. Those target races are still competitive but now much harder for Republicans, according to a person familiar with Republican campaign research.

Democrats, meanwhile, have become newly confident about Biden’s efforts to frame the election as a referendum on Republican extremism — a category that they have defined to include the recent Supreme Court decision, the resistance to gun regulation following mass shootings and the efforts by Trump and his supporters to undermine the validity of the 2020 election.

After months of arguing publicly that the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling would not impact the midterms, Republicans now admit that it has helped excite Democratic voters and increase voter registration in some states. Democrats took the lead this summer in polling averages of the question of whether Americans prefer Republican or Democrat in Congress. A Pew Research Center poll found the share of voters who call abortion “very important” to their vote rose from 43 to 56 percent between March and August, with Democrats showing far more interest in the subject.

Abortion has become a dominant feature of Democratic advertising, with the word mentioned in 1 in every 3 ads running in early September, according to AdImpact.

Republican leaders have told candidates to calibrate messaging for their own voters. Rep. Tom Emmer (Minn.), the NRCC chairman, has begun to cast the election as a campaign over “security,” a concept that includes but is not limited to economic concerns.

GOP backs away from some hard-line abortion measures it once championed

“I trust our candidates to know their districts and know how to appeal to their voters, the voters who are going to turn out in November and elect them to the next Congress,” Emmer said in a recent television interview.

Party leaders are encouraging campaigns to hammer parental rights in education, hoping to repeat the formula that carried Glenn Youngkin to victory in last year’s Virginia gubernatorial race. Candidates are also looking for ways to use Trump’s themes about outsourcing jobs and fracking without the loaded “America First” or “Make America Great Again” labels.

Donald Schneider, who served as chief economist to Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee, said that for months Republicans have believed inflation “was our big arrow in the quiver.” But now, “it’s a private concern among Republicans: ‘Are we going to lose this thing, or are we okay?’”

Anu Narayanswamy, Alice Crites, Leigh Ann Caldwell and Hannah Knowles contributed to this report.

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