Politics

Money Floods the Race for Control of Congress, More Than a Year Early

A dizzying amount of money is already pouring into the battles for the House and the Senate more than a year before the 2022 elections, as Republicans are bullish on their chances to take over both chambers in the first midterm election under President Biden, given the narrow margins keeping Democrats in power.

The two parties’ main war chests for the House total a combined $128 million — more than double the sum at this point in the 2020 cycle and far surpassing every other previous one. Top House members are now raising $1 million or more per quarter. And more than two dozen senators and Senate candidates topped that threshold.

Candidate after candidate, and the parties themselves, are posting record-breaking sums, even as the shapes of most House districts nationwide remain in flux because of delays in the once-a-decade redrawing of boundaries.

In Georgia, Senator Raphael Warnock, a Democrat, raised more than $100,000 per day in the last three months for a $9.5 million haul. But his leading Republican rival, Herschel Walker, the former football player who was urged to run by former President Donald J. Trump, raised $3.7 million in a little more than a month, setting up a potentially bruising and expensive contest in that key state.

Politicians in both parties are furiously racing to expand their online donor bases while simultaneously courting big checks from wealthy benefactors. At a Senate Republican retreat for big donors in Palm Beach, Fla., this week, Mr. Trump’s presence was a reminder of his continued perch at the center of the Republican Party — both in helping lure donations and in derailing whatever messaging party operatives have designed.

“The donor community is waking up to the fact that the Republican Party has a historic opportunity in 2022, in spite of Trump continuing to talk about 2020,” said Scott Reed, a longtime Republican strategist.

Money alone is rarely decisive in political races, especially when both parties are flush with cash. But the glut of political funding, detailed in Federal Election Commission reports filed on Friday by House and Senate candidates and announced by the parties, shows the growing stakes of American elections, where a single flipped Senate seat can shift trillions of dollars in federal spending.

The country’s increasingly polarized electorate has been hyper-engaged in politics since the Trump era began, and the ease of channeling that energy into donations online is remaking how campaigns are funded. The online donation clearinghouses for the two parties, ActBlue and WinRed, processed a combined total of more than $450 million in the third quarter.

The avalanche of cash could expand the 2022 political battlefield and result in an unrelenting wave of advertising aimed at Americans who live in swing districts and states.

The ad wars have, in fact, already begun. Democratic- and Republican-linked groups are spending millions of dollars to shape public opinion on the spending package currently being debated in Congress.

Among them is one Biden-aligned nonprofit group, Building Back Together, which said it had spent nearly $15 million on television ads in more than two dozen House districts and key states since July. This week, a Republican-aligned nonprofit group, One Nation, announced that it was beginning a $10 million ad campaign, urging three Democratic senators up for re-election in 2022 — in Nevada, Arizona and New Hampshire — to oppose the spending package.

Senator Rafael Warnock raised more than $100,000 per day in the last three months, making him the top Democratic fund-raiser outside of congressional leaders.Credit…Damon Winter/The New York Times

All told, more than $70 million has been spent since Sept. 1 on television ads related to the Biden legislative agenda, according to AdImpact, a media-tracking firm.

Historically, the party out of power has done well in a new president’s first midterm election, and Republicans see rising inflation, missteps in Afghanistan and a softening in Mr. Biden’s approval rating as reasons for a sunny 2022 outlook.

“We’ll have to really screw up to lose the House,” said Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, referring to the Democrats’ narrow majority in that chamber. He said that recapturing the Senate, which is split evenly between 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans, would depend on recruiting more top-tier Republicans, such as Gov. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire.

At the donor retreat in Florida, Mr. Graham said, “there was a sense of optimism that was as high as I’ve seen it.”

In the House, the path to the majority is widely expected to be determined by suburban voters, who swung sharply toward the Democratic Party during the Trump administration.

Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist who has worked on House campaigns, noted that the central role of suburban terrain — the battlegrounds were more rural 15 years ago — had driven up the cost of campaigning. Buying ads to reach suburban voters requires advertising in pricier urban television markets.

“The upside is the Democratic coalition is built around suburbs,” Mr. Ferguson said. “The downside is the resources to run in Philadelphia and Chicago and L.A. and Miami.”

The National Republican Congressional Committee began this year with roughly $8 million less on hand than its Democratic counterpart but entered October with roughly $2 million more, as small digital contributions have accelerated for Republicans. Each group has raised well over $100 million this year.

Representative Tom Emmer, the chairman of the Republican congressional committee, noted in a call with reporters that in the 2020 cycle, his party committee had not reached the $100 million threshold until February — five months later.

Both the Senate and the House Republican campaign committees have leaned on hardball and sometimes deceptive tactics to boost their bottom lines, such as pre-checking boxes that automatically enroll donors in recurring monthly contributions and aggressively fostering guilt trips in supporters and questioning their allegiances.

“You’re a traitor …” began one such House G.O.P. text earlier this week. “You abandoned Trump.”

The text gave a false deadline of 17 minutes to donate. “This is your final chance to prove your loyalty or be branded a deserter,” it read.

A fund-raising text message this week from the National Republican Congressional Committee

The House G.O.P. committee, which declined to comment on its tactics, said it had raised nearly 44 percent of its funds last quarter online.

“Democrats have owned online fund-raising, and that is no longer true,” said former Representative Tom Davis, who previously led the House Republican campaign arm. “Republicans now are the ones who are obsessed and aroused. People voted for Biden to get Trump out of their living rooms. But they didn’t vote for all his policies.”

Most Republican strategists hope to keep the focus on Democrats, knowing voters typically want to put a check on those in power. But Mr. Trump’s continued insistence on making his false claims that the 2020 election was stolen a central rallying cry for the G.O.P. — “If we don’t solve the Presidential Election Fraud of 2020,” Mr. Trump warned in a statement this week, “Republicans will not be voting in ’22 or ’24” — is a complicating factor.

“If it’s a referendum on Biden’s policies, we will do very well,” Mr. Graham said of the 2022 midterms. “If it’s looking back, if it’s a grievance campaign, then we could be in trouble.”

Mr. Emmer tried to distance himself from Mr. Trump’s remarks, saying, “He’s a private citizen, and he, of course, is entitled to his own opinion.” Still, Mr. Emmer added that he was “honored” that the former president would headline the committee’s fall fund-raising dinner. “He remains the biggest draw in our party,” he said.

Congressional leaders are the other leading party fund-raisers. Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the Republican minority leader, and his top deputy, Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, have transferred a combined total of nearly $30 million to their party committees this year, party officials said.

Mr. Scalise’s top donations since July included $105,000 from the PAC of Koch Industries; $125,000 from H. Fisk Johnson, the chief executive of S.C. Johnson & Son; and $66,300 from John W. Childs, the private equity magnate.

Whether this is the final term of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who is 81, is widely discussed in Washington. But the San Francisco Democrat remains a prolific fund-raiser.

Donors to her political accounts in recent months include Haim Saban, the media investor ($263,400); Hamilton James, a top Blackstone executive ($263,000); Gwendolyn Sontheim Meyer, the Cargill heiress ($263,400); and Jeffrey Katzenberg, the Hollywood producer ($163,400).

Senator Chuck Schumer has aggressively pressed top party fund-raisers in recent months.Credit…Sarahbeth Maney/The New York Times

Senator Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, raised heavily both for his own 2022 re-election bid in New York and to maintain the Democratic majority.

Mr. Schumer has aggressively pressed top party fund-raisers in recent months, telling one that he wanted to fill his war chest (now at $31.9 million) as a deterrent to any primary challenge from the left. He specifically named Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York as the kind of candidate he would like to keep from running, mostly to avoid weakening his hand while navigating the evenly divided Senate.

Mr. Schumer’s office declined to comment.

Notably, some of the top fund-raisers in both parties are Black.

They include Mr. Warnock, the top Democratic fund-raiser aside from congressional leaders, and Mr. Walker, a leading Republican in the Georgia Senate race. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the lone Black Republican in the Senate, was the top fund-raiser in the party aside from the congressional leaders.

Mr. Scott raised $8.3 million in the third quarter. He now has $18.8 million in the bank, funds that can be used for his 2022 re-election or to seed a potential 2024 presidential run.

Representative Val Demings, a Black Democrat in Florida and a former Orlando police chief, is challenging Senator Marco Rubio, the Republican incumbent, and was another top fund-raiser, pulling in $8.4 million. But she spent heavily to do so: $5.6 million.

Florida has proved elusive for Democratic candidates, especially in recent years, and some party strategists are already quietly grumbling about the tens of millions — if not more — that is likely to be poured in to a tough race, especially after hundreds of millions of dollars was spent on losing 2020 efforts to topple Republican incumbents in Maine, Iowa, North Carolina and South Carolina.

Rachel Shorey contributed reporting.

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