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GOP Donors Place Their Bets on Down-Ballot Races

Donors are placing their bets on Republican candidates running down-ballot, working to negate any impact Donald Trump might have on them.
Image: Donald Trump
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at Crown Arena, Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2016, in Fayetteville, N.C.Evan Vucci / AP

As Donald Trump's presidential campaign continues to struggle, many top party donors are putting their resources into Senate and House races in the hopes of keeping control of Congress amid an increasingly difficult political environment for the party.

And those efforts are growing. This week, Andrew Weinstein, a former director of communications for Bob Dole and press aide to House Speaker Newt Gingrich, began circulating a draft letter with the signatories of at least 70 Republicans urging Reince Priebus, the head of the Republican National Committee, to cut its losses and redirect resources to saving Republican majorities.

“We believe that Donald Trump’s divisiveness, recklessness, incompetence, and record-breaking unpopularity risk turning this election into a Democratic landslide, and only the immediate shift of all available RNC resources to vulnerable Senate and House races will prevent the GOP from drowning with a Trump-emblazoned anchor around its neck,” a draft of the letter, which is expected to be delivered Monday, says.

Donald Trump's poll numbers have plummeted following a series of political missteps since his nominating convention in July, causing worried Republicans to turn towards the down-ballot races even as the turmoil at the top of the ticket is diminishing those prospects.

“We are spending our time and resources on supporting numerous Republicans in Senate and House races and for governorships,” GOP bundler Bobbie Kilberg said in an email.

Kilberg said she has recently hosted a fundraiser for House Speaker Paul Ryan at her home in northern Virginia, raising $230,000, and another for Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock of Virginia, which raised $200,000. Another event is planned for Arizona Sen. John McCain in September.

American Crossroads, a super PAC founded by Republican operative Karl Rove that spent more than $130 million in the 2012 election, much of it in the presidential race, has not committed to spending money to help Trump get elected because donors aren't willing to get involved in that effort, a Republican with knowledge of the group's strategy told NBC News.

“We’re focused on the Senate for now,” Ian Prior, the spokesperson for Crossroads and two super PACs focused on House and Senate races, said. “Whether there’s a role to play in the presidential remains to be seen.”

Donors and groups deploying this strategy defend it, saying that whoever wins the presidency, a Republican Congress must serve as a check against the executive.

For the GOP to retain control of the Senate without winning the White House is a tall order in a year where many of those races are taking place in presidential swing states and would depend on a sizable number of split-ticket votes. A Pew study from 2014 found that nearly one out of nine voters voted a straight ticket in that years' election, which occurred more than at any other time Pew has studied.

Despite Trump's dismal polling numbers, groups insist that internal polling suggests that voters are differentiating between candidates and won't necessarily blindly vote one party. Public polling is showing mixed results.

Prior said Trump’s drag on the top of the ticket isn't yet destructive to down-ballot candidates.

“Generally there is a sense that Trump is his own guy – that he’s his own brand and not a dyed-in-the-wool Republican,” Prior said. “Not to say there’s not some down-ballot impact, there will be, but it’s not as significant."

He said that if Hillary Clinton is up ten or 12 points in a state, then "it's obviously going to have an impact on down-ballot races." But if Trump can keep it within five points, Prior said the Senate candidate can win even if Clinton does too.

At the Charles and David Koch donor retreat in Colorado Springs earlier this month, many donors say that while they are discouraged by Trump at the top of the ticket, they are actively supporting efforts to keep the House and Senate in Republican control.

But one of those donors, Art Pope, a North Carolinian and CEO of Variety Wholesalers, said he is worried about the gubernatorial and Senate races in the state. He said Republicans in the Tar Heel State won't be able to rely on Trump to help boost voter turn out this year.

"I have seen has very little organizational boots on the ground, but more importantly, because of his position on the issues, a large number of Republicans ... are going to stay home then we lose their vote on the down-ballot races where we need them," Pope said.

The political organization of the Koch brothers are also focusing on the Senate. After spending $400 million in the 2012 election, they are scaling back their direct political activity by committing $42 million and supporting six Senate candidates and a few House and gubernatorial races.

They say they have internal polling that shows that voters are willing to support Republican candidates even with Trump on the top. “We are focused on the Senate,” Mark Holden, chairman of the board of Freedom Partners, repeatedly said.

Political groups are also considering anti-Clinton campaigns to help drive Democratic turnout in down-ballot races. It’s a strategy that strategists considering the plan, however, say have to be made my Labor Day – the unofficial start of the general election season.

But at least one new group, started by two former officials under President George W. Bush, is attempting to do what would be unthinkable in a more traditional election year. Their group, Republican for Clinton 2016, is hatching a plan in battleground states that would actively persuading Republican voters to support Clinton while simultaneously urging voters to back Republicans down-ballot.

Ricardo Reyes, co-founder of the group, said if you're going to oppose Trump then it's a cop-out to not support Clinton.

"When people say you can’t support Trump but will support down-ballot it’s almost like they are cleansing themselves, but that only gets you to be able to feel good about yourself but it doesn't do your duty to make sure Trump isn’t elected," Reyes said.