Republicans are looking for Senate candidates who are filthy rich
The strategy is also an acknowledgment that the party’s reliance on super PACs funded by its richest supporters has been insufficient. In the last two elections, Republicans were unsuccessful in stopping Democrats from nabbing a narrow majority in the upper chamber. Arming themselves with better-funded recruits, many of whom can give their campaigns tens of millions of dollars, could help them finally net the two seats needed to reclaim the gavel.
Potential self-funders for this cycle include: Tim Sheehy, the Montana founder of an aerospace company, Eric Hovde, a real estate executive in Wisconsin, and West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, a coal mining magnate.
“In politics as in life, money doesn’t buy happiness, but poverty doesn’t buy a damn thing,” said Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.). “So if you’ve got a candidate who can self fund, you can spend your money elsewhere.”
“Democrats are always going to outraise us,” he said.
There are no limits to how much candidates can donate or loan their own campaigns so a crop of rich recruits could offer a much-needed solution to the GOP’s now-systemic fundraising woes. The NRSC’s new chair, Sen. Steve Daines of Montana, has placed an emphasis on trying to secure candidates who are either exceptional at fundraising or personally wealthy, according to a source familiar with his thinking who was granted anonymity to speak candidly about strategy.
“It’s helpful,” Daines said in a brief interview. “We’ve got some work to do to catch up.”
In Wisconsin, Hovde, a businessman with experience in property development and banking, is seriously considering taking on incumbent Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin, according to two sources familiar with his plans who were not authorized to publicly discuss them. He could inject an eight-figure sum into his bid against Baldwin, who raised some $33 million for her 2018 reelection.
Hovde, who made a failed Senate bid in 2012, also decided against a governor bid in 2022. This time he seems more likely to enter the fray. He has spoken with NRSC officials and has begun engaging potential staff.
“He’s thought about running for all kinds of offices,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), when asked about Hovde.
Some other well-funded potential recruits are also familiar names. Karrin Taylor Robson, an Arizona land-use attorney and developer, is considering a run for the seat currently held by Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.), and David McCormick, a former hedge fund CEO, is weighing another run against Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.). Both dipped into their own largesse for failed bids in 2022.
And in Michigan, Detroit-area businessman Kevin Rinke is considering a run for the state’s open Senate seat after investing $10 million in a losing governor run in 2022.
In Montana, the home of Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, a top GOP target, Republican recruiters are eagerly courting Sheehy, a Navy SEAL-turned-aerial firefighting pilot. He is the founder of Bridger Aerospace, which was valued at $869 million last year. And in West Virginia, Justice, who is eyeing Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin’s seat, was once reported to be a billionaire thanks to his coal mine empire. He has since experienced financial difficulties and is working to drill down sizable debts.
Both states have been top recruitment priorities for Daines.
Two self-funders are lining up to take on Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown in Ohio: Bernie Moreno, a car dealer-turned-tech executive who reported household assets worth tens of millions, and Matt Dolan, a state senator and a member of the family that owns the Cleveland Guardians. Dolan injected more than $10.5 million into his 2022 bid for an open Senate seat in the state and finished third in the primary. Dolan has declared a bid, while Moreno is considering one.
The GOP is well poised to recapture the Senate and West Virginia, Montana and Ohio are their top three targets. But fundraising problems have stymied them in the past. Democratic candidates’ financial advantage ballooned in 2022, ranging from $110.8 million in Georgia to $77.8 million in Arizona.
Republican super PACs consistently outraise their Democratic counterparts, especially on the Senate side. But Democrats’ candidate fundraising boom is still a major headache because candidates purchase TV ads at a discounted rate. Their money goes much farther in the final stretch of the campaign when both sides pummel the air waves.
“Republicans face an existential crisis that won’t be solved overnight, but we still need to figure out how to mitigate the damage in the short term,” said Kevin McLaughlin, the executive director of the NRSC in 2020. “Recruiting strong candidates who can both self-fund and win general elections is a great first step.”
The class of senators up in 2024 are no less prolific at fundraising. Baldwin, Brown, Tester and Casey all raised between $21 million and $33 million during the 2018 cycle. Only Brown’s GOP opponent, then-Rep. Jim Renacci, raised more than $8 million (and that was because he gave himself an $8 million loan).
Not all of the potential 2024 recruits are equally wealthy and there is certainly a difference between a candidate worth a billion dollars and one worth a couple hundred million. But even one or two candidates who are willing to make a significant investment can reduce the burden on the party committee and allied super PACs, which are then more free to spend in other races. It can also erase the cash-on-hand advantage that incumbent Democrats enjoy.
Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), for example, won his 2018 race by dropping more than $60 million of his own funds to oust Democrat Bill Nelson, setting the record for self-funding in a Senate campaign. But not every candidate will be as willing to part with their own cash. Even now, Scott said he would have welcomed more outside aid in his race.
“It’s always helpful to get more people to help you,” he said. “I wish there was more help.”
Several of the potential candidates — McCormick in Pennsylvania, Dolan in Ohio and Robson in Arizona — ran in 2022 and did not hesitate to invest. But none were able to win their respective primaries, a dynamic that could undermine the 2024 strategy.
McCormick spent some $14.3 million of his own funds (and raised another $5.9 million on his own). Robson spent more than $18 million from her accounts when she ran for governor last year.
The Senate GOP campaign arm has made no secret it would like McCormick to make another go after losing to Mehmet Oz in the 2022 primary. Oz also self-funded some $27 million, but was still unable to beat Democrat John Fetterman.
Robson, meanwhile, had a lengthy, wide-ranging meeting with Daines in March at the NRSC’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., according to a person familiar with the encounter granted anonymity to discuss a private conversation who called it “productive” and said Robson left impressed by Daines and his team.
But both could still face primary competition from two MAGA-aligned candidates who also ran and lost in 2022: Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania and Kari Lake in Arizona. Lake beat Robson in a GOP primary for governor despite a large cash deficit.
Few major Senate races will avoid competitive primaries, which drain party resources. Should Justice enter the race in West Virginia, he will have to face Rep. Alex Mooney, a conservative hardliner. In Montana, a Sheehy candidacy could butt up against GOP Rep. Matt Rosendale, who ran and lost to Tester in 2018.
But it seems increasingly likely that another contender for Senate in Montana, Republican Rep. Ryan Zinke, who served as Donald Trump’s secretary of the Interior, won’t enter the race. In an interview this month, he said he had not made a decision but that his current focus was on his work on the Appropriations Committee, which he described as a “full-time job.” “I can’t run the Senate campaign and be in Appropriations,” he said.
And when asked about Sheehy, he was effusive with praise: “I love Tim Sheehy. I helped him with his Purple Heart ceremony. I love him.”
Holly Otterbein contributed to this report.