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How Trump, infighting led to Republican midterm underperformance

How Trump, infighting led to Republican midterm underperformance

The GOP’s historic tail winds collided with the fractious reality of a political party in the midst of a generational molting

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Sen. Roy Blunt, and Sen. Rick Scott on Capitol Hill in May. McConnell and Scott charted competing strategies for the midterm elections.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Sen. Roy Blunt, and Sen. Rick Scott on Capitol Hill in May. McConnell and Scott charted competing strategies for the midterm elections. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

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Florida Sen. Rick Scott made a plea to about 35 of his colleagues during lunch at the National Republican Senatorial Committee offices in early August: Send money to the NRSC from your personal campaign accounts. The candidates were in need.

The Republican outlook had gone from glossy to grim since the July campaign finance reports. Despite $5-a-gallon gasoline and a historically unpopular president, Democratic Senate candidates in pivotal states had big financial and polling leads. First-time Republican candidates propelled by former president Donald Trump, on the other hand, were viewed unfavorably in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Arizona and Georgia.

But Scott’s hopes of a united GOP response were dashed as soon as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) stood to address the same room: Send 20 percent of the money from their leadership PACs, he told the senators, to the Senate Leadership Fund, an outside group controlled by his own loyalists, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The implication, said multiple people familiar with the exchange, was that senators needed to choose sides in a months-long battle between the two Senate leaders about the best strategy for winning, a conflict that would have serious consequences in the fall.

At least one senator left the meeting frustrated that Scott had to come hat-in-hand so late in the campaign, according to people briefed afterward. Other senators raised private concerns broadly about how Scott had managed the committee. Others blamed McConnell.

“The way it was perceived in the room was ‘Don’t give your money to NRSC. Give to SLF,’” said one person who was present. “And absolutely that hurt our candidates.”

From the outside, this year’s elections looked like a virtual Republican lock. Since Lyndon B. Johnson, new Democratic presidents have lost an average of 45 House and five Senate seats in the midterms. Republicans went to the polls Tuesday needing to gain just five House seats and a single Senate seat to take control, amid soaring inflation and broad dissatisfaction with the nation’s direction.

But behind the scenes, nothing came easy to Republicans this cycle, as their historic tail winds collided with the fractious reality of a political party in the midst of a generational molting. GOP leaders spent much of the last year fighting against each other or plotting against their own primary voters. They were hobbled by unprepared first-time candidates, fundraising shortfalls and Trump, whose self-concern required constant attention — right up to the eve of the election, when he forced party bosses to beg him once again to delay a presidential campaign announcement.

In the weeks that followed that August lunch, the uneasy public truce between McConnell and Scott, the head of the NRSC, essentially collapsed. Major donors failed to fulfill their fall pledges to the NRSC, as the SLF accounts swelled. McConnell publicly raised concerns about candidates backed by Trump, while privately fuming about being cut out of NRSC strategy discussions. Aides to both men clashed over where to spend money and over Scott’s personal policy agenda, which included a politically toxic proposal to reauthorize Social Security every five years.

“They made it very clear early on they were not going to include anybody in their strategy, leadership or not,” Josh Holmes, a strategist close to McConnell, said of the NRSC. “So McConnell decided to do his own thing. He wanted to get as much money in SLF as possible.”

Scott responded by publishing an op-ed attacking his GOP critics as “treasonous” cowards. Allies of Scott went so far as to privately suggest that McConnell preferred winning only a narrow majority that would support him for leader — a claim that McConnell’s team found absurd.

This story of how the Republican Party red wave became a ripple — with Republicans on track to narrowly win control in the House and still at risk of falling short in the Senate — is based on interviews with 47 strategists, donors, advisers and candidates from both parties, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly share private details.

They described how Democratic efforts — to label Republicans “MAGA extremists,” elevate concerns of a tectonic abortion ruling by the Supreme Court and highlight threats to the democratic process embraced by GOP candidates — helped blunt overwhelming frustration with inflation and growing fears about crime. Exit polls conducted by AP VoteCast found 27 percent of voters cited abortion as the most important issue for their vote, compared to 31 percent who said inflation. Eleven percent of voters said crime was the most important, exactly the same share as said gun violence.

The massive barrage of paid advertising — fueled by more than $9 billion in spending from both sides — revealed weaknesses in both parties, which were viewed negatively by a plurality of voters in the final days of the election. Democrats found themselves with a White House leader who struggled to command the bully pulpit and candidates who were wounded by months of public infighting over their legislative agenda. Republicans struggled to hold together their new populist base, which embraced Trump’s lies about the 2020 election and absolutist views of abortion, with their moderate marginal voters, who were turned off by the party’s more radical turn and did not trust the party under Trump’s leadership.

As the election approached, those contradictions simply became harder to contain. Historical patterns, Republicans realized, could break.

“Our peak was really in June, June 13th or so. We were going to have a record-breaking night,” House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said in an interview the day before the election in his U.S. Capitol office. “I never questioned whether we win the majority. The question was how big the majority would be.”

The first warning signs popped up days after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to abortion on June 24. Until then, Republicans had enjoyed an almost comically favorable environment, with 9 percent inflation, a Democratic legislative morass and successive waves of coronavirus variants that caught the Biden administration off guard.

After Dobbs, the tracking data kept by both parties showed Democratic House districts, which had been slipping away, behaving again like Democratic districts. One Democratic House poll in the field when the ruling hit showed an immediate shift in the responses.

Strategists for both parties soon calculated that a massive wave of Democratic congressional retirements and redistricting impacts might only net the GOP a 10-seat gain in the House, enough to take control — but not enough to avoid intraparty chaos that would follow.

“Every single poll, no matter what office you were running in, no matter who the electorate is, no matter what state you were in — whether it was a South Dakota Senate race or a congressional race or a state [legislative] race — showed that abortion was the best-testing argument,” Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said.

That hope was confirmed when Kansans voted Aug. 2 by an 18-point margin to keep protections for abortion. Two weeks later, Democrats won a statewide special election in Alaska, followed by a special election in New York’s Hudson Valley, outperforming even President Biden’s margins in 2020.

“It was night and day,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee executive director Tim Persico said.

Republicans responded with a two-front approach. Leaders like Ronna McDaniel, Republican National Committee chairwoman, encouraged candidates to quickly “move on” from abortion to other issues that were better for Republicans. Republican leaders begged candidates to avoid rigorous antiabortion positions without exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother. “Stakeout common ground with a majority of Americans who support exceptions,” read a September memo from the Republican National Committee, a sentiment Trump echoed at his rallies.

The party then focused on giving the nation something else to talk about.

At the National Republican Congressional Committee, Chairman Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) convened a late-August summit of pollsters. They had succeeded in tying inflation concerns to Democratic policies, with ads as far back as the Fourth of July in 2021 about the rising costs of hamburgers and propane after the first Democratic stimulus bill. But they needed something more to harness the broad dissatisfaction with the direction of the country.

The answer had appeared in focus groups and polling from the spring: Suburban swing voters would volunteer that they didn’t feel safe going downtown anymore.

“You get a little bit deeper, and the concerns about rising crime and their own personal safety were there all along,” said B.J. Martino, a pollster at the Tarrance Group who attended the private meeting. “For our campaigns, it was about making sure we connect the policies of Democrats in Congress with the consequences that they are already seeing as we had already done on the economics.”

Emmer appeared days later on Fox News Sunday with the marching orders. “It’s about Americans’ economic security,” he said of the coming election. “It’s about Americans’ physical security.”

Democrats had seen the crime concerns in their spring polling as well, prompting the DCCC to send a March memo to candidates telling them to begin vetting “at least one active or retired member of law enforcement who can go on the record” on their behalf.

The problem was that the crime attacks would do damage if left unanswered, even if they were based on misrepresentations. Republicans spent more than $50 million on crime messaging after Labor Day, according to AdImpact, forcing Democrats to divert about at least $38 million by late October.

“Fox News goes from not talking about crime at all to talking about crime all the time. Every ad that they run goes from talking about the economy to just talking about how every Democrat wants to murder your entire family,” Persico said.

It was a painful combination, given Biden’s ongoing struggle to get ahead of the nation’s economic challenges. Many Democrats, including leadership aides, grew frustrated down the stretch as Biden talked more about other topics than the issues voters seemed to care most about.

“When you survey the American people, they do not think Democrats are strong on the economy,” said Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), who retired to avoid a difficult reelection fight. “Then you have some Democrats saying things like ‘inflation is transitory, gas prices are only going to be high for a little while, we’re not really in a recession.’”

“When Democrats take a faculty lounge approach to real people’s problems,” she added, “it further undermines our credibility on the economy.”

On Tuesday night, those who had gathered in the White House were too elated to dwell on those concerns. A nerve center was set up on the second floor of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building to watch returns. But senior staff gathered in the West Wing’s Roosevelt Room to eat pizza.

The staff made light of McCarthy’s late appearance at his own victory party as it was broadcast on a television, according to a person familiar with the events. At moments, someone remarked, there were more people in the camera shot than Democratic House seats Republicans would likely be able to claim when all the ballots were counted.

As Republicans began to gain back ground in House races through the fall, aided by a return to rising gas prices in mid-September, they continued to struggle in the Senate contests, where candidate quality was king — just as Democrats had always hoped.

For months, McConnell grew concerned that some of the candidates were going to lose — even in a favorable environment — according to allies. When he publicly raised the concern this summer, it was a thunderclap in the party. He infuriated RNC and NRSC staff. Some donors, such as mega-hotelier Steve Wynn, privately said they were no longer going to support him. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich told Republican donors McConnell had made a mistake in a bid to soothe nerves.

“Somebody had to say it, because nobody else was saying it, and you had candidates down 5 or 10 points in the polls in red states,” Holmes, the McConnell adviser said. “It wasn’t working. We weren’t winning.”

Democrats saw exploiting individual Republican candidates as their best shot at victory — knowing the political environment was a difficult one.

“Our theory of the case from the beginning was we assumed that this was going to be a very tough election for us,” said Christie Roberts, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “We had to utterly discredit and disqualify our opponents.”

A former opposition researcher, Roberts had plotted the attack from early 2021, when she directed her committee to get involved, often in secretive ways, with Republican primaries across the country. In many cases, her work targeted an audience of one, Trump, who had the power to get a candidate through the primary with a simple endorsement.

The Democrats planted early stories about past criticism of Trump by former North Carolina governor Pat McRory (R), aiming to push Trump to endorse someone less electable in the state’s Senate primary. (The successful nominee, Ted Budd, went on to win Tuesday.) They built up the idea in the press that Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) might run for Senate, prompting Trump to lash out and make clear his opposition; Ducey passed on running.

They handed out other hit pieces against Ohio GOP chairwoman Jane Timken and Pennsylvania Senate contender Dave McCormick, mining their old public comments for any criticism that might raise Trump’s ire. The committee even subscribed to a service that allowed for constant monitoring of right-wing radio, so divisions could be picked up early and amplified.

It was opposition research as psychological warfare, directed at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club and Bedminster, N.J., golf resort. During internal meetings at the DSCC in 2021, senior strategists spoke about creating a “summer of chaos” and a “fall of fighting” in the Republican Party.

Ultimately, the GOP candidates Democrats most feared facing, like Ducey and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, declined to enter the race, giving them a fighting chance to hold the Senate. Sununu, the most popular politician in his state, had been targeted early by the DSCC with attacks on his abortion record. He ultimately blamed fellow Republicans for his decision.

“I was going to run,” Sununu said during an October appearance at Rice University, before laying blame on the Republican senators who tried to recruit him. “Man, they are the worst used-car salesman you ever heard. They said all the wrong things. I had one U.S. senator start talking about how much vacation time they got.”

Democrats in the House were also trying to meddle in Republican primaries, aiming to elevate their least electable opponents. In New Jersey, Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D) sent out primary mailers to promote Trump’s 2020 endorsement of the man he wanted to face in the general election, Frank Pallotta, who had described abortion as “legalized manslaughter.”

In Western Michigan, the DCCC took out ads to boost the flailing primary campaign of John Gibbs, a candidate who had denied the validity of the 2020 election, suggested a senior adviser to former secretary of state Hillary Clinton engaged in satanic rituals and criticized giving women suffrage. The strategy carried risks. “We might be wrong,” said a House strategist days before the election. But on election night it paid returns. Gibbs fell, flipping a seat to Democrats, and Gottheimer easily won reelection.

Aware of the danger, and eager to shift the reputation of his party, McCarthy was also playing a delicate primary game.

After outperforming expectations in 2020, and picking up 15 seats, he was on the verge of attaining the speakership he always wanted. But his caucus had begun the cycle in chaos, reeling from the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol that McCarthy publicly blamed on Trump. Some of his colleagues, like Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), called on McCarthy to follow McConnell’s lead and break ties with Trump.

McCarthy — always focused on winning the electoral numbers game — went the other way, embracing the former president, defending him and offering to bring Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), whose incendiary statements he had previously condemned, further into the fold.

At the same time, his allies worked to defeat some of the most extreme House candidates flying Trump’s America First banner, including one incumbent, Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.). He also continued his decade-long quest to bring more racial, gender and ethnic diversity to a party increasingly known for its appeal to White men.

McCarthy considers his efforts over the last two cycles to elect more women and racially diverse members of Congress as central to the imprint he leaves on the party. “A Republican minority or Republican woman, their hardest election is not the general election. It is the primary,” he said.

He recruited John James, a Black former Senate candidate, to run for a redrawn House seat in Michigan. He fought to get Jen Kiggans, a former Navy helicopter pilot on the ballot in Virginia. McCarthy repeatedly spoke with Trump, according to people familiar with the efforts, to keep the former president from endorsing in Arizona’s sixth district, clearing the way for Republican Juan Ciscamoni, the son of a Mexican immigrant to run for a seat with little Democratic opposition. Kiggans won easily, and Ciscamoni and James were leading in their races Wednesday as votes were being counted.

How Kevin McCarthy’s political machine worked to sway the House GOP field

McCarthy met with Trump nearly a dozen times over the course of the cycle, according to people familiar with the situation, often following a format they had established in the 2020 cycle. With the executive director of his political operation, Brian Jack, a former political director for Trump in the White House, McCarthy would go through printouts of candidates in each race, showing the president their pictures, polling and campaign fundraising.

With the exception of some Republicans who voted for Trump’s impeachment, McCarthy and Trump mostly avoided disagreement. In a sign of the relationship, Trump even agreed not to work against one impeachment voter he had previously threatened to unseat, Rep. David G. Valadao (R-Calif.), who McCarthy argued was the only candidate that would win his district in California’s Central Valley. Valadao’s race had not yet been called Wednesday.

McConnell, meanwhile, refused to have anything to do with Trump, leaving the communications about primary campaigns to Scott, who largely chose a hands-off approach. It was a decision, many Republicans came to believe, that would create problems in the fall.

Former president in waiting

As he jetted between his resort homes, Trump’s agenda, as it had been for years, remained transactional. He seemed to delight in the public and private attention he could attract. Up to the final day of the midterm campaign, he demanded constant minding by party leaders.

On the final Monday before the election, enraged by positive coverage of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and determined to claim credit for what he believed were going to be the party’s wins, Trump began phoning people to say he would announce his 2024 presidential bid that evening at a rally in Ohio. A coterie of Republicans, including McDaniel of the RNC, called and eventually begged him off. Instead he came up with a troll: He would announce that he would be announcing.

“The whole day was miserable,” one leading Republican said. “It was just: Who could get him on the phone and convince him not to hurt us?”

For the previous year, he was viewed as both an asset and a liability by the rest of the party leadership. He often sat in his office above the ballroom at Mar-a-Lago — arriving in the afternoon after playing 18 to 36 holes of golf — where he would regale visitors with his personal obsessions.

“He wanted to golf every day, make money and say the election was stolen,” one person who has talked to him frequently said.

Trump, from the start, was determined to fight the notion that he was fading, according to multiple people who spoke to him. He wanted to stay part of the conversation, to have the most money, to be atop the headlines and the most influential leader of the party — and show supremacy over Republican rivals he believes will take him on, such as DeSantis.

“We are stronger than we’ve ever been,” he said during an interview with The Washington Post in April, critiquing news coverage that showed his influence slipping.

His near-constant efforts to announce a new presidential campaign were egged on by Charlie Kirk, the leader of Turning Point USA, and some of his longest-serving advisers, like Jason Miller, who said it would force other Republicans to back him and make him the front-runner. One reason the RNC paid Trump’s legal bills, a person familiar with the matter said, was to give him an incentive to stay out of the race.

A top Trump adviser said they also were not ready to have a campaign when he wanted to announce. “He has been talked to by party fathers how that is not the best idea to introduce himself into these equations and just takes the spotlight off of people who need the spotlight,” the adviser said. “He was champing at the bit to announce.”

McDaniel visited Trump once a month at his clubs, going through polling, giving recommendations on endorsements and talking him out of running. “A big part of his goal was to make sure we win the majorities,” McDaniel said. She said Trump grew to understand the election should be a “referendum on Biden.”

Trump also pushed party candidates and leaders to go with his false claims about the election, which were viewed as an unhelpful message by Scott, McConnell, McDaniel and others. He often gave candidates who sought his endorsement talking points about what to say about the “rigged and stolen” election and lambasted them when they backed away from his claims.

Richard Walters, a senior adviser and former chief of staff at the RNC, said another goal was to guide Trump to particular areas on the electoral map where he could actually help — such as rural areas in states where he ran up the score against Biden in 2020. But some candidates near the end also suggested they did not want Trump in their states, Trump advisers said, partially leading to a less robust travel schedule in the final weeks.

“I think the former president feels like he is super effective anywhere he goes. Rick Scott and the other teams would point him into areas where the data shows what we call Trump downshifters or disengagers, people who typically would only turn out to vote if Trump was on the ballot,” Walters said. “Turning out the Trump voters is important for the party. It just is.”

All told, his advisers say he played a big role in the primaries for Republicans: 52 fundraisers, 30 rallies and 44 tele-rallies for Trump-backed candidates. His allies note, correctly, that he consistently drew bigger crowds than all others in the midterms. And he stayed on a scathing message against Biden. But at the rallies, he also repeatedly injected his false claims on the 2020 election into the midterms and veered into unwelcome topics. And every time he talked about running for president, or toying with the idea publicly, Republican strategists feared he would alienate more independent and moderate voters.

“When we are talking about 2020, we aren’t winning,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.).

In speeches, Trump uses dozens of lies, exaggerations to draw contrast with Biden

Trump regularly insulted McConnell privately in caustic terms — even more vicious than his public comments. “A total sack of s–t,” he told Republican leaders about the Senate minority leader at Mar-a-Lago in one early 2022 meeting.

Trump also brought Republicans a raft of unwelcome headlines: From precipitating a raid on his Florida club by taking hundreds of classified documents with him after leaving the White House and refusing to return them, to damaging revelations about Jan. 6, to attacking fellow Republicans who he viewed as insufficiently loyal.

McConnell made a point of not responding, even when Trump gave his wife a racist moniker for her Taiwanese heritage, saying privately that Trump’s drama had become an albatross for Republican goals.

“The one thing Democrats are not wrong about, and they were actually pretty smart about: Every time Trump is the center of the political conversation, Republicans had a problem in the polls,” said Holmes, the McConnell adviser. “If you take the bait on the constant incoming, all you’re doing is creating a story that makes it difficult for our candidates.”

And Trump was responsible for pushing some of the party’s weakest Senate candidates, strategists say, particularly Mehmet Oz, who he endorsed in Pennsylvania; Blake Masters, who he pushed in Arizona; and Herschel Walker, who he urged into the race in Georgia. Oz was defeated Tuesday, Masters was trailing and Walker now faces a December runoff against Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.) that could decide control of the Senate.

Trump remained, through it all, a constant force in fundraising, since he was both a magnet for money and a drain on resources for the rest of the party. He took in about $150 million for his PAC — a remarkable haul for a candidate not running for office, and much of it raised on false claims about the election — but spent just a fraction of the funds on the elections.

Beyond Trump, whose name and likeness raised hundreds of millions this cycle, Republicans suffered all year when it came to small-dollar fundraising.

Senate Democratic candidates raised $126 million more than Republicans, as of a week before the election, according to Federal Election Commission records, despite much more costly Republican primaries. House Democratic candidates raised $31 million more than the Republican counterparts. AdImpact reported that Democrats had outspent Republicans every month starting in June, building an overall advertising advantage of $63 million through the cycle.

At the root of the problem was a difference in how the grass roots of each party participated. GOP calculations, according to two people familiar with the data, found that there were about 7 million people who had given through WinRed, the primary GOP small-dollar processing firm, compared to 20 million people for ActBlue, the preferred platform of Democrats.

Republican consultants, meanwhile, had a habit of selling each other existing lists and then keeping huge cuts of the proceeds, instead of bringing new donors into the system. And new prospecting proved prohibitively expensive. Republican groups that invested heavily in recruiting new donors, like the NRSC, found themselves cutting their budgets late in the cycle.

“This leads to almost zero net dollars to campaigns but tens of millions of dollars to vendors,” said one prominent Republican digital strategist. “Closing the cash gap with ActBlue requires bigger long-term thinking on how to acquire brand-new GOP donors from the 75 million who voted in 2020.”

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

McDaniel, the RNC chair, said the small donor erosion was a “big problem” and that they repeatedly had to ask bigger donors to give more because the smaller donors were not.

On the calls with donors, McDaniel urged them to disregard public polling and instead focus on past cycles. She enlisted Gingrich in late August to help, according to audio reviewed by The Post. Gingrich asked donors to avoid the bad news they were seeing in the polls. All the Democratic spending advantages, he said, would eventually be subsumed by the political environment. McDaniel said she told the donors, in the words of the singer Taylor Swift, that “you need to calm down.”

“What we saw both in ’80 and in ’94, no matter what ad you see, if you then walk out and fill up your gas tank, you get mad again,” Gingrich told the donors, according to the audio. “Or if you watch a 7-Eleven getting robbed by a flash mob representing sort of the end of civilized behavior, you get mad again.”

Masters’ campaign in Arizona exemplified many Republicans’ anxieties about, in McConnell’s words, “candidate quality.” A first-time candidate, Masters won his primary largely on the strength of Trump’s endorsement and $15 million from his mentor Peter Thiel, the billionaire co-founder of PayPal who invested early in Facebook.

To Masters’s critics, his primary campaign had unfolded like undergraduate performance art. He announced in an ad that “psychopaths are running the country right now,” proposed that leftists did not want “our people” to exist, and said plainly in an ad, “Trump won in 2020.” In one March interview, he described the Unabomber as a “subversive thinker that is underrated.” At another event, he proposed privatizing Social Security.

“It was an ‘oh s–t’ moment,” Chad Willems, Masters’s general consultant at the time, said of the Social Security statement. “I think Blake regretted using that phrase.

Polling that circulated among GOP operatives over the summer showed Masters’s support among Republicans in the low 70s, putting him well behind the 90-percent-plus support for the GOP’s polarizing gubernatorial nominee, Kari Lake, well-known as a former TV anchor.

When Masters called shortly after the primary, worried about money, Willems said he offered reassurance. “The money will come now that you’re the nominee,” Willems remembered saying. But the GOP’s biggest outside spender, SLF, would soon abandon the race.

The group made its first cuts shortly after Thiel rebuffed requests from McConnell to invest more in the candidate he elevated. The McConnell-aligned super PAC came out of the summer believing there was a crisis, with candidates like Masters and J.D. Vance in Ohio lacking the resources to mount a real general election campaign.

“The huge disparity in fundraising this cycle, which was far more pronounced than any prior cycle, ended up having real strategic ramifications for us,” said SLF CEO Steven Law. “We concluded that the only chance we had of being financially competitive in the fall was to concentrate our focus on the most achievable path to the majority.”

Not everyone agreed. Scott still believed in going big, investing heavily in every state where they had a chance, because the wave would arrive. But the NRSC had spent much of its television money in the spring and summer. What followed was a comedy of television reservation cancellations and repurchases, with SLF and NRSC often taking opposite tacks. SLF ultimately pulled out from New Hampshire and Arizona, over the NRSC’s objections. The McConnell super PAC put $35 million into Ohio to bail out Vance, who would go on to win easily.

“It doesn’t make any sense what they did,” said J.B. Poersch, the president of the Democratic Senate Majority PAC, about the ping-ponging of Republican money in Senate races. “I don’t think that SLF got to the level that they needed to be communicating at in the races that will decide the majority. And the NRSC barely showed up.”

Scott’s team grew increasingly frustrated. After SLF spent $5 million in a failed effort to get New Hampshire state senator Chuck Morse through the Senate primary, because they viewed him as a better general election candidate, Curt Anderson, the top consultant working for the NRSC, tweeted some salt in the wound: “lotta GOP donor money wasted in NH,” he wrote. The eventual nominee, Dan Bolduc, went down to defeat Tuesday.

It was a window into how bad the relationship had become between Scott’s allies and much of the rest of the party. As the fall progressed, McConnell’s aides blamed Scott for having released a policy plan that suggested changing Social Security. “That plan ended up in a Democratic ad in every state,” said Holmes, the McConnell adviser, adding that “nobody in the conference wanted that plan.”

A source close to Scott blamed McConnell for allowing a national abortion ban to be proposed by Graham in the Senate, which Democrats “used in every swing state in the country.”

Candidates found themselves getting separate streams of advice from Washington. McConnell, who did not see NRSC polling, regularly talked to Oz about Pennsylvania and consulted repeatedly with Walker in Georgia, including working with him on a straight-to-camera ad script where he talked about mental health and redemption after he was taking incoming attacks earlier this year about his past.

McConnell’s team defended his role in raising money for the Senate effort down the stretch. “If the leader solicits a contribution, it is within the allowable limits,” said Josh Ashbrook, a McConnell adviser.

“McConnell’s view is you don’t wish things into existence, which is what a large number of players this cycle were doing,” Holmes said. “They were out talking about things that were going to happen, but weren’t doing anything to ensure that was going to happen.”

Days before the election, Anderson had lost patience with the back-and-forth with other Republican strategists.

Scott had traveled the country handing out ceremonial bowls that he called the “Champions of Freedom” awards during the cycle, celebrating conservatives who had helped the party. McConnell allies particularly scowled when Scott released a picture of giving Trump a bowl two days after Trump called McConnell a “dumb son of a b—-.”

“I think some of those bowls are left,” Anderson said. “We will send them out to anyone who needs one.”





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