WASHINGTON — The leading outside groups working to retain the Republican Party's grip on the Senate in November's midterm elections raised $31.6 million last year — a record amount for the organizations in a non-election year, according to figures provided first to USA TODAY.
The Senate Leadership Fund, One Nation and two other political organizations associated with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., started this year with $23.9 million in cash reserves, a 10% increase from its cash position at this point in the last election cycle, officials said.
Republicans have a favorable election map this year because they are defending just eight seats in the Senate compared to 26 held by Democrats. But they also face the crosscurrents of an unpopular President Trump and a long history of any president's party losing seats in midterms.
Steven Law, who oversees the McConnell groups, said Republican donors understand that "the Senate majority represents a critical firewall if we run into trouble this fall" and are providing a steady stream of campaign cash to keep races competitive.
"We start this cycle better prepared than we ever have been," he said.
The strong fundraising picture comes after several months of Republican tumult. Former White House aide Stephen Bannon waged a fiery campaign to upend the party's establishment by winning over donors, backing insurgent candidates in Senate primaries and promising to take down McConnell.
Bannon's efforts failed last month in deep-red Alabama, where Doug Jones beat Bannon-backed Republican Roy Moore to become the first Democrat elected to the Senate from the state in 25 years. Then, Bannon was dumped by President Trumpand other allies this month after Bannon's sharp criticism of Trump's family members became public in an explosive White House tell-all book by journalist Michael Wolff.
McConnell and his allies have gloated openly about Bannon's public downfall and insist he did not pose a serious threat to the Republicans in power.
"Contrary to the brief and loud boasts of one Mr. Stephen K. Bannon, our donors were never especially attracted to his rhetoric and nor were they anything but supportive of our mission," Law told USA TODAY.
Some donors are "disappointed" that Republicans have failed to fully repeal the 2010 Affordable Care Act, a longstanding GOP goal, Law said. But he said contributors to the McConnell groups view the Senate's top Republican as "indispensable" to advancing their agenda, including reshaping the federal judiciary.
Last year, the Senate confirmed 12 Trump nominees to the influential appeals courts that are the last stop before the Supreme Court. That's a record number for a first-year president.
A little more than half the money taken in by the McConnell-aligned groups — or $16.7 million — went to One Nation, a politically active nonprofit that does not disclose donor identities. The Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC that does disclose donor information and details of its spending to federal election regulators, raised $13.7 million.
Smaller amounts went to American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, organizations founded with help from Karl Rove, who served as a top strategist to President George W. Bush. Rove remains involved in the McConnell groups.