The challenge with those groups pulling back isn’t a lack of money, given that the GOP broke spending records in 2020, and in interviews with a dozen top party strategists, some noted that fewer groups can drive a more coordinated message. But others said there is a shrinking number of institutions and power centers that can speak directly to voters, help steer the course of the Republican Party and try out different strategies and messages to help it win again. Top Republicans expect the GOP’s minority status to drive innovation and sprout new groups, but they begin 2021 with fewer options than last time the party faced the political wilderness.
“Looking back at the 2010 cycle, there was a flurry of outside groups that came onto the scene. That’s simply not the case now. Fundraising, campaign organizations and outside groups have evolved significantly,” said Ken Spain, who served as the National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman in 2010, when Republicans retook the House majority. “As the tectonic plates shifted within the Republican Party, the broader campaign apparatus atrophied, and that includes some groups pulling back or going by the wayside altogether.”
Brian O. Walsh, who led a pro-Trump super PAC in 2020 and has coordinated GOP outside spending efforts for years, said that “consolidation isn’t necessarily a bad thing with fewer cooks in the kitchen.” But a downside, he added, is that “the ecosystem has shrunk, [and] that means the number of different, substantial, well-respected political brands, from the Kochs to the Chamber, aren’t out there carrying the message for you.”
“There’s just no one else out there now,” said one senior Republican strategist, who has worked with the GOP campaign committees and requested anonymity to discuss the issue candidly. The person added: “There’s strength in numbers, and we have fewer numbers of groups.”
Trump’s influence on the party — and his personality-driven approach to politics — naturally papered over some of the missing pieces for several years. But Trump is leaving the White House less popular than ever and with intra-party score-settling on his mind more so than party-building.
“When you’re the party in power, you become less innovative, more reliant upon the status quo and with Trump in power, that happened on steroids,” Spain said.
Senate Leadership Fund President Steven Law said that even though “fewer groups have been involved” in recent years, the “intensity and ferocity” of the outside group activity has only “increased.” That’s seen vividly in SLF’s independent expenditures, hitting historic highs during the 2020 cycle.
“As other groups pared back, we have worked hard to fill a void,” Law said.
It’s also a “natural evolution and maturation” of the political landscape, said Dan Conston, president of the Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC aligned with House GOP leadership. “Ten years ago, it was the wild West,” he said. “Now, CLF has grown from the top spender to the behemoth spender because of a very consistent and demonstrable record of success.”
A smaller band of players isn’t the only thing that’s changed in the ecosystem of conservative-aligned groups. Small-dollar donors have grown in importance for both parties, making it easier to tap into a network of grassroots giving. During the 2020 cycle, Republicans sought to catch up with Democrats in online fundraising by focusing on driving supporters to WinRed, a fundraising platform that processed $2 billion last cycle, which still lags far behind Democrats’ candidate online fundraising.
Earlier this month, corporate PACs and executives voiced concern, with some suspending or stopping their political giving, after 147 congressional Republicans voted against certifying the Electoral College results. (It’s not yet clear how long those bans might last.) And megadonor Sheldon Adelson, one of the largest sources of GOP funding in recent years, died earlier this month.
Several Republicans likened this moment to the run-up to the 2010 midterm elections, when Republicans, energized by Democrats full control of Washington after President Barack Obama’s election in 2008, led to a new wave of megadonor activity and groups building off tea party activism.
“I think you’ll see fresh activity on a variety of fronts – maybe not from the ones you saw before – but in an organic response to what I think will be a pretty liberal and aggressive program advanced by the incoming administration,” Law said, citing groups like Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion group, as a new potential power player. “Having more players involved is a good thing, and I expect we will see more of that in a year when people are more naturally activated.”
In the first months of the Biden administration, Republicans also said they were eager to seize on Democratic policies to spur donors and activism.
“We’re all after-Trumpers now, and we need to figure out what that universe looks like,” said one Republican donor adviser and strategist. “The new ecosystem is going to be a competition of ideas for GOP megadonors, and they all have to decide, what kind of ecosystem do you want?”
But for the groups that were once instrumental in the GOP takeovers in 2010 and 2014, it’s less clear it will be involved in shaping and helping the party in 2021. For example, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce once ranked among the 10 top-spending outside groups in the 2012 and 2014 elections, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, mostly backing Republicans. But the Chamber spent just $10.9 million on independent expenditures in 2018 and $5.7 million in 2020, after endorsing a bipartisan slate of candidates in 2020.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce did not respond to requests for comment.
Americans for Prosperity, the political and grassroots arm of the Koch network, was actively involved in hundreds of state and federal campaigns through its vast on-the-ground activist operation in 2020, but it notably stayed out of the presidential race. AFP CEO Emily Seidel penned a memo in 2019 that AFP would back incumbents of any political party, including Democrats, “who lead by uniting,” while criticizing politicians who “prize partisanship over policy outcomes.” And in the Georgia Senate runoffs, AFP knocked on 800,000 doors for Sen. David Perdue, but not for Sen. Kelly Loeffler, two Republicans who both lost their bids in January.
In an interview in November, billionaire Charles Koch said he “took to heart George Washington’s farewell address, where he said, ‘Beware of political parties,’” The Washington Post reported. And last week, the Koch network told POLITICO that it will “weigh heavy” the actions of members of Congress leading up to the insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021, “in our evaluation of future support.”
A person with knowledge of the Koch network, granted anonymity to discuss the issue candidly, said that as Trump “brought out traditional, blue-collar Democrats who voted for him, while sending some Republicans, especially suburban Republicans to the Democratic Party,” and “that shift, that realignment, is also reflected in the outside spending world,” including for the Koch network.
The NRA is also still involved in GOP politics, able to tap into its large member network to support candidates. But it is currently facing a range of internal problems, from a public break with its former president in 2019 to declaring bankruptcy in New York last week and announcing it would be reconstituting in Texas.
Last cycle, Republicans and Trump campaign officials raised alarms about the NRA, calling the group profoundly diminished and fretted that its internal challenges — including an investigation by New York state attorney general’s office into its tax-exempt status — would hobble its campaign efforts.
In 2020, the NRA did fall out of the top 20 biggest outside spenders, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, after maintaining membership in that group for several cycles. But the NRA did spend $30 million on TV and digital ads, as well as recruiting volunteers in eight states. The group also spent $5 million on the Georgia Senate runoffs, pivotal seats that Republicans failed to hold in January 2021.
The NRA said that “money is an often ineffective gauge of power in politics [and] what matters is results,” and it “endorsed in dozens of competitive races across the country and 87 percent of our candidates prevailed at the federal and state levels,” Amy Hunter, an NRA spokeswoman, said in a statement. “There are millions of new gun owners in America who will vote their rights in 2022.”