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Money isn't enough to smooth the path for Republican candidates hoping to retake the Senate

Cleveland businessman and Republican Senate candidate Bernie Moreno speaks at a rally, March 16, 2024, in Vandalia, Ohio. Frustrated by the seemingly endless cash flowing to Democrats, Republicans aiming to retake the Senate have rallied around candidates with plenty of their own money. But it also risks elevating untested candidates who might not be prepared for the scrutiny often associated with fiercely contested Senate campaigns. Questions about an online profile on an adult website connected to Moreno's work e-mail have circulated in GOP circles, sparking frustration among senior Republican operatives. (AP Photo/Jeff Dean, File)

THOMAS BEAUMONT
BRIAN SLODYSKO
Associated Press

Published: May 15, 2024

WASHINGTON (AP) — Frustrated by the seemingly endless cash flowing to Democrats, Republicans aiming to retake the Senate have rallied around candidates with plenty of their own money.
The goal is to neutralize Democrats' roughly 2-to-1 financial advantage, among the few bright spots for a party defending twice as many Senate seats as Republicans this year. But it also risks elevating untested candidates who might not be prepared for the scrutiny often associated with fiercely contested Senate campaigns.
In Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, GOP Senate candidates are being pressed on whether they live in the state. In Montana, the party's Senate candidate recently admitted lying about the circumstances of a gunshot wound he sustained. And in Ohio, the Republican contender pitched himself as financially independent but now may be turning to donors for help repaying loans he made to his campaign.
"One of the challenges they face, as opposed to established politicians, is that established politicians have already gone through the process," said David Winston, a Republican pollster and senior adviser to House Republicans.
The GOP needs to gain only two seats to win Senate control, and the party's top Democratic targets have vulnerabilities of their own that run counter to their carefully curated images as advocates for the working class. Those liabilities include Montana Sen. Jon Tester's ties to defense industry lobbyists; Sherrod Brown, of Ohio, repeatedly failing to pay property taxes on time; and Pennsylvania's Bob Casey spending more than $500,000 in campaign cash at his sister's printing business.
But for Republicans, the dynamic is sensitive because they've been here before.
Since the rise of the tea party movement more than a decade ago, Republicans have lost what were seen as winnable Senate seats by elevating candidates out of sync with mainstream voters who are often critical in statewide contests. The GOP shifted tactics this year, taking a more active role in the primary process and identifying candidates who could help fund their own campaigns. Such contenders, the party hoped, would have the benefit of both presenting themselves as political outsiders and being less reliant on an exhausted donor class.
While that has largely helped Republicans avoid bruising primary fights and go into the general election with well-funded candidates, other complications are surfacing.
RESIDENCY QUESTIONS
In Wisconsin, businessman and real estate mogul Eric Hovde is the leading contender to face two-term Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin. While it's unclear how much Hovde is worth because he has not yet filed a mandatory financial disclosure, he had the wherewithal to lend his campaign $8 million in the first quarter of 2024 — and may have to tap into those resources again to combat questions about the depth of his ties to Wisconsin.
He was born in Madison and educated at the University of Wisconsin, but he's the CEO of a Utah-based bank, owns a luxury home in California and voted absentee from the Golden State in 2023 and 2024.
Hovde has taken pains to share the story of his Norwegian immigrant great-grandparents' arrival in a northwest Wisconsin logging town and is airing an ad featuring his wife, Sharon, leafing through a photo album featuring his days at Madison East High School and UW. He also posted a video clip of him plunging through a thin layer of ice on Lake Mendota near the house he owns on Madison's west side.
"He's Wisconsin through and through," said campaign spokesman Ben Voelkel. "They are trying to distract from literally every other issue that they don't want to talk about."
Dave McCormick, the Republican Senate nominee in Pennsylvania, has faced similar questions. The former hedge fund CEO has plenty of money to help fund a campaign in one of the most politically divided states. His 2024 net worth, with his wife, was between $61.6 million and $183.6 million. He lent over $14 million to his 2022 campaign for Senate, and so far he has plunged nearly $2 million into his bid this year.
While he was born and raised in Pennsylvania, where he started a business and worked after college, he more recently lived and worked in Connecticut, only buying a home in Pittsburgh before his unsuccessful try for the Senate in 2022.
During this year's campaign, McCormick has acknowledged making frequent trips to Connecticut, where his daughter is completing high school and he rents a luxury home in Westport. McCormick has said he goes there to see his daughter following a divorce but maintains his primary residence in Pennsylvania.
"And, if that's a political problem, so be it," he told reporters in Pennsylvania.
BIOGRAPHICAL QUESTIONS
In Montana, Tim Sheehy has invested more than $1.5 million of his own money into his campaign. With a household net worth of between $72.9 million and $255.9 million, he has the ability to tap into far more. The wealthy executive's military service is central to his campaign against Tester, a three-term incumbent in a Republican-friendly state.
But the retired Navy SEAL, who runs an aerial firefighting company, recently acknowledged that he lied to a Glacier National Park ranger on a police report in 2015. He told the ranger he was wounded when his personal handgun discharged accidentally, but he has since said he was wounded in Afghanistan in 2012. He says he didn't report it to protect fellow service members because it may have come from friendly fire.
Sheehy's conflicting accounts, first reported by The Washington Post, could undermine the potentially compelling profile of a combat veteran who started a Montana company. He has blamed a "liberal smear machine" for using the shooting to help Tester.
In Ohio, meanwhile, anxiety about Bernie Moreno was building among Republicans well before he won the party's Senate nomination last month.
The Associated Press reported in March that in 2008, someone with access to Moreno's work email account created a profile on an adult website seeking "Men for 1-on-1 sex." The AP could not definitively confirm that it was created by Moreno. Moreno's lawyer said a former intern created the account and provided a statement from the intern, Dan Ricci, who said he created the account as "part of a juvenile prank."
Questions about the profile have circulated in GOP circles, sparking frustration among senior Republican operatives about Moreno's potential vulnerability in a general election, according to seven people who are directly familiar with conversations about how to address the matter. They requested anonymity to avoid running afoul of former President Donald Trump, who endorsed Moreno, and his allies.
PAYING OFF DEBT
Moreno, a former car dealership owner, had a net worth as high as $168 million last year, more than enough to power his bid to unseat Brown. That's what made the language in an invitation to a recent high-dollar fundraiser in Cleveland all the more notable.
The invitation, obtained by the AP, stated that the first $3,300 of each contribution would be used for "debt retirement, until such debt is extinguished," and before raising money for his general election contest.
It's common for candidates who emerge from competitive primaries, as Moreno did March 19, to ask donors to help pay off debt. What's unusual in Moreno's case is that he is the only person identified on his most recent campaign finance disclosure who would benefit from retiring the campaign's debt. The records show he lent his campaign $4.5 million in personal and bank loans, which means that the bank would also benefit by receiving interest payments. But no other debts are listed on the document.
In a statement, Moreno's campaign said "not one dime" of the money raised at the event would be used to help him recoup his loans. Instead, they said, it would be used to pay off separate debts that the campaign racked up during the primary, but they declined to offer additional details on what was owed.
Ozzie Palomo, a Connecticut-based Republican fundraiser who was part of former 2024 GOP presidential candidate Nikki Haley's finance committee, called the priority of retiring debt "a bit of an unorthodox approach" that could be a turn-off for donors.
"You invest in a campaign in hopes of them winning," Palomo said. "Not in hopes of paying off someone else's debt."


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