Inside the ’22 Blame Game

rick scott and mitch mcconnell
Senator Rick Scott and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Photo: Tom Williams/Getty Images

With just six weeks until the midterm elections, Puck reporters Tara Palmeri and Teddy Schleifer exchanged notes on the ThielMcConnell standoff in Arizona, the Pelosi succession chatter in D.C., Kamala Harris’s weak hand in California, and what’s next in the TrumpDeSantis grudge match. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Tara Palmeri: Teddy, I’m glad we’re talking today, because in many ways we’ve both been circling different angles on the defining campaign story of this election cycle: How Republicans gained, then let slip, a potentially decisive electoral advantage in the midterm races.

Teddy Schleifer: It’s an incredible story, and it is as much about the macro as it is about the micro. Last week you wrote about how the G.O.P. has been dramatically outspending Democrats since Labor Day—and yet Republican candidates are also the ones with the cash deficits. How is that possible?

Tara: That’s right. Even though Republican Senate candidates are suffering from a serious cash disadvantage, as the Times reported this weekend, Mitch McConnell’s Senate Leadership Fund and other outside groups are making up the difference and they’re picking which races they see as being in play. All of this activity has ramped up since Labor Day when G.O.P.-aligned groups started flooding the zone in battleground states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Nevada and Georgia, targeting Democratic Senate candidates with opposition ads. 

It’s not as if Democratic-aligned groups aren’t doing the same; they’re just not doing it at the scale of Republicans, who have spent more than $16 million against John Fetterman alone since Labor Day. Or, look at it this way: Republican-aligned groups have spent $95 million against Democrats in Senate races since Labor Day while Democrat-aligned groups have spent $42 million against G.O.P. candidates in Senate races during the same period since Labor Day, per 527Tracker

But as a Democratic strategist recently pointed out to me, the discrepancy in spending on these Senate races doesn’t convey the full picture. Democratic candidates have more cash in their coffers, and candidates get better rates on ads than do independent groups, like the Senate Leadership Fund, so technically they’re getting more impressions for their money. It’s an archaic rule from the Federal Communications Commission and it only applies to TV and not to digital. In the Georgia Senate race, to give a technical example, a Raphael Warnock ad buy funded by candidate money goes further than a Herschel Walker ad buy that is purchased via an independent expenditure because you get more gross-rating-points on TV spending as a candidate rather than an I.E. 

Of course, it’s hard to prove with data, because it varies by media market and timing in the election cycle. So it’s not clear that it’s really making up the spending delta in all of the races. I guess we’ll see in the end how it all shakes out. A further complexifier to the fundraising picture, too, is that Democrats have been spending longer on their races, while Republicans in the McConnell era tend to ramp up their investment closer to election day. And their candidates did not endure the sort of bruising primaries that G.O.P. candidates faced. 

But, Teddy, there is one candidate that desperately needs money, no matter how it comes in: Blake Masters in Arizona. What’s going on here? 

Teddy: Picture a scenario that really is not that far-fetched: Six weeks from now, Republicans end up with zero net new seats in the U.S. Senate, somehow failing to take the majority despite all the tailwinds this cycle. Perhaps the deciding race is Masters losing to Mark Kelly by, say, a single point—10,000 or 20,000 votes or so. Can you imagine the recriminations to come then?

Tara: Some of the finger-pointing has already begun, as I reported the other week, with a narrative blooming that places the blame on Rick Scott, the National Republican Senatorial Committee chair. But it’s also interesting, as you’ve been reporting, that McConnell’s allies have effectively washed his hands of the Masters race. Sure, he’s helping raise money for him, but he wants other outside groups to cut those checks.

Teddy: McConnell is not dumb, nor are his allies at the Senate Leadership Fund. They obviously have private polling that shows that the Masters race is not nearly as close as the public polls suggest. A few weeks ago, a person familiar with Team McConnell’s thinking told me they thought Masters “doesn’t have a shot” at winning—a perspective made pretty damn official last week when they shelved $10 million in October ads that they had planned to run in the state on his behalf. 

Sure, as you mentioned, McConnell is doing the easy stuff for Masters—last Wednesday he spent time in the Capitol with Masters and a bunch of lobbyists to raise $100,000 in campaign cash for his election. But he’s not doing the hard stuff, such as directing money from SLF to Arizona that could at least tighten the spending gap between pro-Masters and pro-Kelly forces in the state.

None of this is personal for McConnell—as Steven Law, the president of SLF, explained on a podcast earlier this month, they are driven by math: If Masters can show he is competitive, then the money will follow. (Yes, there is a chicken-and-egg dynamic here.) In this case, Masters needs to show Law and McConnell that he is more competitive than, say, other non-incumbents like Mehmet Oz or Walker.

McConnellworld’s expectation is still that Peter Thiel—who, like McConnell himself, is also fundraising for Masters later this week but also not cutting the actually significant super PAC checks—will fill the breach. I’ve been writing about this particular standoff for weeks, and so far, neither party has blinked. But what people forget about this sort of game of chicken is that sometimes neither of the two speeding cars swerves out of the way. Sometimes, they really do just crash into one another.

Relatedly, I’m curious if you think the new Trump-aligned super PAC, Maga Inc., can or will make up the difference. It is very much in Trump’s self-interest for Masters to win, and I wonder if he is a third entrant into these war games and helps the G.O.P. retake the Senate.

Tara: Well, he’s certainly one of the three players—along with McConnell and Scott—who could take the blame if they don’t win. But I doubt the point of reconstituting Trump’s Save America leadership PAC as this new entity is so that he can play the white knight. The main point is to shift his $100 million or so cash reserve into a new vehicle that doesn’t have the same restrictions on its spending. 

Anyway, Trump’s advisors tell me that they believe he already did his part in helping Republicans win back the Senate by endorsing candidates, even if some of them are political neophytes who appear to not be ready for primetime! These advisors don’t see why he should go above and beyond an endorsement to support these campaigns financially when they see it as the role of McConnell or Scott to make sure the G.O.P. takes back the Senate, not the former President. And in his mind, he’s already driving up turnout with rallies, which Save America has paid for. But clearly the Trump camp feels some of the pressure to back up his blessings with money. 

There’s definitely a tension here: Trump, of course, wants to hoard the money for his own potential 2024 campaign, but if you want to be the leader of the party, you’ve got to spend money, especially when there’s a vacuum. McConnell is filling that right now with his Senate Leadership Fund, but he’s not willing to go so far as to save some of Trump’s weaker endorsed candidates, such as Masters. 

Plenty of Republicans I talk to think it would be a no-brainer for Trump to spend some of that money, which helps to make him more influential than Scott and McConnell. But as we know, Trump is also notoriously cheap with his money, and these candidates are now sucking up to McConnell, whom Trump hates. I think it’s a sign of who really has the power in the party. I asked one of the officers of Trump’s new MAGA Inc. PAC, who is usually very open about these things, if they’re going to invest in Arizona. He told me, “I can’t get ahead of some announcements on how much and where, but it’ll be mainly for Trump-endorsed candidates.” There’s definitely a tension there.

Pelosi Succession Sweepstakes

Teddy: We’ve both been obsessively covering the shadow race to succeed Nancy Pelosi, which is denied by everyone involved but obviously unfolding in plain sight. It’s amazing the level of detail you’ve unearthed, for instance, about the congressional hijinks surrounding who will be the next Speaker. Out here in San Francisco, I’m anticipating a veritable bloodbath of our own between, in all likelihood, state legislator Scott Weiner and Pelosi’s politically active daughter, Christine Pelosi. (Although I’m beginning to hear growing skepticism that she actually runs.) Here’s a question that would have been unfathomable just a few months ago: What if Democrats keep the House? Does Pelosi still step down? 

Tara: My gut says that if Democrats keep the House, which they’re still very unlikely to do, then Pelosi stays for another term as Speaker. Frankly, I think it would be really hard for her to give up the gavel, and she justifies it with concerns that the party will become more fractious without her. But let’s not forget that in 2018, in order to win the Speakership, she promised that she would step down from leadership in 2022, calling herself a “bridge.” Lots of bridges in Washington! She even offered to hold a vote on term limits for leadership, not just for Speaker but also for Majority Leader and Majority Whip. Of course, it never went forward. 

When I asked her spokesperson if she plans to abide by a rule on leadership term limits that never passed, I got another canned quote from Drew Hammill: “The Speaker is not on a shift. She’s on a mission.” Okay. But I wonder if the caucus will hold her to her promise this time, especially since so many of them—Hakeem Jeffries, Katherine Clark, Pete Aguilar, Pramila Jayapal—are either whipping votes or making alliances for future leadership structures. When I asked one congressperson about the supposed rule—which, again, never passed—this person seemed to think that Pelosi has some sort of waiver. So as you can tell, no one really believed the promise to begin with. 

Teddy: Yeah, I mean, if she doesn’t step down next year, there will be a whole generation of California political consultants going hungry. These people are expecting to get paid top-dollar in a race for the ages.

Tara: Speaking of California, Teddy, you’re out in Kamala country. How do people in S.F. explain the lack of enthusiasm for Harris in D.C.? 

Teddy: I think Kamala’s strength among the Silicon Valley donor set has always been overstated. During the 2020 Democratic primary, I would occasionally hear from bundlers or donors who felt like they had to donate or host events for her, but didn’t want to—it was a commitment not rooted in ideology or genuine affection, but a sense that they were supposed to support the state’s U.S. Senator who they have known for 10 or 20 years. There was relief among some of her own bundlers in California when she dropped out of the presidential primary race, I’ll tell you that.

And things haven’t gotten much better in the last three years. Her donor network in the Bay Area is not that strong, and I think a Buttigieg or a Newsom would clean her clock here in a fundraising battle in ‘24 or ‘28. She is not a huge draw anymore in NorCal. I’ve actually been surprised that Biden, an actual draw, has not done a Silicon Valley tentpole donor event since 2020—the D.N.C. would be smart to do it. In the meantime, Silicon Valley will have to settle for Obama on Thursday.

DeSantis Fan Fiction

Teddy: OK, I want to end this by floating some totally made-up, but totally logical fan fiction your way. Could you game out what would happen if Trump pulled a CruzFiorina and offered Ron DeSantis the V.P. spot before the presidential primary season next year? I would think that, if DeSantis accepted that, it would kind of end any G.O.P. primary right then and there. And DeSantis, who presumably would have to be considered the underdog in a head-to-head battle with Trump, gets to be the V.P. nominee of a major party—and avoids a direct Trump confrontation that would make a 2024 presidential primary a do-or-die moment for his career. Am I crazy or is this a win-win?

Tara: Ha, I think that fan-fiction could have been a reality 20 months ago, when Trump had just left office and still felt warm and fuzzy toward DeSantis. He even sort of floated a trial balloon about it on a radio show back in May 2021, although I’m not sure how two hardcore MAGA men from Florida helps to build any sort of national coalition or nabs any critical battleground states. There also may be some electoral college issues with having two candidates from the same state, although I’ll leave that to the lawyers. 

But Trump definitely saw DeSantis as his protege. That feeling has faded as DeSantis has refused to say publicly that he won’t run if Trump runs. And as of late, Trump has been downright annoyed that DeSantis hasn’t asked for an endorsement ahead of his reelection in Florida. These small slights have erupted into an all-out rivalry, especially as DeSantis continues to draw crowds and promote his own likeness as the continuation of Trump 2.0. As for DeSantis, he has to win reelection and has some drama in his own state that he has to deal with, like deciding whether to remove Broward County Sheriff Gregory Tony, whom he appointed after the Parkland shooting, for lying on his application. Unlike all of the national distractions that DeSantis has used to catapult into public view, it’s a politically sticky situation for DeSantis close to home, ahead of his reelection. 

Teddy: I suppose. But if the rivalry could be massaged, then of course, the fan fiction here ends with Trump pulling the V.P. offer to DeSantis anyway. Hey, it’s just a verbal commitment!