Money isn't enough to pave the way for Republican candidates hoping to retake the Senate

WASHINGTON — Frustrated by the seemingly endless flow of money to Democrats, Republicans seeking to retake the Senate have rallied around candidates with a lot of their own money.

The goal is to neutralize Democrats' roughly 2-to-1 financial advantage, one of the few bright spots for a party that is defending twice as many Senate seats as Republicans this year. But it also risks elevating untested candidates who may be unprepared for the scrutiny that often comes with hotly contested Senate campaigns.

In Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, Republican Senate candidates are being pressed about whether they live in the state. In Montana, the party's Senate candidate recently admitted that he lied about the circumstances of the gunshot wound he suffered. And in Ohio, the Republican candidate presented himself as financially independent but may now be turning to donors for help repaying loans he made to his campaign.

“One of the challenges they face, as opposed to establishment politicians, is that establishment politicians have already gone through the process,” said David Winston, a Republican pollster and senior adviser to House Republicans.

The Republican Party needs to win only two seats to win control of the Senate, and the party's top Democratic targets have their own vulnerabilities that run counter to their carefully crafted image as advocates for the working class. These commitments include Montana Senator Jon Tester's ties to defense industry lobbyists; Sherrod Brown of Ohio, who repeatedly failed to pay property taxes on time; and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania spends more than $500,000 in campaign money at his sister's printing business.

But for Republicans, the dynamic is sensitive because they have 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 fielding candidates above and beyond mainstream voters, who are often critical in statewide elections . The Republican Party changed tactics this year, taking a more active role in the primary process and identifying candidates who could help finance their own campaigns. Such contenders, the party hoped, would have the advantage of presenting themselves as political outsiders and being less dependent on a depleted donor class.

While that largely helped Republicans blow the primaries and head into the general election with well-funded candidates, other complications arise as well.

In Wisconsin, businessman and real estate magnate Eric Hovde is the leading candidate for two-term Democratic Senator Tammy Baldwin. While it's unclear how much Hovde is worth because he hasn't yet filed a mandatory financial disclosure, he had the resources to loan his campaign $8 million in the first quarter of 2024 — and may have to tap those resources again to answer questions about the depth of his ties to Wisconsin.

He was born in Madison and attended the University of Wisconsin, but he is the CEO of a Utah-based bank, owns a luxury home in California and was voted absentee from the Golden State in 2023 and 2024.

Hovde has taken pains to tell the story of his Norwegian immigrant great-grandparents' arrival in a logging town in northwestern Wisconsin, airing an ad showing his wife Sharon flipping through a photo album of his days at Madison East High School and UW. He also posted a video clip of himself plummeting through a thin layer of ice onto Lake Mendota, near the home he owns on Madison's west side.

“He is Wisconsin through and through,” campaign spokesman Ben Voelkel said. “They're trying to distract from literally every other issue they don't want to talk about.”

Pennsylvania Republican Senate candidate Dave McCormick has faced similar questions. The former hedge fund CEO has enough money to help finance a campaign in one of the most politically divided states. His net worth in 2024, together with his wife, was between $61.6 million and $183.6 million. He lent more than $14 million to his 2022 Senate campaign, and has poured nearly $2 million into his bid so far this year.

But he lived and worked in Connecticut and only bought a house in Pittsburgh before his failed bid for the Senate in 2022.

During this year's campaign, McCormick acknowledged that he regularly travels to Connecticut, where his daughter is finishing high school and he rents a luxury home in Westport. McCormick has said he is going there to see his daughter after a divorce, but he maintains his primary residence in Pennsylvania.

“And if that's a political issue, so be it,” he told reporters in Pennsylvania.

In Montana, Tim Sheehy has invested more than $1.5 million of his own money in his campaign. With household net worth between $72.9 million and $255.9 million, he has the opportunity to tap into much 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 lying to a Glacier National Park ranger in a 2015 police report. He told the ranger that he was injured when his personal pistol was accidentally fired, but he has since said he was injured in Afghanistan in 2012. He says he did not report this to protect fellow soldiers, because it may have come from friendly fire.

Sheehy's conflicting stories, first reported by The Washington Post, could undermine the potentially compelling profile of a combat veteran who founded a company in Montana. He has blamed a “liberal smear machine” for using the shooting to help Tester.

In Ohio, concerns about Bernie Moreno were growing among Republicans long before he won the party's Senate nomination last month.

The Associated Press reported in March that someone with access to Moreno's work email account had created a profile on an adult website in 2008, looking for “Men for 1-on-1 sex.” The AP could not definitively confirm that it was made by Moreno. Moreno's attorney 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 are circulating in Republican Party circles, leading to frustration among senior Republican operatives over Moreno's potential vulnerability in a general election, according to seven people directly familiar with conversations about how to handle the issue. They requested anonymity to avoid clashing with former President Donald Trump, who supported Moreno, and his allies.

Moreno, a former car dealership owner, had a net worth of a whopping $168 million last year, more than enough to fuel his bid to dethrone Brown. That made the language in an invitation to a recent high-dollar fundraiser in Cleveland all the more remarkable.

The invitation, obtained by the AP, said the first $3,300 of each contribution would be used for “debt repayment until such debt is discharged” and before raising money for his presidential campaign.

It is common for candidates emerging from competitive primaries, as Moreno did on March 19, to ask donors to help pay off debts. What's unusual in Moreno's case is that he is the only person identified in his most recent campaign finance disclosure who would benefit from having campaign debt canceled. Records show he has lent his campaign $4.5 million in personal and bank loans, meaning 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 that “not a cent” of the money raised at the event would be used to help him repay his loans. Instead, they said, it would be used to pay off separate debts the campaign accrued during the primaries, but they declined to provide additional details on what was still owed.

Ozzie Palomo, a Connecticut-based Republican fundraiser who served on former 2024 GOP presidential candidate Nikki Haley's finance committee, called the priority of paying down debt “a bit of an unorthodox approach” that could be a turnoff for donors .

“You invest in a campaign hoping they win,” Palomo said. “Not in the hope of paying off someone else's debt.”

___

Associated Press reporters Marc Levy in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Julie Carr Smyth in Columbus, Ohio, and Matthew Brown in Billings, Montana, contributed to this report.

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