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Tim Sheehy
Tim Sheehy received Donald Trump’s endorsement for the Montana Republican Senate primary. Rachel Leathe/Bozeman Daily Chronicle via AP

It’s Not an Accident That So Many GOP Senate Candidates Are Rich

Republicans’ path to winning control of the Senate relies on self-funded candidates.

Tim Sheehy’s victory in Montana’s GOP primary Tuesday means national Republicans are dependent on a candidate with little political experience but a lot of money to win a key race for majority control of the Senate.

That’s by design — and it’s also true in other critical Senate races this year.

In a calculated risk, Republican officials and allies of Donald Trump have rallied behind Senate candidates who — like Sheehy — have never held elected office but can help fund a campaign through their own personal wealth. In addition to Sheehy, who received a key endorsement from Trump that helped clear his path to the nomination, national Republicans backed Senate candidates like Dave McCormick in Pennsylvania and Eric Hovde in Wisconsin, both of whom are rich and politically inexperienced.

A fourth wealthy Republican candidate, Bernie Moreno in Ohio, had more competition in his primary but ultimately won the Senate nomination thanks to a Trump endorsement.

“We’ve focused on recruiting candidates who are really strong fundraisers or who are capable of making a personal investment in their campaign to try and close the money gap,” said one GOP aide involved in Senate races, who noted that the party’s candidates in Senate elections have been heavily outspent in recent years.

Republicans maintain that their candidates’ wealth could help free up money elsewhere on the 2024 Senate map, letting the party push deeper into Democratic territory and maximize its gains. But such an expansion depends on candidates like Sheehy holding up under pressure in their own critical races against experienced incumbent Democrats with massive fundraising hauls of their own.

Already, Democrats have aggressively questioned the Republicans’ backgrounds and biographies, trying to raise doubts about their authenticity as political candidates. Last week, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee issued a memo saying the GOP had a “candidate quality problem” with its nominees.

“There’s no question Republicans think they can buy elections — that’s what they try to do,” DSCC Chair Gary Peters told NOTUS. “But we’ve seen time and time again that self-funded candidates that are not really strongly grounded in the state don’t do very well in the polls.”

Republicans only need to gain two seats in this year’s elections to win majority control of the Senate — and only one if Trump wins the presidency since his vice president could serve as a tiebreaker. With West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin retiring, Republicans are in an even more comfortable position to take the majority.

But GOP candidates have little room for error this year: Democratic incumbents Jon Tester of Montana, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Sherrod Brown of Ohio are battle-tested, having won multiple statewide elections in often difficult races. And as Republican strategists are quick to point out, Casey, Brown and Tester are some of the top recipients of campaign contributions from lobbyists, according to FEC data.

Polls of Pennsylvania’s and Wisconsin’s Senate races show Casey and Baldwin sporting large leads over their opponents five months before the election.

The money could help. Hovde faces no serious competition and has so far loaned his campaign $8 million. Sheehy has loaned $2 million of his own money to his campaign, plus an additional $150,000 contribution. In Pennsylvania, McCormick has given his campaign nearly $2 million in loans so far this cycle; in 2022, he contributed more than $14 million to a failed primary bid.

It’s not a coincidence that the National Republican Senatorial Committee has anointed so many self-investors this cycle. It’s an intentional strategy by the NRSC to do everything differently than they did in 2022 by backing financially strong candidates early and eliminating the possibility of opposition.

In 2022, Blake Masters and Mehmet Oz won their Republican primaries in Arizona and Pennsylvania, respectively, but were left bruised financially and unpopular in the polls. Both were significantly outraised in the last months of the general election by their Democratic opponents, and in the end, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell pulled his PAC’s spending out of Arizona altogether.

And with fundraising only becoming more difficult for national committees, there’s a greater incentive to bolster self-funders.

One senior GOP strategist said the party’s shrinking small-dollar base has left it scrambling to make up the funding gap elsewhere. Even the pool of big-dollar donors seems to shrink cycle after cycle, the source added, noting that most of those contributors are older and sometimes no longer around to donate.

“You’re not going to make it up from there, so where are you going to do it?” said the senior GOP strategist, who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “And that leaves you with people who have their own funds.”

Tim Sheehy, U.S. Senate candidate for Montana (right) poses with Rob Rule (left).
Sheehy (right) will face Democratic Sen. Jon Tester in November. Matthew Brown/AP

Digital GOP strategist Eric Wilson said that small-dollar fundraising is a greater challenge than in previous years, which can have broad consequences for a campaign in dire need of cash. Candidates who can donate to their own campaigns, even just to help them get an early fundraising boost, can put themselves in a much better position, he said.

“When you’re less constrained by money, you are able to make decisions more clearly,” Wilson said. “And invest wisely and at the appropriate time. So it’s a huge advantage strategically.”

The self-funding also could allow the NRSC to expand the map beyond the top battlegrounds, say GOP strategists. If Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Montana and Ohio see a hefty boost from the candidate and their own fundraising, that forces Democrats to spend more in other states, like Maryland and Nevada.

“These other self-funders may allow for the senatorial committee to be able to do more in Maryland and look for opportunities to try to expand elsewhere and put Democrats on the defensive,” said Rob Stutzman, a GOP strategist based in California.

The strategist added, however, that Democrats often look for ways to exploit a new candidate’s record, especially if they come from a politically unpopular business like a hedge fund. And new candidates aren’t always ready for that level of scrutiny — or ready to handle the daily rigor of the campaign trail and everything that comes with it.

“People that come out of business, particularly, look at politics as, ‘Well, I succeeded in business, so I can do this,’” said Stutzman. “Inevitably, deep into a campaign, they realize it’s different than business, with its own specific set of challenges, and they need to adapt.”

Senate Majority PAC, a well-funded super PAC aligned with the Democratic Party, has run a pair of ads criticizing Hovde as a “California banker.” And last year, it started running ads that targeted Sheehy’s business record, citing business it said he conducted in an international tax haven like the Cayman Islands.

Some Republicans in Montana even said they worried Sheehy’s inexperience as a candidate could hinder him during the general election.

Republican Tammi Fisher, the former mayor of Kalispell and now political podcast host, said that Sheehy’s greatest weaknesses are authenticity and his lack of polish as a first-time candidate. Sheehy and Tester will have their debate this Sunday, and Fisher fears it won’t go well for Sheehy because he hasn’t had the practice of a primary debate under his belt.

“Where Sheehy has struggled has been where there’s an audience and when he’s been put under the hot lights, so I think it was a mistake to not put somebody up against him,” she said.

Fisher said it’s clear Sheehy was picked by the NRSC over other Republicans in Montana with more name recognition because of his ability to fund his own campaign. But she said Sheehy has a long way to go to make up for his shortcomings, particularly against a Democrat as well regarded in the state as Tester.

“Tester is going to have a machine behind him and where money will literally fall off trees in support of him,” she said. “Sheehy has the personal wealth to get it across the finish line, but he’s going to be bleeding money in order to compete.”

Alex Roarty is a reporter at NOTUS. Katherine Swartz is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.