WASHINGTON ― Democratic strategists are increasingly fretful about President Donald Trump’s reelection war chest, worried the president’s campaign will be able to define any potential nominee before the party’s nominee can assemble the money necessary to fight back.
Trump’s campaign, along with the Republican National Committee, announced earlier this month they raised more than $125 million, and has more than $156 million on hand. Trump’s campaign, because of its partnership with the RNC and state Republican parties, is able to bring in much more from a single donor than the $5,600 haul Democrats can take in.
That will change when Democrats settle on a nominee. But the party’s operatives are worried the Trump campaign will be able to exploit their cash advantage in the coming months, when the Democratic field is squabbling among itself, to damage a potential nominee before they can make a general election pitch.
A multimillion-dollar ad buy from the Trump campaign that started last week is helping cement those fears, even as operatives remain skeptical it will deal much damage to former Vice President Joe Biden, its intended target.
“When you look at what is at his disposal, you see a massive campaign war chest, a right-wing media infrastructure and a White House that he has increasingly weaponized,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist who worked for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. “Put those all together, and he has the capacity to run the biggest propaganda and disinformation campaign in American history. That’s the real fear.”
Adding to the problem: a host of Democratic donors and groups who have promised to spend big on the general election have so far done little to attack Trump before the Democratic nominee is settled. Democrats believe the president, who trails the leading Democratic candidates in way-too-early public opinion polling, is vulnerable on a host of issues, especially health care and the perception Trump does more to help the wealthy than the middle class.
We need to be starting to make the case against Trump on the economy, health care and immigration now ... so our nominee isn’t starting from scratch. Eddie Vale, Democratic strategist
“It is good that there are a lot of progressive organizations who are starting to make plans for ad and field funding for the general election, but we can’t entirely cede the battle to Trump in the meantime and need to be hitting him now,” said Eddie Vale, a Democratic strategist who previously worked for labor unions. “We need to be starting to make the case against Trump on the economy, health care and immigration now — like Priorities USA is doing — especially in the states, so our nominee isn’t starting from scratch after Trump having months of spending domination.”
Another Democratic strategist, who requested anonymity to criticize powerful groups within the party, was blunter: “There are a number of groups that have made grandiose promises to what they’re going to do counter Trump while we’re in the primary. So far, most of them haven’t done more than send their press release.”
So far, Priorities USA, the party’s biggest super PAC, has spent $2.5 million on digital ads attacking Trump and promoting voter registration, with much of the spending focused on the four states strategists in both parties see as key to Trump’s reelection chances: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Florida. The group spent over $190 million on the 2016 election, and plans to spend $100 million before a nominee is selected this time around.
But other potential big spenders have been quiet. Democratic operatives have said former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg would spend at least $500 million to defeat Trump. Right now, he has no immediate spending plans. Future Majority, a nonprofit with goals to spend $60 million to improve the Democratic Party’s brand in key swing states, has spent a fraction of that so far. American Bridge aims to spend $50 million to help Democrats keep down Trump’s margin among rural voters, but little has gone out the door so far.
The Trump campaign launched a $10 million ad buy attacking Biden over unsubstantiated allegations he sought his son’s business interests in Ukraine, and attempting to defend Trump for allegations he withheld military aid from the Ukranian government to pressure them to reopen an investigation into Biden. (The latter is now the subject of the U.S. House’s impeachment inquiry.)
The campaign has begun airing the ads in the first four voting states in the Democratic 2020 presidential primary process ― Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina ― in an apparent attempt to damage Biden’s chances of winning the nomination.
“They lost the election, now they want to steal this one,” the narrator says in one of Trump’s ads.
The Biden campaign and other strategists downplayed the direct impact of the buy. Biden allies think there is little chance the ad — which includes the disclaimer the Trump campaign is funding it — would sway Democratic primary voters who loathe the president. And Democratic strategists also questioned how well-targeted the ad was. It included a national cable television buy, which is usually associated more with attempts to change the media narrative around an event than with winning over swing voters.
“The Trump campaign and the RNC have essentially unlimited funding to do whatever they want to do,” said Mark Riddle, the executive director of Future Majority. “But the real question is whether or not he’s breaking through to anyone beyond his base.”
Riddle said he isn’t as worried about Trump’s ad buy as other Democrats, but acknowledges the party might need to respond if Trump’s approval ratings move up or support for an impeachment inquiry declines.
“If we start seeing Trump’s numbers going up, and his narrative is taking hold, then it might be time to shift something,” Riddle said.
Amanda Terkel contributed reporting.