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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 lots 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 there is also the risk of elevating untested candidates to the presidency who may not be prepared for the scrutiny that often accompanies closely contested Senate races.

In Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, GOP Senate candidates face pressure over whether they live in the state. In Montana, the party’s Senate candidate recently admitted to lying about the circumstances of a gunshot wound he suffered. And in Ohio, the Republican candidate portrayed himself as financially independent but may now be turning to donors for help paying back loans he made to his campaign.

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

The GOP only needs to gain two seats to win control of the Senate, and the party’s main Democratic candidates have their own vulnerabilities that run counter to their carefully crafted image as working-class advocates. Those liabilities include Montana Sen. Jon Tester’s ties to defense industry lobbyists; Sherrod Brown of Ohio repeatedly failed to pay property taxes on time; and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania spent more than $500,000 in campaign funds on his sister’s printing business.

But the dynamic is tricky for Republicans because they’ve been here before.

Since the rise of the Tea Party movement more than a decade ago, Republicans have lost supposedly winnable Senate seats by elevating candidates who don’t resonate with mainstream voters who are often critical in statewide contests. The GOP changed tactics this year, taking a more active role in the primary process and identifying candidates who could help finance their own campaigns. The party hoped that such candidates would have the advantage of presenting themselves as political outsiders and less reliant on a depleted donor class.

This largely helped the Republicans avoid painful primary fights and advance to the general election Choice For well-funded candidates, other complications arise.

In Wisconsin, businessman and real estate mogul Eric Hovde is the leading candidate to face two-term Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin. While it’s unclear how much Hovde is worth since he hasn’t yet filed a mandatory financial disclosure, he had the wherewithal to lend his campaign $8 million in the first quarter of 2024 – and may need to draw on those resources again, to answer questions about the depth of his connection to Wisconsin.

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

Hovde has gone to the trouble of telling the story of his Norwegian immigrant great-grandparents’ arrival in a northwestern Wisconsin logging town, broadcasting an ad in which his wife, Sharon, flips through a photo album depicting his days at Madison East High School and shows at the UW. He also posted a video clip of himself falling through a thin layer of ice on Lake Mendota near his home on Madison’s west side.

“He’s Wisconsin through and through,” said campaign spokesman Ben Voelkel. “They try to distract from literally every other topic they don’t want to talk about.”

Dave McCormick, the Republican Senate candidate in Pennsylvania, faced similar questions. The former hedge fund CEO has plenty of money to finance a campaign in one of the most politically divided states. His net worth as of 2024 with his wife was between $61.6 million and $183.6 million. He has borrowed over $14 million for 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 home in Pittsburgh before his unsuccessful run for Senate in 2022.

During this year’s campaign, McCormick confirmed that he travels frequently to Connecticut, where his daughter is graduating high school and he rents a luxury home in Westport. McCormick said he goes there to visit his daughter after a divorce but keeps his primary residence in Pennsylvania.

“And if this is a political issue, then so be it,” he told reporters in Pennsylvania.

In Montana, Tim Sheehy has invested more than $1.5 million of his own money into his campaign. With a 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 at the center of 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 admitted that he lied to a Glacier National Park ranger in a 2015 police report. He was wounded in Afghanistan in 2012. He says he did not report the injury to protect his comrades, as the injury may have resulted from friendly fire.

Sheehy’s contradictory accounts, first reported by The Washington Post, could undermine the potentially compelling profile of a war veteran who started a business in Montana. He blamed a “liberal hate machine” for using the shooting to help Tester.

In Ohio, meanwhile, concern was growing among Republicans about Bernie Moreno long 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 looking for “men for one-on-one sex.” The AP could not definitively confirm that it was created by Moreno. Moreno’s attorney said a former intern created the account and provided a statement from intern Dan Ricci, who said he created the account as “part of a juvenile prank.”

Questions about the profile circulated in GOP circles, sparking frustration among senior Republican officials about Moreno’s potential vulnerability in a general election, according to seven people directly familiar with conversations about how to handle the matter. They requested anonymity to avoid running afoul of former President Donald Trump, who supported Moreno, and his allies.

Moreno, a former car dealership owner, had a net worth of up to $168 million last year, more than enough to sustain his bid to unseat Brown. All the more remarkable was the wording in an invitation to a fundraiser that recently took place in Cleveland and involved large sums of dollars.

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

It’s common for candidates emerging from competitive primaries, like Moreno’s on March 19, to ask donors for help paying down debt. What’s unusual in Moreno’s case is that he is the only person named in his recent campaign finance disclosure who would benefit from paying off campaign debt. The documents show he lent his campaign $4.5 million in personal and bank loans, meaning the bank would also benefit through interest payments. However, no other debts are listed in the document.

In a statement, Moreno’s campaign said that “not a single 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 individual debts that the campaign had accumulated during the primaries. However, they declined to provide further details on the amounts owed.

Ozzie Palomo, a Connecticut-based Republican fundraiser who was part of former Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley’s 2024 finance committee, called prioritizing debt repayment “a somewhat unorthodox approach” that could be off-putting to donors.

“You invest in a campaign hoping it will win,” Palomo said. “Not in the hopes of paying off someone else’s debt.”

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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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