The US president is already well ahead in the fundraising stakes for the next election. If the Russia probe doesn’t derail his efforts, he could be difficult to beat, writes Bette Browne.
The US probe into Russian interference in the election that brought Donald Trump to power is now “following the money”. So too, it seems, is the president.
Mr Trump’s poll numbers are diving below 35% but the president is still keeping his eyes firmly fixed on a 2020 re-election bid, buoyed by the news that millions of dollars are already rolling in for the battle.
The fact that the big bucks are stacking up so far in advance of the 2020 race and in such large amounts is unusual in US presidential elections, especially since Mr Trump now has the worst approval rating of any president in modern history.
Presidential candidates don’t generally begin actively raising campaign money until the year before an election but Mr Trump’s 2020 re-election committee has just reported raising nearly $8 million from April 1 to June 30 — an unprecedented amount so early in a presidential election cycle.
His campaign entered July with almost $12m in reserve, according to figures released by the Federal Election Commission (FEC), which monitors US campaign contributions.
In fact, Mr Trump began to set in motion his re-election bid back when he assumed office in January. In an FEC filing, dated January 20, the day of his inauguration, he gave notice of his intention to run in 2020.
Since then, the president has also conducted several high-profile re-election campaign events, including large rallies as well as a June fundraiser at his Washington hotel at which tickets were sold for $35,000 per person.
It was estimated that that evening alone he raised some $10m, though some of the cash went straight into the coffers of Republican National Committee, which also helps the campaigns of congressional candidates.
Mr Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, had been in office more than two years before he headlined his first re-election fundraiser in April 2011.
But Democrats are not being left behind either in the money stakes and Mr Obama is again demonstrating his fundraising prowess.
The National Democratic Redistricting Committee, a group led by former attorney general Eric Holder and backed by Mr Obama, raised $10.8m to the end of July.
Most Democrats, however, are still licking their wounds after Hillary Clinton’s defeat to Mr Trump and have yet to get their act together on a unified message for the 2020 battle.
Merely fighting reactively against Mr Trump didn’t cut it last time and if the centre and left flanks of the party can’t coalesce soon around a positive, progressive message that addresses voters’ needs on healthcare, jobs and education, Mr Trump could romp home again.
In addition, while Republicans will be fielding the united team of Mr Trump and vice president Mike Pence, Democrats already look set to field well over a dozen candidates for their party’s nomination.
The leading contenders are likely to be Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, with Joe Biden a less likely possibility.
By 2020, however, Sanders will be 78, Biden will be 77 and Warren will be 71. Even so, it’s Sanders, the eldest in the group, who could have the best chance of success, especially as age may not be a major factor, given that Trump himself will be 74 by then.
Sanders is not a Democrat, however, and that could work against him. He is the longest-serving Independent in US congressional history and styles himself as a democratic socialist, who votes with the Democrats on most issues and has already emerged as its leading progressive voice, and continues to build up his power base within the party.
Leading the younger set of possible contenders are Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe (60), who is closely aligned with the Clintons, New York governor Andrew Cuomo (59), New Jersey senator Cory Booker (48), and California senator Kamala Harris (52), along with fellow senator Chris Murphy (44) of Connecticut. Martin O’Malley (54) and Tim Kaine (59), veterans of the 2016 race, could also run again.
But before the 2020 battle comes next year’s mid-term congressional elections. All the money he’s accumulating won’t help Mr Trump in 2020 if Republicans lose both the House and the Senate. In that event, Republican loyalty to the president would be seriously dented.
Then there is the issue of the Russia probe by special counsel Robert Mueller, which could ensnare the president and deal him a potentially fatal blow.
Some Democrats are hoping Mr Mueller will reveal the conclusions of his probe before the 2018 elections, although it is not at all certain that the grand jury now in place will ultimately come up with any charges against the president.
In the event that Mr Trump emerges largely unscathed in the probe, Democrats will then have a major battle on their hands to defeat him. For one thing, they will need to ensure their coffers will be a match for his.
So far, the signs look good for them. FEC filings show that American Bridge 21st Century, a super PAC (political action committee) that largely supported Hillary Clinton in 2016, raised $4.1m during the first half of 2017.
President Trump’s Republicans, however, are already ahead in the congressional stakes. Among Senate- focused super PACs, top Republican groups raised more than double the dollars of top Democratic groups.
At $8.2m during the year’s first half, the Republican-aligned Senate Leadership Fund outpaced the Democratic-aligned Senate Majority PAC, which brought in $4.6m.
While the Senate is expected to be the primary battleground in 2018, Democrats also hope to make gains in the House of Representatives. Among Republican-focused super PACs, the Congressional Leadership Fund raised $13.1m to July 10, according to the FEC filings, while the Democratic-leaning House Majority PAC raised $3.2m in the same period.
The early fundraising activity reflects the fact that both parties consider the control of Congress could be up for grabs.
But even as the dollars roll in and the president’s new chief of staff John Kelly, a retired Marine Corps general seems to be making progress in stemming the White House chaos, other problems are waiting just around the corner for Mr Trump.
He may find the campaign trail tough going unless he can point to a largely implemented agenda. So far he has yet to notch up a major legislative win and, like the president, General Kelly has almost no political experience, apart from the fact that in the mid-1990s he served as the Marine Corps commandant’s liaison officer to the House of Representatives.
Of course, if the Democrats do manage to seize the House and Senate, it may, ironically, serve to help Mr Trump because he could then be expected to blame Democrats for blocking his agenda.
But the one problem that all the campaign dollars in the world won’t be able to negate for Mr Trump will be the Mueller probe. That could derail everything.
Having a grand jury at work does not mean they will find evidence to bring charges against the president. All it means is that they can use every investigative tool at their disposal to see if such evidence exists and if it does whether it would be sufficiently strong to bring a case against Mr Trump.
The money rolling in now for the president’s re-election bid will certainly get him far.
But maybe not far enough.
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