The chairman had a frank message for the nominee, according to two Republican officials briefed on the call. Priebus told Trump that internal GOP polling suggested he was on track to lose the election. And if Trump didn’t turn around his campaign over the coming weeks, the Republican National Committee would consider redirecting party resources and machinery to House and Senate races.
Trump denies the exchange ever took place. “Reince Priebus is a terrific guy,” Trump told TIME. “He never said that.” Priebus could not be reached for comment. But whatever the exact words spoken on the phone, there is no doubt that the possibility Republicans will all but abandon Trump now haunts his struggling campaign.
That would indeed be a big problem for Trump, who, as my colleague Philip Bump points out, has spent exactly $0 on TV ads, has just a fraction of rival Hillary Clinton's state-level field staff, and still has far less cash to spend on either than she does.
Money+votes = winning elections. Right now Trump doesn't have nearly enough of either without big help from Republican Party resources and infrastructure.
Despite Trump's struggling campaign — or maybe because of it — there are at least three clear reasons Priebus really could follow through on his threat and drop Trump to save his party in November: money, polls and history.
The Republican Party only has so many resources to go around.
After Trump's campaign announced that it raised $80 million in July for his presidential bid and the party, Priebus proudly declared in a statement: "We are off to a strong start for generating the support we need to reclaim the White House and preserve our majorities in the House and Senate."
Indeed, the Republican National Committee has $21 million in the bank, while the Democratic National Committee has $9 million. And the numbers Trump posted were more or less on pace with the $90 million that Clinton and Democrats raised in July.
But Trump needs to do a lot more than just keep pace with Clinton in fundraising. He's way behind her. Again, Bump: "Trump had $1.3 million on hand at the end of June. Clinton had $42.5 million."
And he's relying on the party for far more. Where Clinton has built up an army of swing-state staff, Trump is depending on his party to do that heavy lifting for him. That costs money. And requires a pretty big buy-in.
There's another factor in the mix: Trump's financial struggles don't affect just his own campaign. Parties have traditionally relied on their nominees to raise money for everyone else. But Trump will probably need to use much of the cash he raises just to bolster his anemic bank account. That means less money for congressional Republicans — who, as we'll break down in the next section, are going to need it to help their majorities.
Senate Republicans don't seem positioned to outrun a Clinton tsunami
Depending on the day, depending on the poll, Senate Republicans are either hanging in there despite their nominee or getting dragged down with him. But overall, only two Senate Republicans of the 10 or so the party is fighting to defend appear to have enough of a head start to win if Trump were to lose their state by a significant margin.
A new Quinnipiac Poll found that in three key swing states — Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida — the Republican incumbents are performing better than Trump. But in Pennsylvania and Florida, "outperforming" simply means that the candidates are tied or have a slight lead against their Democratic challengers.
We've already seen evidence that as Trump's popularity sinks, so does the popularity of Republicans on the ballot with him. Two recent state polls show the Republican candidates in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania taking a dive along with Trump.
The only place we've seen Senate Republicans outperforming Trump is in Iowa, where longtime Sen. Chuck Grassley (R) is outperforming his party's presidential nominee by 14 points, according to the most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal-Marist poll.
(The math here: Clinton is ahead of Trump by four points, while Grassley is ahead of his challenger, Patty Judge, by 10. So Grassley is outperforming Trump by 14.)
Sen. Rob Portman in Ohio is consistently showing strong numbers, too, with that NBC poll showing him outperforming Trump by 10 points. Overall, a Real Clear Politics average of polls shows Portman with a 6½-point lead over his Democratic challenger, former Ohio governor Ted Strickland.
And if Trump does really badly in November, even Republicans' historic majority in the House of Representatives could be in play. (Though that's much more of a long shot.)
It's not difficult to see a world in which Republican officials look at their flatlining balance sheet, look at Trump's near-weekly controversial statements and decide that their best investment is in ... themselves.
It has happened before
"If we fail to protect our majority in Congress, we could be handing President Hillary Clinton a blank check.”
When House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) sent a fundraising email with that line last week, the political world freaked out over two words he used: "blank check."
That's the exact language Republicans used in 1996 when they decided to cut loose from sinking presidential nominee Bob Dole late in the election.
Then, as now, the party stood squarely behind its nominee. Until it didn't.