Daryl Kipnis is a Republican running for Congress in a deep-blue section of New Jersey. This summer, he took a gamble and spent $8,280 out of his tiny budget to hold a fundraiser at a big-name venue: the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J.
“It cost a lot,” Kipnis said. He hoped that the event would draw a big crowd of Republicans — and, possibly, President Trump himself.
But Trump didn’t show. And while the event drew a crowd, the bills ate up 39 percent of the money that was donated. Kipnis netted about $12,000 on the night — a paltry sum to reach a district with 732,000 people.
The next time Kipnis held a fundraiser, it was at a pizza place.
This midterm election has introduced something new in American politics — for the first time, candidates could spend campaign dollars at hotels, clubs and restaurants owned by the president.
Since January 2017, Trump’s companies — which Trump still owns — have collected about $4 million from Republican campaigns, committees and PACs, according to campaign finance records.
The biggest spenders have been Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign and the Republican National Committee.
Among individual GOP campaigns, four of the biggest spenders at Trump properties have been long-shot candidates like Kipnis, records show. Together, they have spent thousands of dollars at Trump-owned venues, renting out ballrooms and paying for pricey food.
Their reasoning: long shots need money. And, in 2018, Trump’s clubs are where the money is.
“The Trump hotel has kind of become the conservative clubhouse in Washington. It’s a draw,” said Corey Stewart, the Republican nominee for Senate in Virginia who is challenging the heavily favored Democratic incumbent Tim Kaine.
Stewart spent $2,023 on “meeting expenses” at Trump’s hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington from February to September, according to campaign finance filings.
Stewart said he held fundraising events of his own at the hotel and attended events put on by a group called Virginia Women for Trump. The payments came on 11 different dates and amounted to about one-fifth of all the money Stewart’s campaign spent on meeting expenses this year, records show.
The events take him out of Virginia but, Stewart said, that’s “what you gotta do to raise money.”
He said he did not patronize the president’s hotel in an effort to draw Trump’s help in his Senate race: “I’ve never talked to him about that.”
Among the long shots, Trump’s best customer has been Omar Navarro, a Republican trying to unseat longtime Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.).
Navarro has spent $10,000 at Trump’s properties since last June, including two fundraisers at Trump’s golf club in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif.
One last year featured a skit in which an actor pretending to be Waters joined with others wearing signs labeled “CNN,” “ISIS,” “Antifa” and “Berkeley” in pretending to beat up a pro-Trump Internet celebrity.
At the end of the skit — captured on YouTube — the real Navarro emerged to snatch off the fake Waters’ wig. In the background was the gold-plated logo of Trump’s golf club.
Navarro has also spent money on food at Trump’s hotel in D.C. and on lodging at Trump’s hotel in Las Vegas. His spending with Trump is just a fraction of Navarro’s overall budget: he’s raised more than $988,000 by tapping into conservatives’ dislike of Waters.
Navarro said he liked spending at Trump’s properties because he likes Trump — and because he finds it easier to hit up donors there.
At Trump’s hotel in D.C., Navarro said, he’s even done impromptu fundraising by talking to strangers in the lobby.
“Sometimes I hit up people in the lobby, and I fundraise from that,” he said. “if you’re at a bar having a conversation with somebody, and you’re having a drink, [then] casually, the conversation can go to your campaign.”
Another big spender at Trump’s properties: Antonio Sabato Jr. (R) the former model and soap-opera actor making a long-shot run for Congress in a blue district in California. He’s spent $2,875 on lodging and meeting expenses at Trump’s D.C. hotel. His staff did not respond to a request for comment on Friday.
Among the four long shots, only Stewart has received Trump’s explicit endorsement. Both Kipnis and Navarro said they’d like for the president to weigh in on their races, but it hasn’t happened — even after they became Trump customers.
“That could happen,” Navarro said. “But that hasn’t obviously happened.”
Anu Narayanswamy contributed to this report.