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Biden holds early cash edge, Trump’s legal bills mount and other takeaways from new campaign finance reports

President Joe Biden entered the election year with an early financial edge over Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, new filings show – a bright spot for an incumbent with low approval ratings who is girding for a bruising general election rematch with his 2020 foe.

Biden had nearly $46 million in cash on hand in his main campaign committee, compared with $33 million amassed by Trump, who is still working to dispatch his lone, remaining major rival for the GOP nomination, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.

But the reports underscore the challenges ahead for the president: Despite facing no real threats to his nomination, Biden has not built the cash reserves that would allow him to swamp Trump’s campaign, even as the former president faces mounting legal woes and Haley’s staying power in the race.

Trump’s available cash was more than double the $14.6 million in reserves held by Haley, according to Wednesday night filings with the Federal Election Commission.

Haley’s consistently strong fundraising has helped sustain her long-shot bid, despite placing far behind Trump in the Iowa and New Hampshire nominating contests. She has ignored demands by Trump and his allies to exit the race, insisting she’s the Republican best positioned to unseat Biden in the fall.

Haley is currently in the midst of a multistate fundraising swing to build up the campaign dollars needed to prolong the fight until her home state primary on February 24 or possibly beyond to Super Tuesday on March 5.

Here are some takeaways from the new filings:

Trump is spending – a lot

Although his main campaign committee entered 2024 with a cash surplus, Trump’s political operation is spending heavily – as he uses campaign donations to help underwrite his mounting legal bills.

Two of the former president’s political action committees spent nearly $29 million combined on legal fees during the last six months of 2023. In all, Save America PAC and Make America Great Again PAC spent more than $50 million of contributors’ money on legal expenses last year, according to FEC records.

The former president faces four separate criminal indictments, along with high-profile civil litigation.

Trump has consistently diverted 10% of the money his campaign collects from political donors through a joint fundraising committee into Save America, the primary vehicle he has used to underwrite legal bills.

Save America was once so flush with cash that Trump’s political operation used its money to seed a super PAC, MAGA Inc., that advertises in support of his presidential campaign.

But as Trump’s legal bills have grown and its cash dwindled, Save America clawed back more than $42 million in refunds from the super PAC last year.

Legal troubles continue to spur donations

Shortly after the Colorado Supreme Court decided on December 19 to remove Trump from the state’s 2024 ballot, the former president’s campaign blasted out a fundraising email to supporters, attacking the court’s action as election interference and urging donors to “join the fight.”

A CNN analysis of the new campaign filings shows contributors responded to the call, with donations to Trump’s main campaign account spiking a day later.

The review of itemized donations – those that totaled more than $200 over the election cycle – to Trump’s campaign shows that some of his biggest fundraising days in the final months of 2023 came after big court dates.

Another spike, for instance, came on October 2, the day Trump voluntarily appeared at the opening day of his civil fraud trial in New York City and delivered multiple statements attacking the proceedings before waiting television cameras as he entered and exited the court room.

But none of Trump’s biggest fundraising hauls during the final quarter of the year exceeded the amounts that flowed to his campaign around his April 4 arraignment in a Manhattan hush money case.

Haley keeps it frugal

The new reports underscore how much Haley has kept her campaign expenses in check; she spent about $14.3 million during the final three months of 2023, but took in $17.3 million.

The super PAC supporting her candidacy, SFA Fund, spent more freely.

Its year-end report shows that the group raised $50.2 million and spent $63.7 million between July and December. The substantial burn rate left the super PAC with just $3.5 million in cash on hand entering 2024.

In an email to CNN on Wednesday night, an SFA Fund spokesperson said: “We continue to benefit from strong fundraising, which is why we are currently spending millions in South Carolina to support Nikki’s efforts.”

The group recently launched a new ad in the Palmetto State, casting Haley as the best alternative to both Trump and Biden.

The new filings show that some of the GOP’s biggest donors gave to the pro-Haley super PAC in the second half of last year – as establishment figures within the party sought a Trump alternative. They included Ken Griffin, CEO of the hedge fund Citadel, who gave $5 million; Jan Koum, the co-founder of the WhatsApp mobile messaging device, who gave $5 million and has given $10 million to the group in total; Paul Singer, another prominent hedge fund manager, who gave $5 million; and Jim Davis, the New Balance chairman, who gave $2.5 million.

Griffin and Singer are among the founders of the American Opportunity Alliance, a group of Republican donors who earlier this week entertained pitches from both Haley and Trump aides about the candidates’ paths forward – a sign that some donors are weighing future support for Trump as he moves closer to clinching his party’s nod.

Biden builds an operation

As an incumbent, Biden has the benefits of a bigger fundraising apparatus. Earlier in January, his campaign announced it had brought in $97.1 million for his reelection and the Democratic Party across several committees, including the Democratic National Committee. Together, those groups ended 2023 with more than $117 million cash on hand, the campaign said.

The latest filings for Biden’s main campaign account show he has begun to ramp up his campaign operation, spending nearly $19.3 million in the fourth quarter ended December 31 – more than he had at any point in 2023 after launching his reelection bid last April.

His staff had grown to more than 70 by year’s end, according to the filings, up from 38 during the third quarter of the year, and the campaign put some $12 million into advertising in the final three months of 2023.

As CNN has reported, some leading Democrats have raised concerns that the president’s campaign was not gearing up quickly enough for the fight ahead, which is shaping up to become one of the earliest general election battles in the modern era if Trump continues to steamroll through the early-voting states.

“While Donald Trump lights money on fire paying the tab on his various expenses, Team Biden Harris, powered by grassroots donors, is hard at work talking to the voters who will decide this election and building the campaign infrastructure to win in November,” TJ Ducklo, a Biden campaign spokesman, said in a statement.

Big-dollar contributors to Biden’s joint fundraising committee during the final three months of the year included financier George Soros, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Hollywood show runner Shonda Rhimes.

RNC sees dip in cash reserves

The Republican National Committee reported its lowest cash on hand figure since 2014, according to the new FEC filings, a warning sign for Republicans entering an election year while Democratic campaign committees stockpiled cash.

The RNC had just $8 million in the bank at the end of December, the lowest figure since it reported about $5 million in cash on hand in 2014.

The committee was outraised by the DNC, which raised about $40 million to its GOP counterpart’s $20 million during the fourth quarter of last year. And the DNC held a cash advantage nearly double that of the RNC, reporting about $21 million banked.

At the end of 2019, albeit with the advantage of the party holding the White House, the RNC had about $72 million in cash on hand; at the end of 2015, the committee reported about $19 million; and entering 2012, the last time Republicans aimed to unseat an incumbent, the national party committee had about $20 million on hand, though it also carried about $13 million in debt.

Meanwhile, in the battle for the House, the National Republican Congressional Committee raised about $21 million in the quarter and had stockpiled more than $42 million in cash on hand – but it was outdone by its rival, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which raised $28 million and reported more than $53 million on hand.

Targeting the fight for the Senate, the National Republican Senatorial Committee broke the trend and outraised the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, $21 million to nearly $19 million in the fourth quarter, though the DSCC reported more in cash on hand at the close of the year, about $21 million to the NRSC’s $14 million.

A DeSantis spending spree

Three allied super PACs, two affiliated committees and Ron DeSantis’ presidential campaign combined to burn through a staggering $160 million last year to get the Florida governor a distant second-place finish in the Iowa caucuses and an early exit from the GOP race.

Never Back Down, a pro-DeSantis super PAC, racked up the bulk of those expenses, squandering an eye-popping $131 million in a little over seven months, the group’s FEC filings show.

Meanwhile, DeSantis’ own campaign spent millions more than the $6.7 million it raised in the final three months of 2023 amid his failed attempt at a late push to win Iowa, according to its year-end report.

The figures submitted Wednesday from an increasingly complex web of pro-DeSantis organizations showed the depths of the fundraising troubles within his political operation – despite an enviable advantage out of the gate. Never Back Down, operating as DeSantis’ de facto campaign, started the second half of 2023 with nearly $97 million on hand after raising about $130 million through June 30.

However, contributions slowed dramatically as DeSantis struggled to gain traction as a candidate. By the time Never Back Down brass met with wealthy Republicans in August to ask for a $50 million infusion of cash, the super PAC – which can raise unlimited sums – was bringing in less money than the campaign itself. Donors responded to the plea by contributing less than $2 million the next month.

In December, Never Back Down reported it brought in just $684,000 – slightly more than its bank account accrued in interest during the six-month filing period.

Vulnerable Senate Democrats raise lots of cash

This year’s Senate landscape favors Republicans. They are defending 11 seats to 23 for Democrats and their allied independents, including three Democratic seats in states that Trump comfortably won twice: West Virginia, Montana and Ohio.

But some of the chamber’s most vulnerable Democratic incumbents posted big hauls. In Ohio, for instance, Sen. Sherrod Brown raised more than $6.6 million for his reelection bid, helping him stockpile more than $14.6 million in available cash.

In Montana, Democratic Sen. Jon Tester – facing headwinds as he attempts to secure a fourth term in the reliably red state – raised more than $5.5 million for his campaign and reported more than $11 million in cash on hand.

Republican Tim Sheehy – a retired Navy SEAL looking to unseat Tester and backed by some in the national GOP – raised about $2.5 million for his campaign, though he may be pressed to deploy those funds sooner than he’d like if hard-line conservative Rep. Matt Rosendale decides to jump into the race for the Republican nomination, as he’s hinted he will.

In Nevada, a perennial battleground, Democratic Sen. Jacky Rosen raised $3.2 million and has more than $10.6 million in cash. On the GOP side, retired Army Capt. Sam Brown, who was recruited by national Republicans, raised about $1.8 million and ended the year with about $1.7 million remaining in cash.

In Arizona, a swing state that could see a three-way Senate race, independent incumbent Kyrsten Sinema saw her fundraising slow in the fourth quarter – raising questions about whether she intends to mount a reelection bid. Sinema’s campaign reported about $595,000 in receipts in the last quarter of 2023, down from $826,000 from the previous quarter.

Sinema, who caucuses with Senate Democrats, is still sitting on about $10.6 million in cash on hand, though her potential challengers are raising funds at a brisk pace. Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego brought in $3.3 million in the fourth quarter, while former GOP gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake raised $2.1 million.

In another closely watched race, embattled Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey saw his fundraising crater after federal prosecutors lodged corruption charges against him. Menendez brought in just $104,000 during the final three months of the year. He was far outpaced by his top primary challengers: Tammy Murphy, the wife of New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, who raised $3.2 million, and Rep. Andy Kim, who raised $1.8 million.

Democrats in California, meanwhile, are raising millions in the competitive contest to succeed the late Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein. The state’s primary system, which allows the top two vote-getters to advance to the general election regardless of party, has drawn a crowded field.

Rep. Adam Schiff, a powerhouse fundraiser, brought in $6.3 million in the fourth quarter, more than twice as much as one of his top competitors, fellow Democratic Rep. Katie Porter, who raised about $3 million. Schiff has also stockpiled a huge cash reserve of nearly $35 million – crucial resources in California’s large media markets – while Porter built a $13.3 million war chest of her own.

Another California contender, Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee, raised about $1 million, and reported about $816,000 in cash on hand. And former Los Angeles Dodger Steve Garvey, a top candidate on the Republican side who entered the race in October, raised about $611,000 for his bid, and had about $308,000 in the bank.

This story has been updated with additional reporting.

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