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Dems confident about holding Senate despite being outspent by Republicans

There is surging optimism among Democrats that the party will hold the Senate in the November election, despite Republicans outspending them 2 to 1.

Party strategists don’t treat Missouri as a foregone conclusion, but they are optimistic that this once-tough race has become a likely win since Rep. Todd Akin, the Republican candidate, blundered into damaging comments last month about “legitimate rape.”

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Unless Akin drops out soon, control of the Senate will probably hinge on Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin.

Democratic and Republican strategists say the Ohio and Virginia races will swing in the same direction as the presidential contest. Few think Republican candidates Josh Mandel and George Allen can win in Ohio and Virginia, respectively, if Romney loses those states.

Republicans’ biggest advantage is backing from outside groups that have outspent pro-Democratic groups by $79 million to $31 million on advertising, according to a strategist who tracks media buys. This includes independent expenditures by the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Republican-allied groups such as Crossroads GPS, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the 60 Plus Association have spent $16 million in Ohio, while pro-Democratic groups, such as Majority PAC, have spent 3.7 million, the media source said.

Despite this, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) has a 7-point lead over Mandel, according to a recent CBS/New York Times poll. Another by the University of Cincinnati gave Brown a 1-point lead.

This has given Senate Democrats fresh confidence.

“Money is a factor, but it’s not the only factor. Having good candidates and a good message with a good record is going to help as well,” said Rodell Mollineau, a former Senate Democratic leadership aide who now heads a Democratic super-PAC.

Democrats are buoyed by President Obama’s lead in Ohio and Virginia, where the fates of Brown and former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine (D) are seen as pegged to the presidential race. Obama has a 1.4-point lead in Ohio and an advantage of only a fraction of a point in Virginia, according to an average of recent surveys compiled by RealClearPolitics.

The three most likely Republican Senate pickups are Nebraska, North Dakota and Montana.

“Nebraska is definitely gone,” said a Democratic strategist. Democrats have all but given up hope of former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) winning since conservative newcomer Deb Fischer won in a GOP primary upset.

North Dakota and Montana are viewed as leaning Republican because both states will vote solidly for Mitt Romney, but the strength of the Democratic candidates, former North Dakota Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp and Sen. Jon Tester (Mont.), is keeping the races close.

The NRSC has pulled funding from Missouri and New Mexico, which it saw as pickup chances earlier in the cycle, and shifted resources to North Dakota, underscoring its concern there.

The next round of competitive races are Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) told The Hill last week that he sees his home state as an easier pickup than Ohio and Virginia. Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson has opened a 6-point lead over Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.).

Some Democratic strategists say Baldwin would have run better against one of the two more conservative candidates who split the anti-Thompson vote in the GOP primary. Others counter that Baldwin merely has lower name recognition than Thompson and plenty of time to improve it by Election Day.

A labor strategist predicted outside groups would begin to spend significantly on behalf of Baldwin. EMILY’s List is planning to buy airtime for ads in the coming weeks, according to the source.

Senate Democrats are dunning donors in Charlotte this week. Brown has a fundraiser for the Ohio Grassroots Victory Fund scheduled for 11 a.m. Wednesday, according to a Democratic source. Baldwin plans a fundraiser at Aquavina steakhouse at 4 p.m. on Tuesday.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is holding two fundraising events for his leadership political action committee (PAC) Wednesday, one at Halcyon, a restaurant on South Tryon Street that specializes in the “farmhouse-chic experience,” and a second at Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse on East Trade Street,  according to Democratic sources.

Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) will hold a fundraiser for his leadership PAC at the Mint Museum of craft and design, said another Democratic donor.

Democratic Sens. Mark Pryor (Ark.), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) and Jeff Merkley (Ore.) also have fundraising events scheduled this week, a Democratic donor said.

Democratic senators have kept their fundraising schedules private. Aides to Inouye, Reid and Baldwin did not respond to requests for comment.

Republicans need a net gain of four seats to recapture the Senate majority, or three if they win the presidency and Paul Ryan gains the deciding vote.

Connecticut Republican candidate Linda McMahon, who spent $50 million on her failed 2010 Senate bid, has narrowed the lead of Rep. Chris Murphy (R-Conn.).
Democrats are spending heavily in Florida to protect Sen. Bill Nelson (D), who was thought to have a relatively easy race.

Upsets in those states could give Republicans the majority, although Democrats do not take the threats very seriously.

While Democrats are counting retiring Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe’s seat in Maine as a probable gain, polls show Sen. Dean Heller (R) and Sen. Scott Brown (R) with leads in Nevada and Massachusetts, respectively, blunting their offensive.

This story was updated at 8:02 a.m.