Third-party groups allied with the Republican Party have vastly outspent Democratic incumbents and their backers in Senate battlegrounds.
The disparity in advertising firepower threatens Democratic control of the Senate and could have an impact on the presidential race as well.
Sen. Sherrod BrownSherrod BrownSenate Democrats dig in as shutdown approaches Overnight Energy: Fight over miners' benefits risks shutdown | Flint aid crosses finish line in House Overnight Finance: Senate Dems dig in as shutdown looms | Trump taps fast-food exec for Labor chief | Portland's new CEO tax MORE, a first-term Democrat from Ohio, has been the primary target of outside groups, which have outspent his allies by a ratio of 10-1 this election cycle.
Brown has received limited support from liberal groups. The League of Conservation Voters has spent $516,000 on television ads touting Brown’s vote to build the clean-energy industry in Ohio.
“Things are looking pretty good in Ohio,” a senior GOP senator told The Hill.
Brown’s campaign manager, Sarah Benzing, sent an anxious appeal to potential donors Saturday.
“Karl Rove, Pat Boone and all their special-interest pals are saturating Ohio with negative ads and smear campaigns — they’ve already spent $5 million, and that number is only going to increase,” she wrote. “So far, the special interests have outspent our campaign more than 10-to-1 in this race.”
GOP political strategist Karl Rove is the mastermind behind Crossroads GPS, and the singer Pat Boone appears in the 60Plus Association ad.
“We aren’t funded by unlimited contributions from corporations and the super-rich, and so we need you guys to come through. Big time,” Benzing added.
Brown aired his first campaign ad in late April, a $150,000 buy in several cities.
“This comes after more than a year of $5 million in ads against Sherrod Brown without any response,” said campaign spokesman Justin Barasky.
Outside groups will likely offset any edge Democratic incumbents might have over challengers in regular campaign funds. Brown, for example, had $6.3 million in cash on hand at the end of March, while his opponent, Josh Mandel, reported $5.3 million.
Sen. Charles SchumerCharles SchumerSenate Dems hold out on spending deal, risking shutdown Dems see ’18 upside in ObamaCare repeal Confirm Gary Richard Brown for the Eastern District of New York MORE (N.Y.), the Senate Democrats’ chief political strategist, sees the uneven spending war between Republican- and Democratic-allied outside groups as the biggest threat to Democrats’ retaining control of the Senate.
Democrats are planning to make the spending of secretive third-party groups a bigger political issue by bringing campaign finance legislation to the Senate floor, perhaps in June.
The law, an overhauled version of the Disclose Act, would require groups classified under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code to disclose donors of more than $1,000 publicly. It would also require groups to claim responsibility more obviously for the content of ads and disclose their five biggest donors at the end of the clips.
Brian Walsh, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Democratic leaders should focus on the economy instead of third-party groups.
“The biggest threat to the Democratic majority is not outside spending, it’s their failed economic record,” he said.
Conservative and pro-business groups have outspent liberal groups by more than 4-to-1 in Missouri, where Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire McCaskillOversight panel demands answers on Pentagon waste report Messer eyes challenging Donnelly for Indiana Senate seat Overnight Defense: Funding bill would ease Trump Defense pick's confirmation | Obama delivers final security speech MORE (D) faces a difficult reelection. Polls show her trailing or even with several Republican opponents.
Crossroads GPS has spent about $1.6 million, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has spent $988,000 and the 60Plus Association has spent $481,000 on television advertising, according to Democratic sources who track media buys.
While McCaskill has suffered $3.9 million in attacks, pro-Democratic groups have funded $887,000 in ads praising her record on veterans and other issues, according to Democratic media-tracking sources.
Patriot Majority has spent $446,000, Vote Vets has spent $193,000 and Senate Majority PAC has spent $227,000, according to the Democratic source.
A second Democratic source said outside groups have spent a total of $4.3 million against McCaskill and $908,000 to support her. This source said McCaskill has spent $677,000 so far to promote her own candidacy.
McCaskill has tried to make the uneven battle between conservative and liberal outside groups an issue in the campaign. She recently aired a television ad criticizing groups “not from around here” for “spending millions to attack and attack.”
A senior Democratic aide said other vulnerable Senate Democrats might pursue the same strategy.
“Middle-class Americans feel their concerns and economic situation is on the backburner in favor of a system rigged for the very wealthy and well-connected,” the aide said.
In Montana, outside groups have spent nearly $1.97 million in ads attacking Sen. Jon TesterJon TesterRed-state Dems face tough votes on Trump picks Montana Republican warns of Senate challenge to Tester Vulnerable Dems ready to work with Trump MORE (D), while Democratic-allied organizations have spent $857,000 blasting his opponent, Rep. Denny Rehberg (R), according to Tester’s campaign.
“Congressman Dennis Rehberg has voted for corporate special interests during the 30 years he’s been in elected office, so it’s not surprising to see that they’re now spending millions of dollars on his behalf,” said Tester’s campaign manager, Preston Elliott.
A GOP source who tracks media buys noted, however, that Democratic allies had spent a combined $1.7 million on positive ads extolling Tester’s record and spots attacking Rehberg, narrowing the funding disparity in Montana.
“It’s remarkably hypocritical that even as Tester tries to make campaign spending transparency a central issue of this race, his own advisers and special-interest allies have spent more than $1.6 million running campaign ads on his behalf without disclosing their donors,” said Chris Bond, a spokesman for Rehberg.
And Republicans say that liberal groups outspent their more conservative counterparts last year in Massachusetts, where Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) faces a stiff challenge from Harvard Professor Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenPressure grows on Perez to enter DNC race The Hill's 12:30 Report AFL-CIO endorses Ellison for DNC chair MORE (D).
The League of Conservation Voters aired a nearly $2 million ad buy before Thanksgiving of last year chastising Brown for “siding with Big Oil” and “voting repeatedly against our environment and public health.” But whatever advantage Democrats might have had this year was neutralized by the “People’s Pledge” Brown and Warren signed to ban third-party ads in their race.
Mike Palamuso, a spokesman for the League of Conservation Voters, said the group would honor the pledge.