The Florida Senate race is beginning to look like a money pit for Republicans.
Conservative outside groups have spent over $15 million to unseat Sen. Bill NelsonBill NelsonLawmakers stare down challenge of cyber-enabled ‘fake news’ United explains passenger removal to senators Overnight Cybersecurity: Ex-officials warn 'Buy American' might harm Pentagon cybersecurity | Chair nudges Trump on cyber order | House gets security training MORE (D-Fla.) but a Washington Post poll released this week shows him with a 14-point lead among likely voters.
Ohio is the only state where conservative outside groups have spent more to influence a Senate race, according to a strategist who tracks media buys. Outside groups have spent nearly $20 million to topple Sen. Sherrod BrownSherrod BrownDems crowd primaries to challenge GOP reps Battle begins over Wall Street rules Congress nears deal on help for miners MORE (D-Ohio).
Democrats, meanwhile, have benefited from Nelson’s statewide name identification. Liberal-leaning outside groups have spent just over $1 million to defend him.
The lopsided ratio has allowed Democratic allies to save their resources to play offense in red states or keep pace in with conservative groups in swing states.
The non-partisan Cook Political Report rates the Senate races in Connecticut, Hawaii, Indiana, Maine, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Virginia and Wisconsin as tighter than the Florida contest, which it considers as a “lean Democrat.”
Republican strategists acknowledge that Rep. Connie Mack, the Senate GOP nominee, is unlikely to win in Florida unless there is a significant shakeup in the race.
“Five weeks is an eternity in the campaign but the political environment in Florida doesn’t seem to be breaking Mack’s way,” said Alex Patton, a Republican consultant and pollster based in the state.
Republican strategists say outside groups had to spend earlier in Florida to boost Mack’s name identification in the large and costly state. Without the effort, it would have been difficult to wage a credible challenge against Nelson, a two-term senator. But the strategy seems unlikely to pan out as Nelson’s seat slips further out of reach.
Republican strategists draw a contrast between Florida and Ohio, where the Democratic incumbent has held onto a solid lead despite lavish spending by outside groups.
“I don’t fault people for spending money in Ohio. That race is pretty competitive,” said a GOP strategist. “Brown is completely out of step with the majority of the voters in the state.
“I think Josh Mandel can poll and run ahead of Mitt Romney,” the source said in reference to the Senate Republican challenger in Ohio.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee is staying away from Florida’s expensive media markets. Instead, it is spending on ads in Montana, Indiana, Maine and North Dakota.
And Nelson and Mack seem immune to the millions of dollars outside groups have spent to sway the campaign.
“If you go back and look, a lot of that money was spent early in the process,” said Tom Eldon, a Democratic consultant based in Florida. “I think they were trying to keep Nelson in reach and did not realize what a flawed candidate Mack would turn out to be.”
Republican strategists have grumbled about how Mack has run his campaign.
Nelson pounced on him immediately after the Republican primary to define him to voters in a state where he was hardly known outside of his district.
Majority PAC, a Democratic super-PAC, aired an ad in late August comparing Mack to bad-boy actor Charlie Sheen, highlighting past legal and financial disputes, including a bar fight, resisting arrest and an overdrawn checking account while in Congress.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has poured the most money into Florida: $4 million, according to a strategist who tracks media buys.
Crossroads GPS has spent $3.3 million and American Crossroads has invested $1.75 million, according to the source. 60 Plus Association, a conservative-leaning seniors advocacy group, has spent $2.5 million against Nelson.
The U.S. Chamber said in a statement Friday that it will not give up on Mack.
“The Chamber believes there is a stark contrast between the candidates and we are focused on holding Senator Nelson accountable for his record,” said Blair Latoff, a spokeswoman for the group.
“We do not ever discuss how much we're spending, but we have said that this will be our largest and most aggressive voter education campaign in the Chamber's 100-year history,” she added. “Our last two buys were significant and made a difference in Florida. Our commitment continues.”
A spokesman for Crossroads GPS did not return a request for comment.