GOP looks for Senate campaign reset heading toward November
Republicans are looking to hit the reset button on their Senate midterm election playbook after weeks of poor polls and stories about Democratic momentum.
Senate GOP candidates emerged from primaries battered, bruised and struggling to gain traction in their general election matchups. Even GOP leaders in the upper chamber began expressing reservations about “candidate quality” and the party’s ability to win a majority.
But they now appear to be recalibrating — moving around funds, shifting messaging and sounding notes of optimism about their chances of picking up seats nearly two months out from Election Day.
“I pick out three of our candidates every summer that I think have the best shot at winning and invite them, and I picked these three because I thought they were in critical states and had a good chance of winning,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters in Kentucky on Monday.
The Republican leader was answering a question about a fundraiser he held in the Bluegrass State last week for Republican Senate candidates Mehmet Oz, who is running in Pennsylvania; Herschel Walker, who is vying for a seat in Georgia; and Rep. Ted Budd, who is looking to join the upper chamber representing North Carolina.
The three candidates, all of whom are backed by former President Trump, have struggled to pull ahead of their Democratic opponents in recent polls. Oz and Walker have been at the center of a number of controversies, plaguing their standing on the campaign trail. And earlier this month, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report shifted Oz’s race from a “toss up” to “lean Democrat.”
Campaigns and political parties almost always undergo some changes as they pivot from primary season toward the general election, moderating various positions staked out in primaries and reevaluating where to best spend their resources.
But Republicans have been at the brunt of a wave of stories in recent weeks about Democratic momentum, particularly in key Senate races, as well as polls showing Democratic Senate nominees leading in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin.
The latest public optimism from McConnell marks a shift from just a few weeks ago, when he conceded that the House has a better chance of flipping than the Senate because of “candidate quality” — a statement that, while in line with expectations, drew headlines because it came from the top Republican.
The comment was seen as a veiled reference to Oz, Walker, GOP Senate candidate Blake Masters in Arizona and J.D. Vance, a Republican running for the upper chamber in Ohio. The latter two have also struggled to secure commanding leads against their Democratic opponents in recent polls.
This week, however, McConnell said he had “great confidence” in Oz, adding, “I think Oz has a great shot at winning.”
Democrats are favored to win control of the Senate over Republicans, according to election handicapper FiveThirtyEight, 66 percent to 34 percent.
One Republican strategist said the change in tone from McConnell is “part of the natural swing” from primary season to the general election campaign.
“What McConnell has to do is play the expectations game, and he wants to downplay expectations that they’re gonna do well, but not at the expense of hurting the candidates,” said strategist Terry Sullivan, who has worked on a number of Senate campaigns. “So he’s trying to make, to balance that. So he’s in a tough spot.”
Behind the scenes, Republican groups are also already moving money around.
Most recently, the Senate Leadership Fund — a GOP super PAC aligned with McConnell — scrapped $8 million worth of advertisements in Arizona that were scheduled to air between Sept. 6 and Oct. 3, according to AdImpact and Politico.
At the same time, One Nation, a group affiliated with the Senate Leadership Fund, is spending an additional $10 million-plus on television, radio and digital ads in a number of states with competitive races this cycle, including Arizona, according to CNN.
Masters, a venture capitalist, has consistently come in behind incumbent Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) in recent polls. He is trailing Kelly in FiveThirtyEight’s average of polls 50.2 percent to 42.4 percent, and on Wednesday the election forecaster Sabato’s Crystal Ball moved the race from “toss-up” to “lean Democrat.”
Senate Leadership Fund President Steven Law told Politico that while the group is “leaving the door wide open in Arizona,” the advertising adjustment in the Grand Canyon State was in part due to an “unexpected expense in Ohio.”
That unanticipated cost was a $28 million ad reservation the PAC took out in the Buckeye State last month to bolster Vance as he struggles to pull ahead of Rep. Tim Ryan (D) in a race the Cook Political Report rates as “lean Republican.”
The group also added $9.5 million to the Pennsylvania race last month, according to The Washington Post, where Oz is trailing Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D).
Additionally, the Senate Leadership Fund pulled about $1.7 million in advertisements in Alaska, according to Politico, where Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) is facing a general election challenge from Trump-backed GOP candidate Kelly Tshibaka. Law said the group opted to slash some ads because the incumbent “is in a very strong position.”
The National Republican Senatorial Committee is also rearranging where its funds are going. Last month, the Post reported that the group had cut roughly $10 million in ads in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Arizona. The organization said that while it is still committed to those races, it is looking to prioritize advertisements taken out with campaigns and ones that are more financially feasible.
Though the group also said it added more than $4 million in televisions advertisements in Pennsylvania, according to the Post.
“With these committees, they’re always moving the money around and they’re moving money and placing bets on where they think it’ll pay off,” Sullivan, a founding partner at the public affairs firm Firehouse Strategies, told The Hill. “That is just very, very normal.”
He noted, however, that where the funding is being redirected to is “telling.” For example, with extra funds being spent in Ohio — which Sullivan called a “Republican state” — less money is being allocated to swing states or pickup states.
GOP strategist Doug Heye, who previously served as communications director at the Republican National Committee, noted that cutting advertisements in states is often “a sign of strength, not a sign of weakness.”
As Republican organizations rearrange funding, GOP candidates are beginning to tailor their messages — especially when it comes to abortion and the 2020 presidential election — as the race moves away from the primary stage.
Masters has emerged as somewhat of a poster child for this. The Arizona Republican posted an ad on Twitter last week characterizing his view on abortion as “commonsense.”
“Look, I support a ban on very late-term and partial-birth abortion. And most Americans agree with that. That would just put us on par with other civilized nations,” he said in the ad.
According to NBC News, Masters edited his campaign website to scrub a statement that said “I am 100% pro-life,” remove a line that outlined his backing of “a federal personhood law (ideally a Constitutional amendment) that recognizes that unborn babies are human beings that may not be killed.”
Masters also revised his website to take out a line suggesting that Trump was not reelected in 2020 because it was not a “free and fair” race, according to CNN.
Sullivan said the changes on the two polarizing issues represent the normal procession from primary season to the general election campaign.
“A lot of these folks had to win a primary, and now they have to win a general election, and so the issues you are emphasizing are gonna change in those situations,” he added.
The GOP strategist added that the adjustments being made by Republican candidates represent a shift from “red meat rhetoric” to messaging that will attract suburban swing voters.
“I think a lot of it is more mold shifting from a primary fight to a general election fight,” a Republican strategist involved with Senate races told The Hill. “I think all candidates sort of have to better tailor their message.”
Heye, the GOP strategist, said the adjustments being made across the map are a result of the political and campaign landscapes “constantly shifting,” especially in the current cycle.
And according to Sullivan, the landscape right now — nearly two months from Election Day — will mean little come November.
“We are a lifetime away from Election Day,” Sullivan said. “If you’re an undecided voter, you’re not paying attention to candidates at this point. It’s gonna be well after Labor Day, you’re gonna start to tune in, and so right now, you know, where people are at today doesn’t matter, what matters is where they’re at in a month.”