Outside spending adds to GOP midterm momentum

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) addresses reporters
Peter Afriyie
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) addresses reporters after the weekly policy luncheon on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022.

Big-money conservative groups are heavily outspending Democratic ones, blanketing the airwaves with ads as Republicans gain momentum in the final stretch before Election Day. 

In general election races, conservative super PACs and “dark money” groups, which can raise and spend unlimited sums from ultra-wealthy donors, have spent $624 million to back Republicans and attack Democrats, compared to $496 million in spending from liberals, according to data from nonpartisan research group OpenSecrets.

This month alone, GOP-aligned outside groups have spent roughly $40 million more than those affiliated with Democrats, offering a boost in key contests that could decide control of the 50-50 Senate. 

And the discrepancy is even larger in House races.

McConnell-linked group headlines top spenders

Outside groups have already spent more than $1.4 billion during the 2022 election, compared to $912 million at this point in the 2018 midterms. While they’re supposed to be independent, the largest ones are unofficially controlled by congressional leaders. 

The Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC affiliated with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), has spent $180 million, the most of any outside group, to influence critical Senate races. 

That’s compared to just $110 million for the Senate Majority PAC, which is aligned with Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). 

“SLF has broken midterm fundraising records this cycle, enabling us to be the air support for Republican candidates who are doing the critical on-the-ground work to achieve victory,” Senate Leadership Fund spokesperson Jack Pandol said in an email. 

The Senate Majority PAC did not respond to The Hill’s request for comment. 

Republican groups are largely putting that money toward attacking Democrats over crime, inflation and immigration, which were cited as the top three most important issues for midterm voters in a recent Harvard CAPS-Harris Poll survey. 

The House GOP’s super PAC, meanwhile, has spent $160 million compared to $61 million from its Democratic counterpart. 

That’s because conservative groups are getting more money from billionaire donors. While George Soros is the top donor of the 2022 elections so far, giving $128 million to liberal groups, eight of the top 10 most generous donors are Republican backers. 

Those include shipping executive Richard Uihlein, hedge fund manager Kenneth Griffin, Blackstone Group CEO Stephen Schwarzman and venture capitalist Peter Thiel. Each of them gave $30 million or more to GOP outside groups. 

Sheila Krumholz, executive director of OpenSecrets, said that mega-donors are “fierce partisans” who also stand to gain huge influence with the party that wins control of Congress when it comes to their own business interests. 

“They have a lot riding on these races,” Krumholz said. “They wouldn’t be throwing money at this if they didn’t think their money could affect the outcome.” 

Just one or two billionaire donors can make a huge difference. Former presidential candidates Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer together gave nearly $400 million to liberal outside groups in the 2018 and 2020 election cycles, but are giving far less in this year’s midterms. 

Super PACs close fundraising gap

While outside groups can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money — unleashed by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling — candidates are still bound by strict contribution limits. 

That’s enabled outside groups to outspend the candidates themselves in 62 congressional races, according to OpenSecrets. Those include the Senate races in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Wisconsin and Nevada, which could decide control of the upper chamber. 

Democrats have a fundraising advantage in most of the swing state contests — their Senate candidates have raised $587 million to Republicans’ $377 million overall — but GOP outside groups are dominating the airwaves in some key races. 

Conservative groups have outspent liberal ones more than 2 to 1 in Wisconsin, shelling out more than $60 million on ads boosting Sen. Ron Johnson (R) and attacking his Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes. 

Democrats have been forced to put their money toward defending incumbents while largely ignoring other races. Conservative groups have hammered North Carolina Democrat Cheri Beasley with $39 million in negative ads, while Schumer’s super PAC has only spent around $9 million on the race. 

Rep. Tim Ryan (D) has nearly quadrupled Republican candidate J.D. Vance in total fundraising in their race for Ohio’s open Senate seat. But Vance is being boosted by roughly $40 million in ads from the Senate Leadership Fund and a group backed by Thiel, while Ryan hasn’t received any support from Democrats’ main super PAC. 

“Mitch McConnell gave you $40 million to prop up your campaign. Peter Thiel gave you $15 million. What do you think they want for that? They want your loyalty,” Ryan told Vance at their second debate.

Republican-aligned super PAC ads are focusing on inflation, which rose 8.2 percent over the last year ending in September, driven by large increases in food and rent. 

Democrats have faltered in the polls amid recent economic data showing that inflation refuses to slow down. Polling shows that abortion is no longer as important for voters, undoing the momentum Democrats had after the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade in June. 

Senate Majority PAC this week launched ads warning that Republicans will aim to cut Social Security and Medicare if they take control of Congress, with one ad showing a clip of Arizona Republican Senate candidate Blake Masters calling for Social Security to be privatized. 

“Masters would risk our hard-earned life savings, all while giving huge tax cuts to corporations and the billionaires bankrolling his campaign,” the ad tells viewers. 

Polling averages show an even Senate race in Nevada, with Republicans leading in Wisconsin, Ohio and North Carolina, while Democrats are clinging to small polling leads in Pennsylvania, Georgia and Arizona.

Election forecaster FiveThirtyEight now gives Democrats a 54 percent chance to keep the Senate, down from 66 percent less than two weeks ago, while Republicans’ chances of flipping the House rose from 69 percent to 81 percent over the same period.

Tags 2022 midterm elections Arizona Chuck Schumer Georgia Mandela Barnes Mitch McConnell Nevada North Carolina Ohio Pennsylvania Peter Thiel Ron Johnson Tim Ryan Wisconsin

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