Democrats spend big to put Senate in play

Greg Nash

Outside groups supporting Democratic Senate candidates are spending millions of dollars on early advertising aimed at softening up Republican incumbents and growing the field of states in play in next year’s elections.

Those groups have spent more than $9.3 million on television spots in six states in recent months — almost three times as much as supportive Republican groups have spent defending incumbent Republican senators. 

For years, Democrats have complained that Republicans have benefitted from outside groups that are not legally required to disclose their donors, so-called dark money organizations that grew out of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United v. FEC case.

But now it is Democrats who are using those same laws to funnel money through innocuously named groups that do not have to disclose the identities of their donors. 

Virtually all the money spent on television advertising so far this year has come from dark money groups, not groups like the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) or the Senate Majority PAC that typically spend the most on television advertising in a cycle.

“The Democratic Senate candidates that are running are faced with an incredibly toxic socialist agenda, so it’s no surprise that outside groups are dropping significant resources in the off year in order to paper over their shortcomings as candidates,” said Jesse Hunt, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC).

Advancing AZ has pumped nearly $1.8 million into advertisements targeting Sen. Martha McSally (R) in Arizona. The group’s board of directors include Steve Gomez, an Arizona man who appeared in an anti-McSally television advertisement in 2018, and ex-Rep. Sam Coopersmith (D), a former chairman of the state Democratic Party.

In Colorado, a group calling itself Rocky Mountain Values has pumped $1 million into advertising against Sen. Cory Gardner (R) on health care. That group is run by Alvina Vasquez, a top staffer on Gov. Jared Polis’s (D) 2018 campaign. 

Rocky Mountain Values and a group called Conservation Colorado have dropped another $600,000 on ads against Gardner. The gun control group Giffords PAC — founded by McSally’s opponent, Mark Kelly (D), and Kelly’s wife, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) — has added almost $500,000.

Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst (R) has faced more than $1.4 million in ads run by Iowa Forward, a group that also operates as Iowa Voices. Its executive director is a former aide to state Sen. Rob Hogg (D), and its former spokesman now works for former Vice President Joe Biden’s presidential campaign.

Mainers have seen $1.5 million in advertisements run by Maine Momentum, another dark money group run by former aides to Rep. Chellie Pingree (D) and state House Speaker Sara Gideon (D). Gideon is the DSCC’s preferred candidate to take on Sen. Susan Collins (R) in November. 

Majority Forward, an arm of the largest Democratic super PAC that backs Senate candidates, has added $780,000 in spending against Collins. The group has also spent more than $100,000 against Gardner in Colorado and Sen. David Perdue (R) in Georgia. It has spent nearly $100,000 against McSally and Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.).

Those groups are spending early in hopes of framing the races that will develop over the course of the next year. Their aim is to soften support for well-known incumbents like Gardner or to bolster little-known candidates like Gideon.

Running early advertising “is a good strategy and, budget allowing, necessary in the current volatile environment, whether it is for an incumbent, challenger or open race,” said Craig Varoga, a longtime Democratic strategist who has run outside groups himself. “Like any battle, anyone who unilaterally disarmed would increase their odds of losing the war. It is almost always better to fight than to tie your own hands behind your back.”

What Republican spending has taken place this year has largely come from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which accounts for more than half the $3.7 million spent defending Republican incumbents this year. The Chamber has spent $950,000 touting McSally in Arizona, $531,000 for Collins in Maine and $879,000 for Tillis in North Carolina.

One Nation, a dark money group tied to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) political network, has shelled out six-figure ad buys for Ernst in Iowa and Collins in Maine. Another Republican group, the 1820 PAC, has also spent more than half a million dollars for Collins.

But some Republicans privately worry that the early spending could dent their candidates even before races begin in earnest next year. They point to 2014, when groups backed by the conservative Koch brothers spent millions of dollars in off-year advertising.

“Early spending has an effect, no question. They begin framing the narrative before some of our guys can afford to communicate,” said Mike Slanker, a Nevada Republican strategist who guided former Sen. Dean Heller’s (R) campaign as Heller weathered a barrage of attacks for more than a year before Election Day 2018. “Since it is harder to reach folks these days with the number of cord cutters increasing, it takes longer to get messages through than it used to. You have to start earlier.”

Others said the effects of early money were overblown and that voters are not yet paying attention to Senate contests — especially as impeachment and the Democratic presidential primary dominate the news.

“Any outside group is free to burn through its cash before voters actually tune in, and you won’t hear us complaining when Democrats do it,” said Jack Pandol, a spokesman for the Senate Leadership Fund, the top Republican outside group. “We’re focused on deploying resources effectively when we can actually make a difference, not chasing headlines.”

The groups that traditionally spend the most money on Senate campaigns have been busily stockpiling cash for an expensive fight to come next year. The NRSC has more than $54 million on hand, while the DSCC has almost $50 million in the bank, according to the latest reports filed with the Federal Election Commission. 

“Republicans are defending weak incumbents with toxic records voting to gut protections for pre-existing conditions and hand out tax breaks to corporate special interests and billionaires in states where the president lost or is increasingly unpopular,” said DSCC spokesman Stewart Boss.

“Democrats are well-positioned to take advantage of the 2020 map because we have impressive candidates who are breaking fundraising records, building strong grassroots support, and holding their opponents accountable.”

Meanwhile, the Senate Majority PAC has $13 million in the bank, and the Senate Leadership Fund, the largest Republican super PAC, has almost $6 million on hand. Those two groups typically raise the bulk of their funds in the months leading up to November.

Tags Chellie Pingree Cory Gardner Dean Heller Jared Polis Joe Biden Joni Ernst Martha McSally Mitch McConnell Susan Collins Thom Tillis

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