Dems face difficult choices on resources in battle for Senate
Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) is facing pressure from vulnerable incumbents and hopeful challengers about where to spend the party’s limited resources in this fall’s midterm elections.
Senate Democrats are defending 26 seats, including 10 in states that voted for President Trump, and many of those candidates are going to need help from the national party.
But Democrats also have an outside shot of taking back the Senate majority if 2018 turns into a wave election. Democratic candidates trying to turn the Senate blue will also want help from Schumer.
Schumer and allied strategists will have to decide whether to focus more on defense or offense.
Everything else being equal, incumbents say they should get first priority.
“When push comes to shove, if you have some incumbents in Pennsylvania or Ohio or Michigan in tighter races than might be expected right now and a binary choice between spending money there or going on offense elsewhere, I’m pretty sure you’re going to see the money go to the incumbent,” said a Democratic strategist allied with an incumbent Democratic senator.
A Washington-based Democratic strategist says the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s (DSCC) first priority is to protect incumbents, especially when many of them have contributed to or raised money for the committee.
“We view our first priority as defending our incumbents, but we also see some very strong pick-up opportunities,” the source said.
The best opportunities for Democrats are in Nevada and Arizona, with Tennessee seen as a longer shot.
Overall, Democrats face an uphill climb in winning back the Senate despite the GOP’s narrow 51-49 majority and President Trump’s poor approval ratings.
The reason is the political map. While Democrats have those 26 seats to defend, Republicans are protecting only eight seats. That leaves Democrats with few opportunities.
Democratic challengers know they’re not going to get the same attention as incumbents who can plead their case directly to Schumer.
“We’re painfully aware of that,” said Jeff Teague, executive director of the Tennessee Democratic Party, which is trying to elect former Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) to the seat held by retiring Sen. Bob Corker (R).
But Teague thinks there are enough Democratic donors in Tennessee and across the country who will want to put money behind challengers in traditionally Republican states.
“We look to the success of Sen. Jones in Alabama, which obviously is not a very favorable place for Democrats,” he added, referring to Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), who won a special election in December.
Some of the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents are in relatively inexpensive states, such as Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D) in North Dakota and Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) in West Virginia.
But the Florida Senate race is looming as a money pit for the Democratic Party.
It costs about $3 million a week to run ads statewide in Florida and incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) reported $8 million in cash on hand at the end of December. That means the DSCC and outside groups will have to spend heavily in the race.
The likely Republican nominee, Gov. Rick Scott, has a personal fortune and spent nearly $13 million of his own money to win reelection in 2014.
Bredesen is the only top-tier Democratic candidate for Senate who is not already a sitting member of Congress, which makes it harder for him to compete for resources from party committees and political action committees based in Washington.
“What we’re still coming to grips with is money outside the state and how that works,” said a Tennessee-based Democratic strategist who noted that Bredesen has built a strong fundraising network over more than 20 years on the local political scene.
Still, there already have been signs of the competition candidates such as Bredesen will face from incumbents. Some Tennessee Democrats were dismayed when an incumbent Democratic senator flew to Nashville to raise money in Bredesen’s backyard.
“I’ve been a little underwhelmed by the … support, money, from the Democrats in Washington,” said the Tennessee strategist.
A spokeswoman for Bredesen, however, said the campaign isn’t worried about losing out on national funding to other campaigns.
“Fundraising has been strong from day one, thanks to Gov. Bredesen’s long-established network of contributors and supporters. At the same time, we’re seeing new sources of support as the governor’s message of working together to get things done is resonating with voters,” said Alyssa Hansen, the campaign press secretary.
Democrats would love to take out Sen. Ted Cruz (R) in Texas. Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke has shown skill at getting media attention and is seen as an attractive candidate.
Yet he may have a tough time convincing Democratic leaders in Washington to steer millions of dollars to his race given the cost of advertising in the vast state.
“How much can they put into the really expensive states, like Florida? I’m not sure O’Rourke is teed up to get much help right now,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the Cook Political Report.
Democratic strategists in Washington say tough decisions about where to put money won’t have to be made for months.
“It’s still early in the cycle to talk specifics about what advertising is going where,” said a Washington-based Democratic strategist.
They argue the decisions of the DSCC and the Senate Majority PAC, the principal super PAC for Senate Democratic candidates, will be made easier by the substantial cash advantage that Democratic candidates now have over Republicans.
“If you look at candidate dollars, which go a lot farther, the Democratic campaigns and candidates are stomping their Republican opponents in terms of fundraising so that’s a problem for the Republican side of the story,” said the source.
The DSCC has outraised its counterpart, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, for 11 consecutive months and has a $10 million cash on hand advantage.
In Indiana, for example, incumbent Sen. Joe Donnelly (D) raised $1.2 million in the fourth quarter of 2017, more than the combined total for the same time period as two Republican challengers battling to take him on in November.
In Missouri, incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) raised $2.94 million in the fourth quarter of 2017, substantially more than the $959,000 raised by her Republican opponent, state Attorney General Josh Hawley.
Other Democratic candidates, such as Stabenow, Tester, Brown, Casey and Rep. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), who is running against incumbent Sen. Dean Heller (R) in Nevada, also raised more than their GOP opponents at the end of last year.
But Republican candidates are counting on a windfall of spending from allied outside groups, such as the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC linked to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and groups backed by the billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch.
Jon Ossoff, the Democratic candidate in last year’s special election in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, had a major fundraising advantage over the Republican candidate, Karen Handel.
Nevertheless, Handel won the race in the Republican-leaning district after Republican-allied outside groups outspent liberal groups by more than a factor of two.