Senate landscape comes into focus as outside groups lock in ad time

Flowers are seen on the East Front Plaza of the Capitol on Wednesday, April 13, 2022.
Greg Nash
Flowers are seen on the East Front Plaza of the Capitol on Wednesday, April 13, 2022.

The top outside groups fighting for control of the United States Senate have reserved nearly a quarter of a billion dollars in television advertising ahead of the midterm elections, offering early hints at the key battlegrounds that will decide whether Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) retains his title next year or hands it off to Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Senate Majority PAC, the largest political action committee dedicated to electing Democrats, has reserved more than $106 million in airtime in five states, according to sources with knowledge of its buys. 

On Monday, its Republican counterpart, the Senate Leadership Fund, said it had made $141 million in reservations in seven states.

“Senate Democrats enabled disastrous Biden policies that have Americans historically dissatisfied with the direction of the country and seeking a change,” said Jack Pandol, a Senate Leadership Fund spokesman. “It will be a battle for every inch, but we are putting everything we have into delivering a Republican Senate majority that will put a stop to Joe Biden’s worst policies.”

Senate Majority PAC has reserved $22.3 million to defend Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) and $24.7 million to back Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), two Democrats who won special elections to fill the remainder of unexpired terms and who are now seeking full terms.

It will also spend $21 million in Nevada, where Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D) is running for a second term. Two polls in the last week show Masto running slightly ahead of or virtually tied with former Attorney General Adam Laxalt (R) and businessman and veteran Sam Brown (R).

The Democratic super PAC has also blocked off nearly $26 million to target the Pennsylvania seat held by retiring Sen. Pat Toomey (R). And it plans to spend $12.6 million in Wisconsin on advertising critical of Sen. Ron Johnson (R).

The Senate Leadership Fund plans to air advertisements in all of those states, as well as in North Carolina and Alaska.

The GOP-aligned group plans to spend $37.1 million targeting Warnock and $14.4 million on Kelly’s race in Arizona. It has another $15.1 million in advertising booked in Nevada.

In Pennsylvania, it will spend $24.6 million. In Wisconsin, Johnson’s eventual opponent will be hit with $15.2 million. 

The Senate Leadership Fund, run by Steven Law, McConnell’s former chief of staff, will also spend $27.6 million to defend a seat held by retiring Sen. Richard Burr (R) in North Carolina, and $7.4 million on behalf of Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R), who faces a challenge from a candidate backed by former President Trump in Alaska.

A source with knowledge of the Senate Majority PAC’s advertising plans said it would likely expand into other states. The group’s ad buys last cycle began in five states before expanding to 10.

Sources watching the market say the outside groups book their spending early to guarantee access to limited inventory — there are, after all, only so many advertisements that run during a given show. Candidates like Cortez Masto and Kelly have already begun their own fall advertising purchases, and other groups like the Republican and Democratic Governors Associations are entering the market too.

“They’re expecting a lot of money on broadcast. There’s a limited amount of inventory, so when you book early, you put your placeholders in,” said one advertising executive, who asked not to be named discussing the marketplace. “There’s a lot more data in politics, so campaigns have a much better sense of what stations and what programs and what time slots give them the chance to access the audience or the type of people that give them the best chance to win.”

But the first round of advertisements offer a preview of the core set of races most likely to determine which party controls the Senate for the remaining two years of President Biden’s first term in office. 

The heavy spending in Democratic states show the incumbents most at risk of losing gains the party has made in recent years. But the fact that red states are attracting so much spending is a sign that, while the national political climate favors Republicans, the GOP cannot ignore seats left open by several retiring senators.

“While Senate Democrats have a favorable map and strong incumbents, Senate Republicans have suffered a series of recruitment failures, and their flawed candidates are locked in vicious, expensive intra-party fights,” said David Bergstein, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC). “All of these factors have contributed towards putting the GOP on defense in Senate races.”

The three states where Democrats hold control are all varying shades of purple; Biden became the first Democrat since former President Clinton to carry Georgia and Arizona, both by narrow margins. Biden carried Nevada with just over 50 percent of the vote, though Democrats have been sounding alarm bells there as Republicans make gains in voter registration.

Pennsylvania has voted Democratic in all but one of the last eight presidential elections, the lone exception coming in 2016, when Trump beat Hillary Clinton there. The state is one of only six with a divided Senate delegation; the last Democrat to win Toomey’s seat was Sen. Joseph Clark in 1962. The last Republican to hold the state’s other Senate seat, Rick Santorum, left office in 2007, after losing to Sen. Bob Casey (D).

Wisconsin, too, interrupted its streak of voting for Democratic presidents in 2016, and it too features a divided Senate delegation ever since Johnson ousted Sen. Russ Feingold (D) in 2010. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D) won election two years later.

North Carolina has voted more reliably Republican, though former President Obama carried the state in 2008. Tar Heel voters have elected both Democrats and Republicans to the Senate in recent years — Sens. John Edwards (D) and Kay Hagan (D) each served a term, before Edwards quit to run for president and Hagan lost to Sen. Thom Tillis (R) in 2014.

The DSCC and its counterpart, the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), have yet to make their own advertising reservations. Both parties are likely to expand their buys beyond the core targets; Democrats expect to spend in North Carolina, while Republicans have their eyes on bluer states.

“We have more opportunities to expand the map while [the] map is shrinking for [Democrats],” said Chris Hartline, an NRSC spokesman. He pointed to Colorado and Washington, where Sens. Michael Bennet (D) and Patty Murray (D) are seeking reelection and where Republicans have seen promising signs in recent weeks.

Tags ad spending Catherine Cortez Masto Charles Schumer Joe Biden Lisa Murkowski Mark Kelly midterms Mitch McConnell Raphael Warnock Senate Leadership Fund Senate Majority PAC

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