Fierce Fight for Senate Control Triggers 92% Surge in TV Ad Buys (1)

The cost of TV advertising in this year’s bitterly fought top Senate races is $32 million so far, almost double the figures from previous election cycles.

The spending, more than eight months before the November elections, foreshadows the expensive fight that will be waged this year for control of the Senate.

The 10 races that have seen the most TV spending in the 2020 cycle are led by Republican Sen. Susan Collins’ re-election bid in Maine. Candidates and outside groups shelled out almost $9 million on TV ads through Jan. 24 on that contest, according to Advertising Analytics, which tracks ad spending.

That seat could potentially swing the Senate, as Democrats will need a net gain of at least three seats to win the majority. Republican-held Senate seats in North Carolina, Colorado, Arizona, Kentucky and Iowa also rank in the air war, as do two Democratic-held seats, in Alabama and Michigan.

The $32 million ad tab is almost 92% more than the $16.7 million that was spent on the top Senate races at the same point in 2014, when the same Senate seats were up for grabs. The current total is almost twice the amount spent for key races in the 2018 election cycle and 33% higher than the $24 million spent in the 2016 cycle, according to Advertising Analytics. The firm compiles ad figures reflected in contracts made available to the public and reported to the Federal Communications Commission by TV stations.

The heavy, early spending on TV ads means control of the Senate “is certainly in play,” said Martha McKenna, a media consultant who led independent expenditure efforts last cycle at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Record expenditures on campaign ads in key races is occurring largely because Democrats are energized by opposition to President Donald Trump, and Republicans recognize that, she said. The costly Maine race, for example, showed Collins recognizes she’s vulnerable and is trying to shore up her position early on, McKenna said.

Democrats are “unbelievably energized” this year and have plenty of resources for congressional challengers, even though they’re competing with presidential candidates for money and attention. She contrasted this to 2014, during President Barack Obama’s second term, when Democrats were largely satisfied and less energized.

GOP consultant Brad Todd agreed that this year is the opposite of 2014 when conservative groups were “on a mission to take control of the Senate.”

“I’m worried that some conservative advertisers don’t seem to understand the urgency,” he said in an email. “This is a Senate cycle that’s going to cost a lot more than anyone had in the budget and it’s past time for everyone to get their arms around that and get going. “

The money tracked is from candidates and outside groups airing messages that support or attack candidates. Most of the money for ads is coming from groups not formally linked to candidates, many of which don’t reveal their donors. The total doesn’t include more than $11 million spent on TV ads sponsored by a group called Doctor Patient Unity, which urge senators to oppose legislation on medical billing.

The Maine Event

Collins, who has been in the Senate since 1997, is seen as among the most vulnerable Senate Republicans, as one of two representing a state that voted against Trump in 2016.

Collins’ campaign is sponsoring ads that say her experience benefits Maine and has helped bring jobs to the state. Among her latest ads is one attacking Democratic challenger Sara Gideon, Maine’s state House speaker, for relying on “dark money groups” for support.

“Susan Collins has earned the trust of Maine people, and they know that she has our backs,” the ad says.

Ad sponsored by 1820 PAC
Ad supporting Sen. Susan Collins

The Maine Momentum ads skirt campaign finance disclosure laws by avoiding words that expressly oppose Collins’s election, allowing the sponsor to keep its donors secret. Similarly obscure entities — aligned with both Democrats and Republicans — are sponsoring millions of dollars worth of ads in other key Senate races without disclosing their funding sources.

Other States Targeted

More than $6.4 million has been spent on ads in the the North Carolina race for a Senate seat held by Republican Thom Tillis. Ad sponsors include the Democratic-aligned Vote Vets Action Fund, which supports Tillis’ challenger, Democratic state Sen. Cal Cunningham, and is airing TV ads emphasizing his military service. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has countered with ads touting Tillis’ support for legislation helping veterans.

The $2.8 million worth of ads in the Kentucky race include messages sponsored by that attack Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellfor receiving millions of dollars from the family of his wife, Treasury Secretary Elaine Chao. She is heir to a shipping company fortune. An organization called the Taxpayer Protection Alliance has sponsored ads praising McConnell for standing up to Democrats and blocking Medicare-for-All health care proposals.

In Michigan, Sen. Gary Peters (D) is favored to hold onto his seat, but conservative groups are spending big on ads to help make Peters vulnerable to a challenge by Republican John James. Sen. Doug Jones, the other incumbent Democrat running in a state Trump carried, is awaiting the result of a crowded Republican primary that includes former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Rep. Bradley Byrne, who are running ads claiming to be the most conservative.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kenneth P. Doyle in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Kyle Trygstad at; Bennett Roth at