Major Money Hauls Spur Democratic Ads Edge in Top Senate Races

  • At least seven Democrats topped $20 million in third quarter
  • Cash helps campaigns blanket airwaves, control message

Record-shattering third-quarter fundraising by Democratic Senate candidates fueled a major advertising advantage that’s expanding their reach and giving them more control over their message in the closing weeks of the election.

On Thursday, Mark Kelly (D) announced raising $38.7 million over the past three months in Arizona, Amy McGrath (D) reported raising $36.8 million in Kentucky, and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) said he raised $26.8 million.

They’re three of seven Democrats, so far, who’ve said they raised more than $20 million each in the quarter that ended Sept. 30. Democrats likely led in fundraising in at least 10 top races, and more may report topping that mark in their Federal Election Commission filings, due Thursday.

With such a cash cushion, Democrats have been able to air 80% more ads than Republicans in Senate races since Sept. 1, blanketing the airwaves with more than 307,000 spots through Oct. 13, compared to about 170,000 for Republican candidates, according to data compiled by the ad tracking firm Advertising Analytics.

The edge is bolstering Democrats’ hopes they can regain the Senate majority, with a net gain of at least three seats needed to flip the chamber. It’s also allowing candidates to better tailor their messages to voters they want to reach in the waning days, rather than depending on ad makers hired by well-financed outside groups, which are barred by federal law from coordinating with the campaigns.

The campaign has complete control over the message funded by its own war chest, said Travis Ridout, a professor of government at Washington State University who studies political ads.

Photo by Micah Green/Bloomberg
South Carolina Senate candidate Jaime Harrison (D) raised a record $57 million in the third quarter.

Messages from super PACs and other spending groups, which can accept unlimited contributions but must operate independently, can be out of sync with what a candidate wants to talk about, Ridout said. In addition, he said, candidates are legally entitled to the lowest TV ad rates at a time when rates reportedly are increasing due to competition in media markets with tight races.

Democratic media consultant Martha McKenna said candidates can still put money to good use with the election less than three weeks away and can expand their creativity. She noted that Kelly and Jaime Harrison (D), who raised $57 million last quarter for his race in South Carolina, are now running longer 60-second TV spots “with a positive emotional appeal.”

“There’s a lot of television time to buy down the stretch,” she said.

More Races in Play

Democrats are relying heavily on small-dollar contributions raised through the online platform ActBlue. The campaign money is helping Democrats put more Senate races in play, including in Alaska, Georgia, Iowa, and Kansas.

It’s being buttressed by outside help from Democratic-allied groups that raise millions in high-dollar contributions from wealthy supporters and several unions. Democratic-aligned Senate Majority PAC announced Thursday its first spending in Texas, an $8.6 million TV buy.

When spending by outside groups is added in, pro-Democratic ad airings in Senate races totaled some 456,000 through Oct. 13, 47% more than the 309,000 pro-Republican airings, according to Advertising Analytics data.

“Democrats have been shattering fundraising records to flip Senate seats all cycle because of the unprecedented motivation at the grassroots level to hold Republican incumbents accountable and end Mitch McConnell’s majority,” Stewart Boss, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said in an email.

In South Carolina, where Democrats have their best chance in decades to win a Senate race, Harrison’s haul was nearly $20 million more than any Senate candidate had ever raised in a quarter. Despite the state’s red hue, his profile increased among donors because he’s running against Lindsey Graham (R), a close ally of President Donald Trump.

Graham is also chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is currently considering the Supreme Court nomination of Amy Coney Barrett. That high profile worked both ways — Graham’s campaign said Wednesday the senator raised $28 million in the third quarter.

Harrison’s cash edge led to a nearly 2-to-1 lead in TV advertising over Graham. He’s aired more than 42,000 spots since Sept. 1, compared to less than 24,000 for Graham, according to Advertising Analytics. Outside groups have aired more than 10,000 spots, divided roughly evenly between those favoring Graham and Harrison.

Photo by Sarah Silbiger/Bloomberg
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) pauses during the Supreme Court confirmation hearing Thursday.

Spending the Money

Harrison’s campaign said it will use its unprecedented haul for more than TV ads.

“We’re investing every dollar donated immediately into our unprecedented digital organizing program, historic investment in African American communication and outreach, as well as funding in seven media markets,” campaign manager Zack Carroll said in an emailed statement. Those markets include broadcast stations in North Carolina and Georgia that reach viewers in South Carolina.

Graham commented on being outraised during remarks at the Barrett hearing. He said it brought him closer to Democrats such as fellow Judiciary member Sheldon Whitehouse(D-R.I.) on the problems with the Supreme Court case that opened the door for unlimited corporate money in campaigns.

“Me and you are going to get closer and closer on regulating money,” he told Whitehouse. “I can tell you there is a lot of money being raised in this campaign, and I’d like to know where the hell some of it’s coming from.”

Brian Walsh, a Republican consultant and former staffer for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said “it’s not necessarily conceivable” that Harrison could spend all the campaign money he’s collected.

“That being said,” Walsh said in an email, “the Democrats’ fundraising numbers highlight a longer-term problem that Republicans will have to address.” GOP candidates need to be more competitive raising small-dollar donations online, he said.

“It should also be a huge wake-up call to the Republican grassroots that donating $5 or $10 is arguably more important to winning races than venting on social media,” Walsh said.

McKenna said some Senate candidates may look for ways to help other down-ballot candidates with joint mailings and voter mobilization activities. Voter mobilization is different this year due to increased early voting and voting by mail, so candidates “can use the money to experiment and innovate during this extended voting period,” she said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kenneth P. Doyle in Washington at kdoyle@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com; Kyle Trygstad at ktrygstad@bgov.com

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