Red State Super PAC Ads Illuminate Wide Competitive Senate Map

  • South Carolina’s Graham bolstered by a surge of late ads
  • Group linked to McConnell aiding embattled GOP senators

South Carolina’s airwaves this week are awash with ads promoting Sen. Lindsey Graham thanks in part to an influx of contributions from prominent Republican donors eager to keep the party’s Senate losses to a minimum.

With the majority on the line, the three-term incumbent and his allies were set to spend some $13 million for TV ads in the week before Election Day in South Carolina, which President Donald Trump won in 2016 by 14 percentage points. That’s $3 million more than Democrat Jaime Harrison — the first Senate candidate in history to top $100 million in fundraising — and the groups supporting him, according the ad tracking firm Advertising Analytics.

Graham’s one of several embattled Republicans in traditionally red states being thrown a lifeline from Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) that raised $142 million from Sept. 1 to Oct. 14.

In addition to South Carolina, some of its largest recent TV expenditures filed to the Federal Election Commission have gone toward defending seats in Alaska, Georgia, Iowa, and Kansas, as well as to seats in Arizona, Maine, and North Carolina, long seen as among the party’s most vulnerable. It’s also on offense in Michigan, where Sen. Gary Peters (D) faces a strong challenge from John James (R).

Democratic consultant Martha McKenna said where the late GOP super PAC money is being spent is a sign of how difficult it will be for Republicans to hold the majority this year.

“When his super PAC has to bail out his candidate in South Carolina, things are real bad for McConnell,” she said in an email.

A Senate Leadership Fund ad airing in South Carolina

The GOP hopes the late cash surge will help its candidates counter record-breaking fundraising by Democratic challengers, who raised more than twice as much as Republicans across the 14 battleground races in the most recent fundraising reports filed last week. Democrats would need a net gain of three seats to control the Senate if Joe Biden defeats Trump, or four if Trump is re-elected.

But the latest effort is coming late in the game — after tens of millions have already been spent on messaging and as many voters have already cast their ballot.

“There’s no question that Republicans are facing a green wave of spending and advertising from the left, but the situation would be far worse if SLF was not there to help counter it,” said Republican consultant Brian Walsh, a former communications director at the National Republican Senatorial Committee. The super PAC was critical to helping Senate Republicans win the majority in 2014 and preserving Senate control since then, he added.

Meanwhile, Senate Majority PAC, the super PAC aligned with Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), reported a $3.9 million media buy in Texas on Tuesday — a week before the election — further illustrating the scope of the competitive landscape. That brought its total spending this year to $9 million in the Lone Star State, which hasn’t elected a Democratic senator since 1988.

Nathan Gonzales, editor of the nonpartisan Inside Elections, said Monday on Bloomberg Government’s Downballot Counts podcast that Trump’s low standing in the polls hurt GOP Senate candidates across the board and produced “an expanded Senate map” for Democrats that includes states as traditionally Republican as Texas and South Carolina.

“Because the president is under-performing his own 2016 totals by 5, 7, 10, even 12 points depending on the state, that opens the possibilities for Democrats,” Gonzales said.

Late Surge

Democratic Senate candidates have raised far more than Republicans, but Republicans had an advantage of about $20 million in cash on hand in the final days of the campaign when combining candidate and super PAC money.

The McConnell-aligned super PAC had $69.2 million in cash on hand to spend for the final 20 days before the election. That’s more than three times as much as the $19.2 million held by Senate Majority PAC. The largest Republican donor over the past six weeks was Kenneth Griffin, founder of the Citadel Investment Group hedge fund, who gave $25 million. The Democrats’ was another hedge fund manager, James Simons of Renaissance Technologies, who gave $3 million.

McKenna noted that candidates are legally required to receive lower ad rates, so their campaign dollars go further in TV spending than outside groups’. “Democrats will more than hold their own down the stretch” in campaign ads, 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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