Two years ago, Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown -- and their various and sundry allies and enemies -- combined to spend $82 million in the Massachusetts Senate race, making it the most expensive Senate race ever. Now, that eye-popping record is in serious jeopardy thanks to the massive cash coming in for this November's race between Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell and Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.
"I think there is absolutely a chance that the Kentucky race ends up costing more than $100 million," said Billy Piper, a former McConnell chief of staff and now a lobbyist in Washington. (Nota bene: I wrote a column about Kentucky being the first $100 million Senate race a year ago.)
The new fundraising numbers by the two sides -- detailing contributions from April 1 through June 30 -- tell the story.
Grimes brought in $4 million over those 90 days, breaking the previous fundraising record for a quarter (held by -- you guessed it -- Mitch McConnell!) by more than $1 million. For the race so far, Grimes has raised $11 million. For his part, McConnell raked in $3.1 million in the 2nd quarter, bringing his total fundraising for the race to $25 million. As the Lexington Herald Leader's indispensable Sam Youngman notes, McConnell has now broken the record for most money -- $20 million -- raised for a Kentucky Senate race, a record -- wait for it -- that he held. (McConnell spent $20 million in his victory over Bruce Lunsford in 2008.)
That's $36 million raised by just the two candidates. And, there are still five full months before Election Day!
Figuring out how much more the two candidates can and will raise is tough. McConnell, knowing this is his political life at stake, seems likely to eclipse $30 million total for the race and, even more likely, $35 million. It's tough to find a direct analog to set expectations for what Grimes can or should raise. In 2010, Sharron Angle raised $28 million in her challenge to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. That number might be high but somewhere between $20 million and $25 million raised for the race is not out of the question for Grimes.
Do the math and the floor for candidate spending is $50 million with the ceiling at $60 million. That number doesn't include any personal money either candidate puts into the race; in 2008, McConnell dropped $2 million of his own on the contest. (I continue to believe the total candidate fundraising could go higher but for now let's err on the conservative side.)
Now consider the amount that both national parties will spend. McConnell, as leader of the Republican party in the Senate, is also the de facto chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. And, when the top-ranking Republican is threatened, the NRSC spends whatever it takes to help him. Take the lack of real pickup opportunities for Senate Democrats and combine that with how the party's base loathes McConnell and you can bet that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee will spare no expense to help Grimes. Let's say that's good for another $15 million of spending between the two national party committees.
Splitting the difference between the ceiling and floor in candidate spending -- $55 million -- and adding in the national party committees, you now have a $70 million price tag for the race. (That would tie Kentucky for the second most expensive Senate race ever; the 2000 battle between Rick Lazio and Hillary Clinton cost the same amount. Check out our list of the five most expensive Senate races ever here.)
Then comes the spending by outside groups on the ideological left and right. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, $9.3 million has already been spent by outside groups in Kentucky this cycle. (That's the third highest total -- behind only the North Carolina and Mississippi Senate races.) Both Grimes and McConnell have super PACs formed for the race -- McConnell's has been more successful in collecting cash so far -- and you can be sure that any outside group looking to make a splash will choose to spend some -- or maybe a lot -- in what is without question the most high profile Senate race in the country. If outside groups spend just $3 million more between now and November, the price tag -- in our calculation -- eclipses $82 million.
There's no sure things in politics (just ask Eric Cantor). But, all signs point to Kentucky vaulting into the history books as the most expensive ever. Somewhere TV station owners in Kentucky are giving each other high fives.