GOP outside groups poured heavily into the race — a reliable Republican district that President Trump carried by 20 points in 2016. Conservative super PACs and party committees spent about $10.7 million to boost GOP candidate Rick Saccone and make up for his lackluster fundraising, but Democrat Conor Lamb maintained a narrow lead Wednesday as the final ballots were being tallied.
“In our view, one of the most urgent takeaways from PA-18 special election is that a candidate who underperforms in fundraising will underperform on Election Day,” said Steven Law, the super PAC’s president and a former chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), in an interview Wednesday. “Outside groups can help make up the difference, but if the candidate doesn’t have the resources to make their own case to the voters, no outside groups can do that for them.”
Direct contributions give campaigns more control, since the money is given specifically to that candidate. Donors get a bigger bang for their buck when it comes to advertising, since outside groups like super PACs pay a higher advertising rate than candidate campaigns. But direct contributions are capped at a certain amount, while outside groups can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money for a variety of candidates.
The outcome of the Pennsylvania race “crystallizes the challenge that I think Republicans also face on the Senate side, where the financial gap between Democratic and Republican Senate candidates is growing at this stage, and it should be shrinking. So it’s an area of our intense focus,” Law said.
To help close the gap, the Senate Leadership Fund is making a concentrated push asking major donors to give to the candidates directly and start giving early in the cycle.
When the super PAC previously made solicitations for direct candidate support on a more ad hoc basis, it generated more than $100,000 per candidate, officials said. Now, the group plans make such solicitations throughout the cycle.
Senate Leadership Fund officials declined to name specific candidates they’re prioritizing but said they are focusing on high-priority Republican incumbents and states with competitive Democratic candidates.
Donors on the left increasingly are injecting money directly into the fight to win back Congress, and Democrats are dominating the fundraising race for Senate seats — even in states that President Trump carried in 2016 by double digits.
The Democratic fervor in recent special elections is substantial, Law said, adding that “Republicans are going to have to be on their A-game to win, even in states and districts where we ought to have a natural advantage.”
The most vulnerable Democratic incumbents in the five states that Trump carried by 19 points or more — Missouri, Indiana, Montana, North Dakota and West Virginia — are vastly outraising their Republican challengers. In Missouri, for example, Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill raised more than $11 million in 2017, far outpacing the roughly $2 million raised by Republican challenger Josh Hawley, Federal Election Commission filings show.
In three of those five states — Montana, Indiana and West Virginia — Republicans are competing in open primaries. By engaging donors earlier in the fundraising cycle, Republicans will be positioned to make a stronger push in the general election, Law said.
“We’re going to be poised to push hard into this when these primaries are settled, assuming there’s a candidate who can close the sale in the general election,” Law said.