The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion McConnell’s PACs put money where Trump’s mouth is

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Capitol Hill on Sept. 28 in D.C. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

If Republicans take back the Senate next Tuesday, thank Mitch McConnell.

Through his super PAC, the Senate Leadership Fund (SLF), and other affiliated groups, the Republican leader has led an extraordinary, quarter-of-a-billion-dollar effort to rescue struggling Trump-backed Senate candidates — while the former president sits on a $92 million war chest and spends almost none of it.

McConnell-aligned super PACs — including SLF, American Crossroads and Faith & Power PAC — have invested a whopping $238 million so far in seven key Senate races. How much has Donald Trump spent? He has raised an eye-watering $161 million this election cycle. But his super PAC, Make America Great Again, Inc., has spent a grand total of … $14.8 million on Senate races. To put that in perspective, MAGA Inc.’s total spending across the country is less than McConnell-aligned PACs have spent in any individual race in which they are engaged.

So, while Trump issues Truth Social missives attacking McConnell and his wife, he is quietly depending on the “Old Crow” to bail out the candidates he endorsed — and on whom Senate control now depends.

Follow Marc A. Thiessen's opinionsFollow

Take Ohio, where Trump’s endorsement helped J.D. Vance win the Republican nomination for the Senate seat being vacated by Rob Portman (R). After Labor Day, Vance was in deep trouble. His second quarter FEC report showed he had just over $600,000 cash on hand, and significant primary debt. He was statistically tied in a race for a seat that Portman had won by more than 20 points. His Democratic opponent, Rep. Tim Ryan, was driving up Vance’s negatives — and he had no money to respond.

McConnell-affiliated PACs stepped in big time. They spent $32 million supporting Vance, who has managed to raise just $6.9 million on his own — compared with $44 million raised by his opponent. Thanks to McConnell’s help, Vance has eked out a 2.3-point lead in the FiveThirtyEight average — far behind Ohio’s Republican Gov. Mike DeWine, who is leading his Democratic opponent by 19 points and thus requires no massive super PAC bailout.

How much has Trump spent to help Vance? A lousy $2.3 million — a pittance in a state with several expensive media markets. If Vance pulls out a victory, he will have McConnell to thank.

The same is true in North Carolina, where Trump’s endorsement helped Rep. Ted Budd secure the GOP nomination over more mainstream candidates. McConnell-aligned PACs have spent almost $38 million supporting Budd, who holds a 3.2-point lead in the FiveThirtyEight average.

Trump has spent nothing in the Tar Heel state.

In Pennsylvania, Trump-backed nominee Mehmet Oz was trailing Democrat John Fetterman in every poll. McConnell-aligned PACs swung into action, spending nearly $57 million, which has helped Oz cut Fetterman’s lead to less than one point.

Trump has spent a measly $3.4 million.

In Wisconsin, Sen. Ron Johnson (R) was trailing his Democratic opponent Mandela Barnes in almost every poll in September. McConnell-aligned PACs have spent $24 million helping Johnson reverse his fortunes and open up a four-point lead.

Trump has spent nothing to help one of his most loyal Senate supporters.

McConnell’s first responsibility was to defend territory the GOP already held in these four states. Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Wisconsin were always going to be expensive fights. But the $32 million McConnell’s PACs has had to spend in Ohio to rescue Vance has siphoned critical resources away from efforts to widen the electoral map and flip Democratic seats.

As a result, SLF has had to make difficult choices about where to invest. McConnell’s team decided to devote $38 million to Georgia to help Herschel Walker — whom McConnell also endorsed in the Republican primary — regain a seat that had been previously held by Republicans. (Trump has spent just $3.4 million there.) They invested another $25.5 million in Nevada to help Adam Laxalt, whom McConnell also supported in his primary. (Trump has spent just $1.95 million.) They also invested $16 million early on in New Hampshire to help pro-Trump candidate Don Bolduc unseat vulnerable Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan (Trump has spent nothing), but had to pull out to divert resources to other tight races.

If the Republicans’ Senate candidate in Ohio had a 19-point lead like their gubernatorial candidate, McConnell-aligned PACs would have had another $32 million to spend in places such as Arizona, where Trump’s handpicked nominee Blake Masters is trailing the well-funded and popular Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly. (Trump has spent just $3.6 million there.) But Republicans fell just short in the past two Senate cycles in Arizona, and Georgia and Nevada seemed like more promising investments. They could have stayed in New Hampshire, or supported surprise insurgents such as Tiffany Smiley in deep-blue Washington state, where she’s running an unexpectedly strong race against Democratic incumbent Patty Murray. Bailing out Vance has had a high opportunity cost — forcing McConnell’s team to spend money on defense that could have been spent on offense.

Another difference between Trump and McConnell: McConnell-linked groups have been on the air since August. MAGA Inc. did not even begin booking airtime until October. McConnell was backing Trump’s candidates early, while Trump provided too little, too late.

It’s possible that Tuesday will see a red wave so powerful that it will sweep all these Republicans into office. But if Republicans fall short, it will be because Trump chose weak candidates who needed massive outside support — and then failed to support them. If the GOP does take back the Senate, it will be because McConnell-aligned PACs saved Trump’s nominees — something they should remember when they take their oaths on Jan. 3.