The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats more hopeful in midterms — but brace for GOP spending surge

With primaries nearing the end, the stage is set for a nail-biter of a campaign for control of Congress

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) meets with supporters after speaking on abortion rights during an event July 1 in Las Vegas. (John Locher/AP)

With Nevada gas prices close to $5 a gallon and President Biden’s approval rating in the state at 33 percent, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto has relied on a massive early advertising blitz this summer to keep her edge — relentlessly reintroducing herself to voters and hammering her GOP opponent Adam Laxalt for his connections to Big Oil.

It’s a trick that Senate Democrats have been using across the country, even before recent legislative breakthroughs in Washington that will probably give them more accomplishments to run on. In state after state, Democrats have been putting to work their enormous financial advantages to define their Republican opponents in the mind of voters, despite an unpopular president and historic economic head winds.

But strategists for both parties expect the dynamic to shift now that primary campaigns have all but concluded, as Republicans seek to recover from brutal intraparty fights and begin to close the gap in spending — setting up what all expect to be a nail-biter of a fall campaign over the fate of a 50-50 Senate and the prospect of a new governing majority for Republicans in the House.

Laxalt — a former state attorney general whose side has been outspent nearly 3-to-1 in television and radio advertising so far — is expected to narrow the edge to 2-to-1 in the final months of the campaign, according to Republican data on reservations and spending reviewed by The Washington Post.

“No matter how many dishonest commercials she runs, Sen. Masto cannot buy the hearts and minds of voters of Nevada voters struggling under the economy she wrecked,” Laxalt said in a statement Tuesday.

The assertion comes after a surprisingly rocky Republican start. Democrats have benefited from deep scars lingering from the Republican primaries, uneven candidate performance, poor fundraising and a late recent burst in Democratic donor and voter enthusiasm after the Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to abortion.

Public polling averages and internal numbers from both parties suggest Democrats are slightly leading or effectively tied in nearly all of the contested Senate races. The marked exception is Pennsylvania, where Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D) has pulled into a clear lead over celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz. Another pivotal Senate race was teed up in Tuesday’s primary in Wisconsin, with victories by incumbent Sen. Ron Johnson (R) and challenger Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes (D).

Gas prices have fallen from their peak, jobs numbers have beat expectations, covid fears are easing, and Democrats are on the verge of breaking an intraparty stalemate on legislation to lower federal spending on prescription drugs and better respond to climate change. Polling averages have also seen Democrats reclaim parity on the question of which party voters want to support in the congressional elections, after losing the edge last November amid the rise in coronavirus infections.

But the underlying dynamics of the midterm election remain, with a recession still looming as a possibility, a jittery stock market and continued inflation growth that the Federal Reserve has said it will continue to treat with ever-higher interest rates. The sitting president’s party has lost House seats in every midterm election since 2002, when President George W. Bush rallied the country in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Senate contests, however, are historically less dependent on the national environment, often playing out as personality contests between candidates who are able to spend significantly on advertising in their states. In the 2018 elections, when Republicans suffered a rout in the House, they picked up two Senate seats.

GOP fears that Democrats might be the ones to buck the trends this year are anchored in part in the competitive map, which is largely being fought in states with well-funded Democratic incumbents and relatively inexperienced GOP challengers. Republican Senate candidates in Arizona, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Ohio are all running their first races against more far experienced Democratic politicians, with records that have already been vetted by voters.

Each of those Republican candidates won contested primaries with the help of former president Donald Trump, who continues to loom large over the contest and has privately threatened to declare a 2024 presidential campaign this fall, possibly disrupting the campaigns further. The federal search warrant executed on his Mar-a-Lago home, as part of investigation into improperly handled federal documents, has the potential to further drive Republican turnout in November.

But Trump’s preference for political newcomers has opened them up to a barrage of negative press in recent weeks — Herschel Walker in Georgia for his violent past and often meandering public performances; Oz in Pennsylvania for living until recently in New Jersey; J.D. Vance in Ohio for controversial comments including the downsides of divorce even in violent marriages; and Blake Masters in Arizona for his extreme college writings and recent endorsement of Social Security privatization.

The ad spending disparity has also been stark. In New Hampshire, Democrats enjoy a 2-to-1 advantage in total advertising spending and reservations made so far. In Arizona, the campaign of Sen. Mark Kelly (D) ended June having spent nearly nine times as much as Masters’s campaign, who endured $9 million in negative advertising through the GOP primary, according to federal records and ad tracking. Kelly reported $25 million in the bank, compared with Masters’ $1.5 million.

The same dynamic has developed in Ohio, where Rep. Tim Ryan (D) has spent $18 million on his Senate campaign through the end of June, compared with just $3 million by Vance, who was beaten up in his primary by Republican rivals. In Georgia, where Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) has so far spent more than five times as much as Walker on advertising, Republicans have reserved $49 million in spending for the rest of the Senate cycle, compared with $68 million for Democrats.

In Pennsylvania — where Oz was blistered by about $20 million in attack ads during the primary while Fetterman skated by with hardly a scratch — Republicans expect to fight on the airwaves with something closer to parity in the fall. About $41 million has been reserved by Democratic Senate interests and $33 million reserved by Republicans.

In all those races, television and radio reservations show Republican spending increasing in proportion to Democratic spending in the final months of the campaign.

“Democrat incumbents have supported Joe Biden and his disastrous agenda 100 percent of the time, while Democrat challengers have embraced radical positions,” National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Chris Hartline said of his party’s message against Biden and Democratic policies. “Voters are about to hear a lot more about it.”

Republicans still appear well-suited to reclaim House control, given the tendency of those races to follow the national mood, though even there Democrats have become more hopeful.

“What’s clear is that we were counted out and now we’re coming back,” Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in an interview with The Post. “What you’re seeing is that the Republicans have their eggs in one basket: Counting on things being terrible. But the bad news for the for the MAGA crowd is that our country is making progress.”

Democrats make little secret of their plans to further define the candidates in the coming month by dredging up other episodes from their past.

“I feel like any Republican candidate that we are running against has a story that is being told in the earned media,” JB Poersch, the head of the Senate Majority PAC, said of his party’s efforts to research and share the backstories of their opponents. “A lot of it is out there. But some of it is not.”

In one stark example, an ad released this week by the Republican Accountability Project, a group criticizing some Republican candidates, featured footage from Walker’s ex-wife describing him holding a gun to her head and threatening to “blow my brains out.”

“The key dynamic especially in Senate races is this economy, which is one of the great Republican-favoring election cycles in history, and a group of candidates who are struggling to get into fighting shape,” said one Republican Senate strategist who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly about his party’s prospects. “At this point, I have tempered enthusiasm.”

Nonetheless, Democrats expect the polls to tighten in the coming months, as voters tune into races and spending moves closer to parity.

“We anticipate that every one of our battleground races will be extremely tight,” the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s communications director, David Bergstein, said. “Democrats will need more resources to combat the upcoming wave of GOP spending and define our opponents.”

In Nevada, Cortez Masto got a jump-start on Laxalt, who has struggled to raise money at the same clip. Her campaign has already spent more on ads than the $7.1 million Laxalt has reserved for the entire cycle, with reservations indicating she plans to spend at least $21 million in total.

“Nevadans rejected Adam Laxalt last time because he’s a corrupt politician who’s out for himself, and since then he’s gone on to make nearly $3 million working for a longtime DC lobbyist,” her spokesman, Josh Marcus-Blank, said in a statement, referring to the Republican’s failed 2018 gubernatorial bid.

But Laxalt will be getting help in the form of more than $16 million from the Senate Leadership Fund, a Republican-backing group, later this year, according to the filings. Candidate money goes further in television advertising than outside group spending, because federal law requires stations to charge lower rates to politicians.

Despite the mismatched budgets, Republicans remain bullish on picking up Nevada, with several strategists listing it as the most winnable of the contested seats with Democratic incumbents.

“If you want to look at a race where Democratic spending should set off alarm bells it is Nevada. Cortez Masto has been pouring in money there and she is not going anywhere,” said Steven Law, the head of the Senate Leadership Fund. “It has been a margin-of-error race when she wasn’t spending. And it is a margin-of-error race now.”

The 2022 Midterm Elections

Georgia runoff election: A runoff between Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) and Republican challenger Herschel Walker on Dec. 6 will cap a turbulent election year. Here’s how the runoff will work and what triggered it.

Divided government: Republicans narrowly won back control of the House, while Democrats will keep control of the Senate, creating a split Congress.

What the results mean for 2024: A Republican Party red wave seems to be a ripple after Republicans fell short in the Senate and narrowly won control in the House. Donald Trump announced his 2024 presidential campaign on Tuesday, experts helped us game out what would happen if he wins again.