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‘It’s a rip-off’: GOP spending under fire as Senate hopefuls seek rescue

A cash crunch at campaigns and the NRSC set off a panic as GOP candidates emerged from bruising primaries playing catch-up in polls and advertising

Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill on Aug. 2, 2022. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Republican Senate hopefuls are getting crushed on airwaves across the country while their national campaign fund is pulling ads and running low on cash — leading some campaign advisers to ask where all the money went and to demand an audit of the committee’s finances, according to Republican strategists involved in the discussions.

In a highly unusual move, the National Republican Senatorial Committee this week canceled bookings worth about $10 million, including in the critical states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Arizona. A spokesman said the NRSC is not abandoning those races but prioritizing ad spots that are shared with campaigns and benefit from discounted rates. Still, the cancellations forfeit cheaper prices that came from booking early, and better budgeting could have covered both.

“The fact that they canceled these reservations was a huge problem — you can’t get them back,” said one Senate Republican strategist, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters. “You can’t win elections if you don’t have money to run ads.”

The NRSC’s retreat came after months of touting record fundraising, topping $173 million so far this election cycle, according to Federal Election Commission disclosures. But the committee has burned through nearly all of it, with the NRSC’s cash on hand dwindling to $28.4 million by the end of June.

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As of that month, the committee disclosed spending just $23 million on ads, with more than $21 million going into text messages and more than $12 million to American Express credit card payments, whose ultimate purpose isn’t clear from the filings. The committee also spent at least $13 million on consultants, $9 million on debt payments and more than $7.9 million renting mailing lists, campaign finance data show.

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“If they were a corporation, the CEO would be fired and investigated,” said a national Republican consultant working on Senate races. “The way this money has been burned, there needs to be an audit or investigation because we’re not gonna take the Senate now and this money has been squandered. It’s a rip-off.”

The NRSC’s chairman, Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, has already taken heat from fellow Republicans for running ads featuring him on camera and releasing his own policy agenda that became a Democratic punching bag — leading to jokes that “NRSC” stood for “National Rick Scott Committee” in a bid to fuel his own presumed presidential ambitions.

Other spending decisions, such as putting about $1 million total into reliably blue Colorado and Washington earlier this month sparked fresh questions after the committee turned around and canceled buys in core battlegrounds.

The NRSC invested heavily in expanding its digital fundraising and building up its database of small-dollar donors. But online giving to Republicans, not just the NRSC, sagged earlier this year from what consultants said was a combination of inflation, changes to Facebook advertising policies, concerns about emails caught in spam filters, and complacency with an anticipated Republican wave. Some Republicans also suspect former president Donald Trump’s relentless fundraising pitches and cash hoarding has exhausted the party’s online donor base.

The NRSC still has tens of millions of dollars in reserved airtime, and its next filing, which covers the month of July and is due to the FEC on Saturday, will show millions more in ad spending. The group said its total spending on TV so far topped $40 million. On Friday the NRSC said it added more than $4 million of airtime across Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Arizona.

“Our goal was to keep our candidates afloat and get them to this point where they’re still in the game in all our top states,” NRSC spokesman Chris Hartline said. “So when the big spending starts now we have a fighting chance.”

That big spending is coming from a super PAC aligned with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), which this week announced a whopping $28 million rescue effort in Ohio, where Republican candidate J.D. Vance raised a dismal $1 million in the second quarter and has spent less than $400,000 on ads.

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The super PAC, known as the Senate Leadership Fund, also moved up by three weeks its spending in Pennsylvania and added $9.5 million there, for a total of $34 million. Recent surveys show the Keystone State’s Senate race drifting toward Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman over the Republican nominee, celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz.

McConnell himself acknowledged the challenge of reclaiming the chamber’s majority, telling reporters in Kentucky on Thursday that the House was likelier to flip. “Candidate quality has a lot to do with the outcome,” he said, according to NBC News, a comment that was widely viewed as a swipe at some of the primary winners and their lagging fundraising performance.

The NRSC opted not to pick favorites in this year’s primary contests, a break from the past decade when the committee worked to avoid out-of-the-mainstream nominees who cost the party wins in 2010 and 2012. Many of this year’s Republican candidates haven’t run for office before and emerged from nasty, expensive primaries that left their favorable ratings underwater. A string of recent polls showed Republican candidates in many battlegrounds trailing or in a dead heat with well-funded Democratic opponents.

Democrats are outspending Republicans by more than double in the Arizona Senate race; by almost two-to-one in Nevada and by four-to-one in Ohio, according to the media tracking firm AdImpact. Republicans are also being outspent by about $14 million in Georgia.

“Everything came together at once, and everyone woke up like, ‘Oh my God,’” said one Republican consultant. “It’s been an absolutely disastrous two weeks for GOP Senate stuff on all fronts.”

After The Washington Post discussed this story with the NRSC on Friday, five Senate campaigns reached out to praise the committee’s help.

“They are focused on bringing the fight to the Democrats everyday,” said Gail Gitcho with Herschel Walker’s campaign in Georgia. “Whoever says otherwise is nuts.”

Zack Roday with Joe O’Dea’s Senate campaign in Colorado added, “The NRSC has been a great partner, everything we’ve asked for.”

Democrats point to signs of a newly energized base and a national political environment that is, at the very least, less bad for them. The party in power typically loses ground in midterms.

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JB Poersch, president of the main Democratic Senate super PAC, pointed to the Jan. 6 hearings, recent mass shootings, the Inflation Reduction Act and the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade as changing the dynamics in the past two months.

“It’s surprising and says a lot about the Republican brand that their candidates have struggled to raise money,” Poersch said. “With extreme candidates and extreme positions, maybe Republican donors are finding these candidates are out of step with where they are. Maybe voters are feeling the same way.”

Vance’s disappointing financial report touched off new urgency for air support from the McConnell-aligned super PAC, a person familiar with the planning said. The size of the buy reflects the expense of advertising statewide in Ohio with its multiple media markets, and that Republicans view the state as both winnable and as a must-win. An affiliated nonprofit known as One Nation is spending an additional $3.8 million to help Vance against his Democratic rival, Rep. Tim Ryan.

Several public polls recently showed Ryan leading, and internal Republican surveys found Vance with an even bigger deficit, according to people familiar with the findings.

A Vance campaign adviser rejected suggestions that the super PAC’s intervention showed weakness, saying the race was always going to be competitive.

“If the Washington punditry thinks Trump won the state by 8 so it should be a slam dunk, they’re sorely mistaken,” the adviser said, referring to Trump’s margin of victory in Ohio in 2020. “Them putting money in this race shows they believe this is a race they can win.”

Vance benefited in the primary from about $10 million by an allied super PAC funded by technology billionaire Peter Thiel. But people involved in the race said it’s unclear whether Thiel, whose style in the past has been to invest early and then bow out, will put money behind Vance in the general election. Thiel also funded the Arizona Senate bid of Republican nominee Blake Masters, his former employee.

A spokesman for Thiel declined to comment.

The Senate Leadership Fund, which typically expands spending in the final stretch after Labor Day, finished June with more than $100 million in the bank. Starting in September, the PAC has reserved $14.4 million in Arizona, $37.1 million in Georgia, $15.1 million in Nevada, $27.6 million in North Carolina, $15.2 million in Wisconsin and $7.4 million in Alaska.

Michael Scherer contributed to this report.

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