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GOP sees path to Senate majority via Nevada and Georgia amid spending boost

Republicans are catching up in money and polls during the final weeks of the midterm campaign

Georgia Republican Senate candidate Herschel Walker, at a campaign stop with former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, is running neck-and-neck with Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

Republicans are zeroing in on a path to win the Senate by picking up Democratic-held seats in Nevada and Georgia, regaining their footing after panicking this summer over far-right nominees and lags in fundraising and advertising.

But the GOP is largely still playing catch-up, as recent surveys show their candidates improving but still trailing in key states, including Pennsylvania and Georgia. And the relief has come at a high cost, borne mostly by a super PAC aligned with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) that has to pay higher prices than official campaigns to advertise on television stations.

“I’ve definitely seen tightening since Labor Day in most every state I’m involved in,” said Brent Buchanan, president of Cygnal, a Republican polling firm. “The Democrats have maxed out all their opportunities. The question now becomes: Can Republicans close enough of the gap?”

Operatives in both parties are dreading the prospect that control of the Senate could again be decided by a runoff in Georgia, as in 2021. The state requires the winning candidate to clear 50 percent, with a runoff in December if neither candidate exceeds that hurdle. A Fox News poll taken in the past week found incumbent Democratic Sen. Raphael G. Warnock leading Republican challenger Herschel Walker 46 percent to 41 percent.

At a private fundraiser Sept. 20 in Washington for J.D. Vance, the Republican Senate nominee in Ohio, McConnell was asked how he sized up the races that will decide control of the chamber. The Senate minority leader said he expected the GOP to hold on to Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, and named Nevada and Georgia as the best pickup opportunities, according to people present.

Publicly, too, McConnell is sounding more bullish about reclaiming the majority. Speaking to reporters in the Capitol on Wednesday, he put the odds at 50-50 — a distinct tonal shift from August when he warned the GOP was more likely to take the House and lamented the quality of candidates Republican voters had nominated in some key races.

“We’re in a bunch of close races,” he said. “It’s going to be really, really close either way, in my view.”

McConnell didn’t name North Carolina at the Vance event, but allies said he is comfortable with Republican Ted Budd’s chances there against Democrat Cheri Beasley. Conspicuously absent from his list was Arizona, where Republican nominee Blake Masters has lagged behind well-funded incumbent Democrat Mark Kelly.

The GOP’s retreat from Arizona was underscored that same week when the Senate Leadership Fund, the McConnell-aligned super PAC, said it was canceling reservations there worth $9.6 million. The PAC’s chief executive, Steven Law, said other Republican groups were stepping in to offset that, pointing to $7.5 million booked by others.

McConnell also held a recent fundraiser for Masters in Washington, where the candidate said his campaign needed to raise $2 million to be in good shape, according to an attendee. The Masters campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

The Senate Leadership Fund has pumped $68.9 million into nine races since Labor Day, according to data from AdImpact, a media tracking company. After getting outspent in competitive races over the summer, Republicans have since Labor Day taken the spending lead on the airwaves in all of the most hotly contested races except for New Hampshire and Arizona, AdImpact’s data shows.

“We remain optimistic that the issue environment is in our favor, we have multiple pathways to obtain the majority, and we are spending heavily and strategically to achieve that goal,” Law said.

Democrats also view Georgia and Nevada as key, while projecting confidence about John Fetterman’s lead over Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania. They’ve expressed relief that their incumbents in Arizona and New Hampshire are facing Republican candidates who have struggled. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), the current chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said he’s pleased with the standing of Democratic candidates in all the key battlegrounds.

“I don’t know what they’re looking at that makes them more confident,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a former DSCC chair. “Everything I’m seeing indicates that Democrats remain on track to holding the Senate and maybe picking up two seats.”

The Republicans’ edge in advertising in most of the key states is slight; earlier, Democrats were beating their spending by margins of 2 to 1 or more. And based on current bookings tracked by AdImpact, Democrats are on track to retake the advantage in the remaining weeks until the election in Georgia, Nevada and Pennsylvania.

The dollar amounts also overstate the Republicans’ standing because of how broadcast ads are sold. Super PACs pay higher rates than campaign committees, and Democratic candidates have had more success with their own direct fundraising. Relying on the Senate Leadership Fund to make up the difference means Republicans are paying more to reach a smaller audience.

“We’re paying a significantly higher rate than what candidates pay, so a super PAC like SLF trying to pick up the tab for their candidates’ bad fundraising is kind of like lighting money on fire,” said J.B. Poersch, president of the main Democratic super PAC, the Senate Majority PAC.

In addition to their retreat in Arizona, Republicans suffered another setback in New Hampshire, where primary voters nominated election denier Don Bolduc over state Senate President Chuck Morse, the establishment choice aided by millions in super PAC spending in the final weeks. The Senate Leadership Fund hasn’t altered its plans to invest $23 million in New Hampshire, despite public polls showing Bolduc behind by as much as eight points.

The best GOP case for making a turnaround is in Wisconsin. Democrats outspent Republicans by a margin of $52 million to $32 million until the Aug. 9 primary, according to AdImpact, with a steady drumbeat of spots targeting incumbent GOP Sen. Ron Johnson. Since Labor Day, the pattern has reversed. Between Sept. 6 and Sept. 28, Republicans spent $22 million, compared with Democrats’ $15 million. Current reservations predict that the GOP will hold that advantage through Election Day, with $21 million booked for the GOP versus the Democrats’ $17 million. After consistently trailing in polling through mid-September, Johnson has since pulled ahead in several recent surveys.

The Republican advertising onslaught has focused on reframing the contest around crime. One ad slams Democratic nominee Madela Barnes, the state’s lieutenant governor, for supporting ending cash bail. Another shows him holding up a T-shirt that reads “Abolish I.C.E.,” a reference to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Another shows video of him saying “reducing prison populations is now sexy.” On the defensive, Barnes responded with ads showing a retired Racine police sergeant saying, “Mandela doesn’t want to defund the police.”

“The race shifted when the race became about Mandela Barnes,” said Chris LaCivita, a consultant for Johnson, who still considers the race close. “It’s not just about what he is saying. It’s on video.”

Democrats in the state agree that the recent GOP advertising advantage has shifted the race and are calling for more resources to fight back.

“The intensity of the Democratic side has to turn way up to make sure Johnson’s arm touches the table first,” Wisconsin Democratic Party Chair Ben Wikler said. “The counterpunch now is what will determine the race.”

In Nevada, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D) and Republican challenger Adam Laxalt remain locked in a toss-up even as the Senate Leadership Fund closes the spending gap between them. Republicans say their criticisms of Democrats’ handling of the economy are especially potent in Nevada, where inflation is high and where coronavirus-driven shutdowns hit hard in the tourism industry. They also point to polls showing them narrowing Democrats’ sizable lead with Latino voters in the swing state.

In September, Republicans slightly outspent Democrats in the Senate race, according to AdImpact — a shift from the summer. But Democrats’ broadcast spending still went further this month because their biggest advertiser was Cortez Masto’s campaign, which pays discounted rates. Despite the investments from the Senate Leadership Fund, Democrats are on track to outspend Republicans by about $51 million to $43 million from Sept. 1 through Election Day, according to AdImpact, and the advantage is even bigger using industry metrics for the ads’ reach.

Both parties are likely to continue tweaking their spending as they test where they find the most success moving the polls. But with a handful of states that both parties view as must-wins in an evenly divided chamber, they might be stuck pumping millions into ads that effectively cancel one another out.

“This is trench warfare in World War I,” a Republican consultant working on the midterms who spoke on the condition of anonymity said. “We keep sending out more spots and they keep sending out more spots, and we can’t stop sending out more spots or their spots will win. No big movement. Bloody, expensive trench warfare.”

Republican senators agreed that the conference’s mood had lifted in recent weeks, as polling has shown some races tightening. Given recent public surveys showing Republicans leading in Nevada, North Carolina and Ohio, some Republicans say Democrats peaked too early and blew through the edge they built up over the summer.

“I sense more optimism in him,” Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said of McConnell. He said the minority leader, whose stoicism often borders on gloomy, was worried in August about candidates who lacked political experience and who were not able to hit the ground running after winning their primaries.

“I think he has seen a lot of correction there,” Cramer said. “Nothing’s a layup, don’t get me wrong. It’s not like we’re measuring the carpet for Dr. Oz or anything.”

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) said McConnell’s “job is to always worry,” but that recent developments had brightened the mood. He cited Nevada and Wisconsin and others as races where Republicans have seen more positive signs. “The economic message, the concerns with crime are resonating, and that’s why we feel optimistic,” he said.

Speaking to reporters later, McConnell dodged a question about whether he still has concerns about the quality of Republican Senate candidates, saying only that it’s “great to have terrific candidates” in any election year, without specifying whether this year’s candidates are, in fact, terrific. In August, he named “candidate quality” as a factor in the party’s challenge in taking the Senate.

In a sign that vulnerable Democrats up for reelection are feeling the need to spend every last day before Nov. 8 on the campaign trail, Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer tabled a plan to bring senators back into session briefly in October to work on a Pentagon policy bill. Schumer reached a deal with Republicans to eliminate a minisession in mid-October to allow endangered incumbents to stay home and campaign. Rather than beginning debate on a Pentagon policy bill, a few senators will hold a perfunctory session for a couple of hours and allow the rest to stay home — a move that helps Democrats, who have more incumbents facing reelection.

When McConnell took the lectern for a floor speech on Wednesday, Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) accidentally called him the majority leader. McConnell chuckled and responded, “I haven’t given up hope.”

Josh Dawsey and Paul Kane contributed to this report.

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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.

Key issue: Abortion rights advocates scored major victories in the first nationwide election since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Here’s how abortion access fared on the ballot in nine states.

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