What more than 1,000 political ads are arguing right before the midterms

In the home stretch of the midterm elections, Democrats and Republicans are inundating the airwaves with two very different stories for America.

In congressional campaigns, Democrats and their allies are talking about one thing above all else: abortion.

But Republicans rarely talk about abortion. In the few ads where they do, they either paint their opponents as too liberal or themselves as moderates.

Instead, Republicans are focusing on the threat of rising prices and taxes.

And Joe Biden. Lots of Joe Biden. Nancy Pelosi, too.

Democrats have mostly avoided attacking Donald Trump, but they’ve run more ads criticizing their opponents’ character, especially Senate candidates in Georgia and Pennsylvania.

After the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade in June, Democrats made protecting abortion rights the central theme of their pitch to voters in the midterms, and they have spent $103 million on such ads in congressional races since Labor Day, according to a Washington Post analysis of data from AdImpact, which tracks television and digital ad spending. No other issue comes close in Democrats’ overall ad spending.

Republicans, meanwhile, have largely ignored abortion rights in their campaign ads and have instead zeroed in on three issues where they believe Democrats have real liabilities: the economy, rising crime rates and an unpopular first-term president.

Overall, the two parties have spent roughly the same amount of money saturating the airwaves in congressional races, but the issues they’ve made central to their campaigns underscore how each side is talking past the other and warning of starkly different threats to the country’s future.

The issues dominating midterms ads since Labor Day
For each issue:
Total ad spending
Ad airings
Note: Only top 25 issues shown. Ads that mention multiple topics are counted in multiple boxes above. Therefore, the boxes cannot be added together.
Hover on an issue for detailed data

Democrats have sought to establish themselves as the party of abortion rights, reflecting the belief among many strategists that encouraging voters to direct their anger over tightening restrictions and outright bans on the procedure against Republicans at the ballot box, post-Roe, is their best bet for overcoming strong economic head winds and historical trends that favor the party out of power.

Democrats appeared to enjoy a boost this summer, as polls and special elections showed, but as the midterm campaigns near the finish line, many Republicans have grown increasingly confident that their multipronged focus on inflation, President Biden and crime will pay political dividends. Even some Democrats worry about economic anxieties outstripping concern about abortion rights. Still others are unsure what will be the dominant issue on voters’ minds when they cast their ballots.

“When you’re talking about abortion every day and folks are out there filling up their gas and going to the grocery store,” said Matt Wolking, a Republican strategist, “for voters there’s a disconnect.”

Steve Israel, a former congressman who helmed the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said Democrats were wise to focus so much on abortion because it is the topic that will turn out their voters. “If you’re the Democrats you close on the Dobbs decision to turn out your base and social moderates,” Israel said. “And that’s exactly what they are doing.”

Democrats go all-in on abortion rights

Democrats and their allies have spent a staggering $103 million nationwide on ads about abortion since Labor Day. While Democrats have also spent tens of millions on Medicare and character-related attacks on their opponents, abortion remains the issue they’ve spent the most money on by far.

This is especially true in the Arizona Senate race, where Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly and his supporters have spent more on abortion than any other issue. In particular, they’ve hammered his GOP opponent, Blake Masters, over his support for a strict federal abortion ban.

Ad by Senate Majority PAC/Vote Vets

Masters has changed his stance on abortion since the Republican primary in August, scrubbing his website of any mention of his support for a federal “personhood law,” and he now says he supports a nationwide ban on the procedure after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

Few Republicans have targeted abortion in their campaign ads — just 5 percent of abortion-related ad buys have come from Republicans nationally — but Masters has hit back with abortion-related ad buys of his own. In late September, a Masters-aligned PAC purchased a $400,000 ad that has called Kelly’s position on abortion extreme. Kelly has said he wants to codify Roe v. Wade, which guaranteed the right to an abortion until the point of fetal viability, generally considered to be around 23 or 24 weeks.

Ad by Women Speak Out PAC

Republicans make crime a big midterm issue

With an unpopular president and record-high inflation, it wasn’t obvious that Republicans needed another line of attack against Democrats this midterm cycle, yet they’ve poured millions into ad buys that paint Democrats as soft on crime. In total, Republicans have spent nearly $50 million on ads focused on crime since Labor Day, making it one of their top issues nationally, per AdImpact’s data.

Crime has been an especially big issue in the Wisconsin Senate race, where nearly two-thirds of Republican Sen. Ron Johnson and his allies’ ad buys have attacked his Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, for his handling of the issue. In their ads, they’ve painted him as too liberal on crime and criminal justice; they’ve also run ads linking him to the “defund the police” movement.

Ad by Wisconsin Truth PAC

Barnes has called for an end to cash bail and recommended that neighborhood services be funded via what he called “over-bloated budgets in police departments.” Barnes’s spokeswoman has said he does not back the defund the police movement, but Democrats have said they privately worry that the issue has turned voters away from Barnes.

In his effort to counter Republicans’ “soft on crime” narrative, Barnes has aligned himself with law enforcement, spotlighting their support in ads. However, Johnson has still significantly outspent Barnes on this issue.

Ad by Barnes for WI Senate

Notably, Democrats nationwide have spent more on crime-related ads in recent weeks as they’ve increased their spending to counterattack the Republican narrative that they’re weak on crime. However, more than half of crime-related ads from Democrats this cycle have focused on the threat of criminalizing abortion.

The economy, though, remains Republicans’ No. 1 issue

With inflation at a 40-year high, Republicans have hit Democrats hard on economic issues. Republicans have spent over $50 million on inflation-related ads since Labor Day and even more on taxation, a perennial campaign issue for the GOP.

Inflation has hit Nevada especially hard, which is one reason Republican Adam Laxalt and his allies have spent more on ads about inflation than Republicans have in any other congressional race. Like attack ads fielded by Republicans across the country, Laxalt’s ads tie voters’ pocketbook woes directly to incumbent Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto and her support of Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act and Democrats’ pandemic stimulus funding.

Ad by Senate Leadership Fund

Democrats, meanwhile, have rarely focused on inflation in ads. They’ve spent just $10 million on the issue nationally. When they do discuss rising prices, it’s often to express outrage and point blame at special interests or Wall Street. Cortez Masto used this approach recently to link inflation to Republican opponent Laxalt and his corporate ties.

Ad by Senate Majority PAC

Republicans attack their opponents nationally while Democrats focus locally

Throughout the midterm cycle, Republicans have been more likely than Democrats to go after opponents by tying them to national figures. In fact, since Labor Day, Republicans have spent $81 million on ads targeting House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Biden, despite neither being on the ballot in the battleground races that will decide control of Congress.

Democrats, on the other hand, have spent just $8 million on ads featuring former president Donald Trump. Overall, Republicans have spent more money on Trump, $50 million total, but most of this was spent earlier in the year during the Republican primaries.

Republicans have spent more on ads about Biden — and Trump

Instead, Democrats have focused most of their character ad buys on individuals, especially in Senate races where questions of candidate quality have dominated. Democrats have spent $32 million on character ads, compared with $21 million spent by Republicans.

For instance, in the Pennsylvania Senate race, many of the attacks by Democratic candidate John Fetterman against his Republican opponent, Mehmet Oz, have been personal. Fetterman has repeatedly attacked Oz — best known as Dr. Oz from his longtime television show of the same name — as a wealthy, out-of-touch celebrity who, until recently, was living in New Jersey, not Pennsylvania. He has also attacked Oz over dubious medical claims the doctor made on his show.

Ad by Fetterman for PA Senate

But Oz hasn’t stayed out of the fray. In particular, he’s attacked Fetterman for being slow to agree to debate him as Fetterman continues to recover from a stroke. They’ll meet in their only debate Tuesday night. And thanks to a late-stage ad blitz, Oz and his allies have narrowly edged Fetterman and Democrats out on negative character attacks, per AdImpact’s data.

Ad by Oz for PA Senate

With just two weeks to go until Election Day, it’s unlikely the parties’ overall ad strategies will shift much. So the question now is: Which party’s message will voters find more convincing?

Annie Linskey contributed to this report.

About this story

AdImpact provided the data used for the analysis in this story. AdImpact tags each ad in its database with up to three issues. The Washington Post filtered the data for general election ads in congressional races paid for by candidates or committees associated with either the Democratic or Republican parties. For its time-series analysis, The Washington Post used the first airing date of each ad.

Project editing by Sarah Frostenson. Graphics editing by Kate Rabinowitz. Story editing by Sean Sullivan.