Republican allies are pumping millions of dollars into a final swarm of television ads in the run-up to Election Day, hoping to blunt Democratic attacks and tip the Senate back to GOP control.
But much of the advertising by outside groups is coming later — and at a much steeper cost — than many on the right had hoped, largely because top conservative donors were slow to open their checkbooks.
That foot-dragging has forced super PACs and politically active nonprofit groups to pay a huge premium for last-minute ad buys, and it shows the extent to which their top financiers have dictated the timing and strategy of outside groups this year.
This decentralized approach provides an early glimpse of how big-money Republican operations might play out in the 2016 White House contest, when as many as a dozen potential presidential candidates will be vying for the allegiance of the party’s top donors.
The freewheeling atmosphere on the right comes as Democrats, historically known as an unruly mix of political constituencies, have become notably disciplined when it comes to their election spending strategy. Democrats have used this election cycle to further tighten coordination among their super PACs and liberal allies, pressing donors to help close the conservative funding advantage. Led by top advisers to Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), Senate Majority PAC and its partners financed an early and unrelenting air assault against Republican candidates.
“Republicans tend to be individualistic, so they don’t take orders from headquarters nearly as well as Democrats do,” said GOP media strategist Brad Todd. “Their donors toe the line.”
Stung by the losses that conservative candidates suffered in the 2012 elections, donors on the right were reluctant to invest early, demanding detailed business plans from groups seeking their funds. They weighed in on the political tactics organizations should employ and viewed lavish ad campaigns with skepticism after such efforts failed to prevent President Obama’s reelection.
“Donors are no longer willing to dump money into ‘Trust me, I’ll take care of it,’ ” said veteran GOP strategist Saul Anuzis, a former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party.
Complaints from conservative backers after 2012 led to significant changes in how GOP allies approached this year’s congressional races. One result: They became more specialized. Some jumped into primaries, seeking to shape the party’s field of candidates. Others plowed money into on-the-ground organizing, opposition research and data projects — areas where Democrats had an edge in 2012.
“Every cycle we develop new battlefield doctrine, partly in response to what we learned in the previous cycle,” said Steven Law, president of American Crossroads, the heavyweight super PAC co-founded by GOP strategist Karl Rove. “Finding those niches that have the most impact — that’s what I think has been one of the philosophical changes we’ve adopted since 2012.”
Some disenchanted Republican check-writers have gone their own way, choosing to finance narrowly focused political projects.
Other major givers anted up only once Election Day came closer into view. Crossroads and its sister nonprofit, which are expected to pull in $100 million this cycle, are rushing to spend a last-minute surge of cash. Together, the two groups have plunked down more than $26 million to run TV ads in October.
Buying late is expensive: In several pivotal states, outside groups are paying as much as six times what they would have if they had booked in late summer, according to sources familiar with the costs.
In Little Rock, stations last week were demanding as much as $1,700 per gross rating point, the kind of rate advertisers typically pay in Los Angeles. That means a large ad buy that would have cost a group $1.2 million in July would have run about $8 million a week ago.
The asking price recently for a spot during “Wheel of Fortune” in Little Rock was $50,000.
Anchorage has also experienced wild inflation, with outside groups forced to shell out nearly 10 times the totals of past campaigns. In Manchester, N.H., the rate to advertise on WMUR-TV has gone from $230 per point before Labor Day to $1,400 a point.
“Sometimes it feels like buying a loaf of bread in the Weimar Republic,” said Will Feltus, a Republican media buyer at National Media Research, Planning and Placement.
Law said he is confident that GOP allies have enough resources to move voters in the final weeks, noting that aggressive early spending by Democratic groups did not give their candidates big leads. “Most of the races we’re engaged in are dead-heat contests,” he said.
At stake is not just who controls the Senate but also the loyalty of deep-pocketed donors. Big-money GOP groups are hoping they will be able to demonstrate a better return on investment than in 2012, when the right spent hundreds of millions, largely on TV ads pummeling Obama.
“Frankly, what did we have to show for it as donors?” asked John Jordan, a winery owner in California’s Sonoma Valley who supported Crossroads in that election. “Nothing. I think it’s healthy among the donor class to start asking questions.”
This time, Jordan financed his own political operation. He formed a super PAC to boost the GOP candidate in the Massachusetts special Senate election last year, infusing it with more than $1.4 million. More recently, he launched a nonprofit called Americans for Shared Prosperity, which recently ran a provocative ad in which a woman talks about Obama as if he were a boyfriend who has let her down.
“I came up with the concept,” said Jordan, adding that he immerses himself in the process, from polling to casting.
That hands-on approach has been embraced by many GOP contributors who want to choose the political tactics they invest in.
“You’re finding donors saying, ‘Are we looking at digital targeting, targeting cable? Can we be more specific with respect to Facebook and Twitter?’ ” Anuzis said. “Some say, ‘I want to increase the ground game.’ ”
Field organizing has been a top priority this year of Americans for Prosperity, the conservative advocacy group backed by the billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch and other wealthy donors. After pumping $50 million into TV ads early in the cycle, the organization is devoting resources to building a permanent ground force. The group — which says it has more than 500 paid staffers deployed in key races — is on track to spend more than $60 million on the effort.
“You could take every penny of that and put it on television and it might make a bigger splash, but it’s not nearly as effective,” said Tim Phillips, the group’s president.
Crossroads, meanwhile, jumped into primary fights for the first time this year. That decision was propelled in large part by feedback from its financial backers, such as during a conversation Law had in early 2013 with a West Coast donor in the tech industry.
When Law explained how Crossroads planned to bolster the party’s data capabilities in the midterms, Law recalls him responding: “I know a lot about data. The Republican Party doesn’t have a data problem. It has a product problem.”
A month later, Crossroads announced it would be jumping into selective primaries to help the party field the best candidates. The group spent $3.7 million to support the winning candidates in Senate primaries in Alaska and North Carolina, as well as a House race in New York.
The organization also sought to assuage donors upset that GOP polls in 2012 ended up being off the mark, pushing its vendors to develop better turnout models. Crossroads officials now pass along such research to financial backers in regular presentations. The group invested millions in Data Trust, a private firm that created an application interface that allows the Republican National Committee and outside groups to share information from the field. And it helped launch a new opposition research effort, America Rising, that has aggressively dogged Democratic candidates on the trail.
Crossroads also has devoted a much greater share of its budget to digital ads, robo-calls and direct mail after backers expressed worry that the group was too reliant on TV campaigns.
“The TV advertising that you typically see for us is the tip of the iceberg,” Law said.
The embrace of new tactics by GOP allies has not stopped the political ads, however.
In North Carolina, where TV spending on the Senate race is expected to exceed $75 million, about three-quarters of the spots have been sponsored by outside groups, according to people familiar with the totals.
Much of the early advertising was done by Americans for Prosperity, which attacked the incumbent Democrat, Sen. Kay Hagan, for her support of the Affordable Care Act. Since then, more than 20 other pro-GOP groups have jumped into the fray, pounding her on topics including abortion rights, gun legislation, the national debt and the Islamic State.
For their part, Democratic allies such as Senate Majority PAC, environmental organizations and women’s groups have gone after GOP Senate hopeful Thom Tillis, largely pushing the same line of attack about his record on state education.
The lack of similar discipline among GOP allies to embrace a central theme worries some Republican strategists.
“The Democratic outside groups always seem to be singing off the same page of the hymn book, and that’s not always the case on our side,” said one top consultant, who declined to be named criticizing others in the party.
Leaders of outside groups said that they are sharing more strategy than in past elections but that they have further to go to match the left’s message synchronization.
“In some cases, there are groups on our side that just want to talk about their issue” rather than look at what has the most impact, Law said. “I think we are continuing to make progress on the front, and we will be at a better place still in the next cycle.”
Reid Wilson contributed to this report.