The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats capitalize on ‘fundraging’ to dominate GOP Senate candidates on the airwaves

ATLANTA, GA - OCTOBER 15: U.S. Senate candidate Jon Ossoff (D-GA) puts Georgia Votes sticker on his jacket during early voting at the State Farm Arena on October 15, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Megan Varner/Getty Images)

In Georgia, Sen. David Perdue (R) is being outspent by a nearly 2-to-1 margin on the airwaves over the final five weeks of his reelection bid, losing the financial battle to a 33-year-old who has never held public office.

In Iowa, Sen. Joni Ernst (R) is being nearly tripled in ad spending by a Democrat whose only previous campaign, for a U.S. House seat, ended when she failed to qualify for the Democratic primary.

And in North Carolina, Sen. Thom Tillis (R) also faces a nearly 3-to-1 disparity in ad funding to an opponent who served one term, ending 18 years ago, in the state Senate.

Democratic candidates, most of whom are relative neophytes, have tapped into the financial vein of liberal activists looking to punish GOP incumbents who have been President Trump’s allies.

Republicans had hoped that the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, following Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Sept. 18 death, would energize their conservative base.

It may have, but it also added more energy to what strategists call “fundraging” for Democratic candidates.

Advertising, on television and radio, is not always a reliable predictor of which campaign will win, but Republican and Democratic advisers focus on how much each candidate has for their own ad campaigns.

That’s because, under federal law, the candidates receive the best rates for advertising and benefit from the best time slots. Outside groups, from national party committees to super PACs, pay far heavier prices to place their ads in worse spots. In some media markets, every candidate dollar is worth up to five times as much as a super PAC dollar.

According to a Republican estimate of the 13 most contested races, Democratic candidates are spending $200 million on advertising in the final five weeks of the campaign. Republican candidates are spending just $106 million.

A Republican official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the GOP’s poor showing, provided the advertising estimates based on campaign filings. A Democratic strategist with access to that party’s filings confirmed the general ratio in each of the 13 races, although some totals varied slightly from the GOP estimate.

This financial surge has allowed Democratic candidates to match the opposition, and in some cases outpace them, in terms of overall ads aired. Take the final week of the Perdue race in Georgia, where the incumbent’s sluggish fundraising left him able to reserve a little more than $900,000 in advertising in Atlanta, while his opponent, Jon Ossoff, has more than $2.2 million in ads airing on a media market that covers 70 percent of the state’s voters, according to Democrats.

Republican super PACs have at least $3.2 million reserved in Atlanta for the last week, while their Democratic counterparts have about $1.8 million — leaving each side at a total of a little less than $4.1 million, Democrats say.

Overall, in six of the 13 races, the Democratic candidate has an edge of at least 2-to-1 in the homestretch.

Alaska is the only state where Republicans hold an edge, albeit so small that the two candidates are at relative parity, according to strategists in both parties, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share spending details.

Donors to Democratic Senate hopefuls increased sevenfold after Ginsburg’s death

Even in Alabama, where national Democrats have abandoned Sen. Doug Jones (D), assuming he can’t win in such a conservative state, the incumbent has banked $6 million worth of ads, while Republican Tommy Tuberville has just $1.6 million worth of airtime in the final weeks of the race.

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) summed up the situation when he begged for donations on Fox News in late September as his opponent, first-time candidate Jaime Harrison, was en route to breaking Senate fundraising records with a $57 million haul over the third quarter.

“I’m getting overwhelmed. — help me. They’re killing me, moneywise. Help me,” Graham said.

It actually worked. Graham, who has been in the spotlight shepherding Barrett toward a Supreme Court confirmation vote, raised a stunning $28 million in the same quarter and has been reportedly pulling in about $1 million a day during the hearings.

While Harrison maintains an edge — $42.6 million in ad spending compared with $26.4 million for Graham — it’s a much better margin for Republicans than in most of the other competitive Senate battles.

But the cavalry has arrived for Republicans, in the form of the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) that has collected massive, unlimited donations. From Sept. 1 through mid-October, SLF raised $142 million and, according to Democrats, steered $52 million into 10 races over the last two weeks.

In most states, Republicans are at overall parity in terms of advertising. “If the Sheldon Adelsons of the world keep writing $10 million or $15 million checks, they can quickly match the added value that candidate dollars have, and that makes a big difference in these toss-up races,” said Lauren Passalacqua, spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “Our grass-roots network of small-dollar donors made these races competitive, and we’re relying on their support through the end.”

Democrats have their own well-stocked super PACs, but they cannot match what mega-rich donors like casino magnate Adelson are willing to donate to their GOP PACs.

Instead, a small-dollar army, giving directly to Democratic candidates, is what makes their campaigns competitive.

Among this crop of Democratic candidates, only Harrison and Mark Kelly (Ariz.), a former astronaut, have personal biographies that have driven their campaigns in the way that Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and Beto O’Rourke’s 2018 Senate race lit up liberal online donations. Raised by his grandparents in rural South Carolina, Harrison went on to Yale and is now trying to become the first Black Democratic senator from the Deep South.

Otherwise, these candidates are running mostly as generic Democrats, with policy positions well within the ideological parameters of the party orthodoxy. They are pinning their GOP opponents to Trump’s continued efforts to gut the Affordable Care Act, a 2010 law that has grown more popular over the years, particularly during a global pandemic where health-care issues resonate even more with voters.

In Iowa, Theresa Greenfield was a local business executive in Des Moines who tried to run for a House seat in 2018 but faltered when an aide filed fake signatures to get on the primary ballot, ending her campaign. She raised almost $29 million in the third quarter, more than four times what Ernst raised.

In Georgia, Ossoff worked as a Democratic staffer on Capitol Hill and owns a documentary film company. Ossoff’s only race, a special election for a House seat in 2017, also caught fire with online donors.

Once Ossoff won a crowded Democratic primary in June, his online donations soared again. In the following quarter, Ossoff raised more than $21 million — matching in three months Perdue’s total fundraising over six years in the Senate.

Nowhere does the cash edge matter quite as much as North Carolina, where Democrat Cal Cunningham seemed to have a solid lead early this month.

Then he admitted to an affair with a married woman that appears to have taken place this year. Democrats and Republicans acknowledge Cunningham’s personal favorability ratings dropped.

In N.C., voters call Cunningham’s infidelity reckless, shocking. They still vote for the Democrat.

But, three weeks after the scandal erupted, the Democrat remains more popular than Tillis, according to three GOP strategists who have reviewed the party’s internal polling.

And, they say, that’s because Cunningham raised more than $28 million in the third quarter, allowing him to keep pounding away at Tillis.

That three-month total counted for $6 million more than Tillis raised in almost six years.

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