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Super PAC stakes out Democrats’ Senate strategy with $70 million ad plan

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Cal Cunningham speaks to supporters during a primary election night party in Raleigh, N.C., on March 3.
Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Cal Cunningham speaks to supporters during a primary election night party in Raleigh, N.C., on March 3. (Gerry Broome/AP)

The largest Democratic super PAC focused on the U.S. Senate is reserving nearly $70 million in fall advertising time, offering an early clue as to how the party’s top strategists view the emerging Senate battlefield.

The group, Senate Majority PAC, is making outsize investments in North Carolina and Iowa — two races featuring first-term Republican incumbents who have looked increasingly vulnerable in recent months.

It is also making relatively modest investments in Colorado and Maine, two states that sit higher on the Democratic target list, indicating confidence in the party’s advantage in those races as well as the fundraising capacity of the candidates themselves.

And while the group is making a major reservation in Arizona, where Democrats are keen to beat Republican Sen. Martha McSally a second time in two years, they are placing no early reservation in Alabama — where Sen. Doug Jones is widely viewed as the nation’s most vulnerable Democratic senator.

J.B. Poersch, Senate Majority PAC’s president, said in an interview that he has been encouraged not only by a more favorable Senate landscape than in 2018, when Democrats had to defend seats in 10 states that President Trump won, but also by his party’s persistent advantage in data gathered in key states.

“You’ve already gone through a cycle with the Mueller report, an impeachment acquittal in the Senate, [Bernie Sanders] may be the nominee, [Joe Biden] looking like he may be the nominee, and now what’s happening in the world with coronavirus and a rattling economy,” he said. “And yet, Democrats have held leads in several states and Senate races and consistently performed well. It’s not been a roller-coaster ride.”

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The group’s total reservation of $69.2 million slightly exceeds the $67.1 million initial reservation announced last week by its Republican counterpart, the Senate Leadership Fund.

Both groups reserved time in Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Maine and North Carolina; the Republican group also reserved $10.8 million in Kentucky, where Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is seeking a seventh term.

“Protecting our Republican Senate majority has become synonymous with ensuring a firewall against the Democrats’ far-left ambitions,” Steven Law, SLF president, said in a statement, adding that the initial spending figure “demonstrates we intend to hold the line.”

Unlike in 2018, both parties’ spending will be overshadowed by the billions that are likely to be spent on the presidential campaigns, and Poersch said the initial reservations were largely driven by that dynamic.

“Driving our thinking on the reservations is knowing that in presidential battleground states, at some point the presidential [race] is going to drop a big footprint and drive costs up,” he said. “So we need to begin there. This is way early in previous cycles. We keep reserving, and this cycle will be no different.”

The initial SMP reservations include $5.2 million in Colorado, $9.6 million in Maine,$13.1 million in Iowa, $15.7 million in Arizona and $25.6 million in North Carolina. Except for Colorado, where the SLF has reserved $5.5 million, the Democratic group’s reservations are slightly larger than the GOP group’s in each of those states.

The combined $49 million in super PAC spending already planned for North Carolina solidifies the emerging race between GOP Sen. Thom Tillis and Democratic nominee Cal Cunningham as perhaps the most expensive nonpresidential race in the nation this year. The size of the reservations indicates both North Carolina’s status as a presidential battleground, where ad rates will be sky-high come September, and the place where the Senate majority could be made.

To win Senate control, Democrats need to gain three seats if a Democrat wins the presidency and hands them the vice president’s tie-breaking vote; four, if not. Most Democratic strategists believe that the party realistically needs to win as many as five seats given Jones’s vulnerability in traditionally Republican Alabama.

Democrats believe they have the upper hand in Colorado and Arizona, where GOP incumbents Cory Gardner and McSally have lagged in public polling. Maine, where Sen. Susan Collins (R), is facing a well-financed challenger in State House speaker Sara Gideon, is next on most Democrats’ target lists. That leaves North Carolina and, increasingly, Iowa as the states most likely to flip the majority.

“We measure data all the time, and . . . these states have been performing well for a long period of time,” Poersch said about his group’s relatively large reservations in North Carolina and Iowa, where Republican Sen. Joni Ernst is seeking a second term.

The relatively small Colorado buy, he said, “matched suit” with SLF, which he said “demonstrated a lack of confidence in their own candidate.” But Poersch also did not sugarcoat his group’s decision not to include Alabama among its initial investments, leaving Jones without air cover for now: “You know, offense first, and we’re going to start there. And I’ll leave it at that.”

Poersch did not rule out making additional reservations in any state.

The group’s broadcast campaigns are set to begin as soon as early August in Arizona, Maine and North Carolina, with the Iowa and Colorado reservations kicking in after Labor Day. Exactly what message Democrats plan to drive in those ads remains in flux, however, given the unusually unsettled political environment created by the coronavirus pandemic.

Poersch said, regardless of the landscape, Democrats would seek to contrast Republicans’ 2014 campaign promises of bringing independent fighters for their states to the Senate with their records in Washington — highlighting their support for the GOP’s 2017 effort to undo the Affordable Care Act and pass a $1.5 trillion tax cut as showing their “failure to stand up and get out of the shadow” of Trump.

“This is a group that stayed very close to the president’s wing,” he said about the group of GOP first-term incumbents, plus McSally, who was appointed to the Senate last year after losing the race for the other Arizona seat in 2018.

The initial SMP reservations do not include Montana, where Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock upended the entire Senate landscape by announcing a challenge to incumbent GOP Sen. Steve Daines earlier this month. Nor do they include Michigan, where Republicans have strongly suggested that Democratic Sen. Gary Peters is vulnerable to a challenge from Republican businessman John James, or Kentucky, where McConnell challenger Amy McGrath raised $17 million last year.

Poersch suggested a Montana reservation could wait, given that presidential campaigns are unlikely to do much TV spending there, expressed confidence in Peters’s chances in Michigan, and called Kentucky “an interesting opportunity” that Democratic strategists would continue monitoring.

“It’s a state where you could see additional activity,” he said.

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