‘Green tsunami’: Inside Senate Republicans’ financial freak-out

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The online fundraising edge that Democrats have enjoyed for years has mushroomed into an overpowering force, with small-dollar donors smashing “donate” buttons over the last three months to process their disgust for President Donald Trump, fury with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and grief for the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Propelled by the wave of money, Democrats have suddenly expanded the Senate battlefield to a dozen competitive races, burying long-contested states like Iowa and Maine in TV ads while also overwhelming Republican opponents in states like Alaska, Kansas and South Carolina that are suddenly tightening.

Where most of the top Democratic Senate candidates two years ago raised $4 million to $7 million in the third quarter of 2018, their contenders this year are multiplying those totals. Colorado’s John Hickenlooper raised $22 million, more than six times what his presidential campaign raised before he dropped out of that race in 2019. Iowa’s Theresa Greenfield and North Carolina’s Cal Cunningham each cleared $28 million.

And on Sunday, South Carolina Democrat Jaime Harrison announced a record $57 million third-quarter haul for his race against GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham, where the most favorable public polling for Graham in the last month has shown him leading by a single point. Altogether, the money has given Democrats a TV spending edge in 12 of the 13 most expensive Senate races.

“The money is indicative [of] how much energy there is on their side, and the lack thereof on our side,” said Mike DuHaime, a Republican consultant. “I think we’re finding that Trump — the energy for Trump — is not always transferable, the same way it wasn’t transferable for Democrats from Obama.”

GOP operative Corry Bliss, who coined the “green wave” warning about House Republicans getting swamped by Democratic cash in 2018, said of 2020: “To no one’s surprise, the green wave is back.”

McConnell is among the Republicans venting frustration. On a call with lobbyists and donors last week, McConnell grumbled that GOP incumbents were getting beaten financially across the board in every competitive race, citing their edge on ActBlue, the preferred Democratic fundraising platform, according to three people who participated in the call.

Republican senators, including those in less competitive races, are imploring their donors not to forget them. Texas Sen. John Cornyn convened a call with donors last Monday to emphasize that his race was not guaranteed, and that if Trump’s polling numbers continued slipping in the once brick-red state, it could become highly competitive, according to two people on the call.

The call came after Democrat MJ Hegar revealed she raised $13.5 million in the last three months. It might be on the low end of the eye-popping figures Democratic challengers have raised, but it’s a massive sum that will cut Cornyn’s cash advantage in the race. Even Al Gross, the below-the-radar independent who won the Democratic primary in Alaska, raised $9 million from July through September.

The money alone is not determinative — former Senate fundraising record-setter Beto O’Rourke lost his race in Texas in 2018, after all. But with Trump behind in the polls and the political landscape tilted against Republicans, the money is giving Democrats one more big tool to press their advantage and prevent GOP senators from outrunning an already difficult environment.

‘You only hear about ActBlue’

With GOP campaigns unable to keep pace with their opponents, Republican outside groups have worked to fill in the gaps. But the torrent of online Democratic money is moving faster than even Republican megadonors can answer.

Last month, Republicans were lifted by the news that Sheldon and Miriam Adelson had upped their contribution to Senate Leadership Fund, the super PAC aligned with the Senate GOP, to a whopping $50 million for the year. But days later, ActBlue’s FEC report showed that the top nine Democratic Senate candidates raised over $50 million online in August alone.

One GOP lobbyist, a regular on the Zoom fundraising circuit, said that from senators, “you only hear about ActBlue,” which has raised billions of dollars for progressive candidates and groups since its founding in 2004, calling it a “major, major problem for us.”

Senate-focused Republican groups are still hitting record highs for fundraising this election cycle. Both SLF and the NRSC have broken their own prior records, thanks to mega-donor contributions of seven- and eight-figure checks as well as the NRSC’s strong online program, and both groups have plunged the windfall into advertising. SLF President Steven Law said his group is set to spend double what it did in 2018, though Democrats have kept pace: The NRSC and the DSCC are near parity in total fundraising for the election cycle. Democrats’ Senate Majority PAC has already outstripped what it raised for the 2018 election.

Law noted in an interview that the “decisive ingredient” making the Senate map so competitive in so many places was Democratic candidates’ “overwhelming financial advantage” over Republican senators.

“You did have some Republican senators come into this cycle not expecting to have a difficult race and not understanding what was coming at them,” Law said. “For those who hadn’t done it, yeah they got caught flat footed and they’re having to play catch up.”

The NRSC hit the air with ads earlier than usual, in June, to attack Democratic challengers. SLF held its super PAC money until mid-August, a decision Law acknowledged was probably not popular with campaigns being outspent earlier in the year. But he said it allowed them to be “flexible” later in the election.

“We were concerned about just this kind of perfect storm of massive Democratic fundraising,” Law said.

A long-term problem

Republicans have their own online fundraising platform, launching WinRed in 2019 in an effort to build their own online giving ecosystem. But several Republican operatives said Democrats have spent years conditioning their supporters to give online, and it will take time for Republicans to build their digital infrastructure, as well as more buy-in from Republican candidates.

Josh Holmes, a top McConnell adviser, said every news development activates Democrats’ donor base and “their default is to give $5 every time something angers them.”

But “when your average Republican is watching Hannity and something upsets them, their response is to write something on Facebook,” Holmes added.

That long-term conditioning and base-building drove record-breaking fundraising for Democrats at the end of the third quarter. One effort to knock out the Senate GOP majority, the progressive Pod Save America’s “Get Mitch or Die Trying” fundraising drive, raised $27 million in just a handful of days after Ginsburg’s passing. Republicans, in contrast, were not as well-positioned to take advantage of Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett as Ginsburg’s replacement.

“You get to a certain point where the die is cast,” said one national Republican strategist, granted anonymity to discuss the issue candidly. “You can’t capitalize on a huge moment like SCOTUS vacancy if you haven’t spent the last 6 months or 12 months building the asset to maximize the value of it. There’s a limit to what you can accomplish if you haven’t done the work.”

But Republicans’ struggle isn’t isolated to just small-dollar donors, a well-documented weak spot for the party. Some operatives are also expressing frustration with larger donors who, they say, have been slow to recognize how unstable the Senate majority is. Republicans currently have a 53-47 edge in the chamber.

“I think the donor community, at times, doesn’t appreciate that volatility extends across the country and not just in four or five Senate seats,” said one GOP operative involved in Senate races, who requested anonymity to speak candidly.

Republicans do continue to have some bright spots. John James in Michigan has tapped into both large- and small-dollar donors, hauling in $14 million last quarter to keep pace with Democratic Sen. Gary Peters, even as the Democratic incumbent raised by far the most of his career. Arizona Sen. Martha McSally has raised huge sums online, but she is running against Democrat Mark Kelly, one of his party’s most prolific fundraisers.

McConnell, who’s facing a wave of cash himself from his Democratic opponent, Amy McGrath, hauled in $15.7 million in the last three months, including $12 million from online donors.

‘That’s a big deal’

But the other side of the campaign finance ledger — the spending — reinforces just how bleak the picture is for Republicans.

Cornyn is the only Senate Republican out of the 13 most expensive Senate races to outspend a Democratic opponent on TV from July 1 to Oct. 10, according to a POLITICO review of Advertising Analytics data.

In those same 13 races, Democratic candidates currently have more ads reserved between now and Election Day in all but two: Alaska and Texas, though those numbers are not final and candidates will continue to buy ads.

In some cases, the disparity is enormous: In North Carolina, Cunningham — whose campaign has been rocked by revelations of infidelity — has spent $15.5 million on TV since July 1 and has more than $7 million booked through Election Day. GOP Sen. Thom Tillis has spent $4.4 million, and has $3.5 million reserved.

In Iowa, Greenfield has spent $15 million on TV since July and has $13.8 million reserved through Election Day. GOP Sen. Joni Ernst has spent $5.6 million and has $2.7 million reserved.

“When you look at candidates having those kinds of advantages, you take seriously their ability to win because if they can have a communications advantage, that’s a big deal,” said J.B. Poersch, who runs Senate Majority PAC, which is currently spending in nine GOP-held seats, while also playing defense in Michigan.

Outside groups have helped Republicans make up the gap, but the GOP is also getting outspent on that front in the core battleground states, too.

GOP outside groups have been outspent in Colorado, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Montana and North Carolina over the last three months, while Democrats have been outspent in Georgia, Kentucky and South Carolina. Republican groups have more booked in Georgia and South Carolina through Election Day, and the two parties are near parity in Maine and Michigan. But Democrats have more TV ads reserved in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Iowa and North Carolina.

That disparity also extends into digital ads, where Democratic campaigns are spending freely, said Tim Lim, a Democratic digital consultant.

“Everyone is now able to use the gold-plated strategy,” Lim said. “There’s an opportunity now to treat digital like cable or broadcast buying, and that’s what’s happening [and] all this spend has to happen in the next 29 days.”

For some Republicans, the money is exacerbating broader issues as the party battles to hold the majority: Trump’s sagging poll numbers, an environment tilted against them, and a map with more and more incumbents under duress and only two legitimate offensive opportunities.

“It’s red alert at this point,” said Liam Donovan, a lobbyist who said Republicans are “spooked” by the current environment. “I don’t think anyone has written off the Senate, but everyone knows the snapshot in time is pretty bleak and things need to stabilize pretty quickly.”

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