Senate Republicans’ top super PAC broadened the Senate map Thursday, going further on defense — and offense — with less than five weeks to go until Election Day.
Senate Leadership Fund, which is run by allies of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, added a new $9 million ad buy in Michigan, where Republican John James is attempting to unseat Democratic Sen. Gary Peters in one of just two offensive opportunities on the Senate map for the GOP.
But on the same day, the super PAC announced a $10 million ad blitz in South Carolina, a deep red state where Democrat Jaime Harrison is aiming to take down GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham in the most expensive election in the state’s history. The super PAC is also set to spend an additional $7.2 million in Kansas starting next week and running through Election Day.
Michigan has always been part of the Senate map: It’s only one of two states Trump won in 2016 where Democratic senators are up for reelection. But the emergence of South Carolina as a true expensive battleground — and perhaps a money pit for both parties — along with Kansas shows how Democrats have expanded their paths to wresting away Republicans’ 53-47 majority.
Heavy on defense
South Carolina is the latest addition to the states where Republicans are spending to try to protect endangered incumbent senators. The party has spent tens of millions in key battlegrounds like Arizona, Iowa, Maine and North Carolina, all of which have been seen as highly competitive the moment the election cycle began. But SLF or affiliated organizations have also spent money in Alaska, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky and Montana, all red-leaning states where investments have helped provide a backstop against high Democratic fundraising with polling showing competitive contests.
The additional $7.2 million buy in Kansas is on top of the more than $4 million they spent following Rep. Roger Marshall’s GOP primary victory. Marshall now faces Democrat Barbara Bollier.
Democrats have expanded the Senate map by fielding candidates who raise massive sums from small-dollar donors, giving them a spending edge over GOP campaigns in essentially every race on the map.
The gap has been starkest in South Carolina. Harrison is likely to obliterate fundraising records: He raised $1 million in back-to-back days last month — and that was before Democrats’ fundraising increased nationally upon news Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away. Democrats expect his third-quarter fundraising total to be among the highest ever, especially running against Graham, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Harrison has spent $40 million on ads so far, compared to just $15 million for Graham, according to data from Advertising Analytics. Harrison is set to spend $12 million between now and Election Day, compared to $4.4 million for Graham, though both campaigns will almost certainly add more to those totals.
Another super PAC that supports Graham has $3 million booked from now and Election Day, but Democrats’ Senate Majority PAC is doubling that with $6.5 million. All that amounts to Graham getting absolutely swamped on the airwaves by a worse margin than just about any other candidate in the country.
With polling showing the race deadlocked, that deficit would spell major trouble for Graham without the outside help.
“The far-left money spigot has been turned on for liberal lobbyist Jamie Harrison, and now he’s flooding South Carolina with his liberal donors’ funds,” SLF president Steven Law said in a statement announcing the investment, calling it a “insurance policy” for Republicans.
Guy King, a spokesman for Harrison, responded by alluding to Graham recently asking for new campaign donations during Fox News appearances.
“After weeks of desperately begging for cash, Sen. Graham and his allies in Washington are clearly hitting the panic button,” King said.
The Michigan opportunity
Despite a map that is tilted heavily against the party, Republicans continue to push their offensive opportunities to pad their contested majority.
By far, Republicans’ best opportunity to flip a seat is Alabama, where Tommy Tubervile is seen as the favorite against Democratic Sen. Doug Jones. Neither party’s outside groups have invested much in this state, despite Jones’ massive financial advantage against Tuberville, a former football coach who dispatched former Sen. Jeff Sessions in the primary.
But Michigan represents the only other state where Republicans have invested on offense, and a competitive race here unlocks the possibility of an additional bulwark against Democrats taking over the chamber. James, who lost the 2018 Senate race, has proven to be one of his party’s best fundraisers and has outraised Peters in most quarters over the past two years.
Yet Peters has led in every recent public poll — including a 5-point lead in the most recent survey, from NBC News/Marist — and Democrats as a party have outspent Republicans. Trump is also trailing Biden in this state, which is likely the most challenging of the trio of Great Lakes states he won in 2016 for him to mount a comeback. James would likely need to outpace Trump by a few percentage points to win.
Peters has spent $15 million compared to $11.5 million for James so far this year, according to Advertising Analytics, and the Democrats’ campaign also currently has a $2 million advantage between now and Election Day. Meanwhile, Senate Majority PAC has outspent GOP groups so far.
The influx from SLF can also be seen as an insurance policy for James in the event that the Trump campaign gives up on Michigan altogether. According to an NBC News analysis published Thursday, Biden has already outspent Trump on TV there since Labor Day, $12 million to $3.7 million.
What to watch next
It’s the point in the election calendar when ad buys shift as both parties assess their best opportunities and greatest needs. Where each party is invested reflects their view of the most competitive states and their best bet on a majority.
In 2016, the map narrowed when Democrats were forced to pull money out of races in Ohio and Florida early in the fall. In 2018, the map narrowed substantially when Republicans decided not to invest in unseating four Midwestern Democratic incumbents.
SLF’s moves on Thursday suggest it still sees a pathway to winning in Michigan — but, more concerning, the major buy in South Carolina is a sign of trouble in a state where Democrats haven’t won a Senate race since 1998. If you told Republicans at the start of the election cycle that they’d be sinking seven figures into South Carolina in October, they probably wouldn’t believe it — and they’d know their backs would be against the wall.
Still, neither party has fully cut off a candidate in which it was already spending money. Democrats have nothing invested in Alabama, where Jones is a heavy underdog, but he has a 8-to-1 spending edge over Tuberville’s campaign through Election Day. Republicans’ smallest remaining buys now are in Alaska and Colorado, where they have $3.5 million to boost Sen. Cory Gardner, perhaps their most vulnerable incumbent — roughly equal to what Senate Majority PAC, the Democratic group, is spending there.
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