‘Green tsunami’: Inside Senate Republicans’ financial freak-out
In mid-April, senior advisors to a dozen Republican senators gathered on the second floor of the National Republican Senatorial Committee's office, where NRSC Executive Director Kevin McLaughlin outlined the stark disparities in online fundraising that resulted in eight GOP incumbents on the first being overwhelmed by Democrats were three months in 2020.
McLaughlin closed his presentation with a terrible warning: If campaigns didn't dramatically improve their digital fundraising, they would have no way of countering a “green tsunami” of democratic spending this fall, according to three people familiar with the meeting.
Six months later the green tsunami is here. And it threatens to wipe out the majority in the Republican Senate.
The online fundraising advantage that Democrats have enjoyed for years has grown into an overwhelming force. For the past three months, small donors have smashed donation buttons to process their disgust for President Donald Trump, anger over Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, and grief for the late Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Driven by the wave of money, the Democrats suddenly expanded the Senate battlefield to a dozen competitive races, burying long-contested states like Iowa and Maine in television commercials, and at the same time overwhelming Republican opponents in states like Alaska, Kansas and South Carolina that are suddenly intensifying.
While most of the top Democratic Senate candidates raised $ 4 to 7 million in the third quarter of 2018 two years ago, this year their rivals are multiplying those sums. Colorado's John Hickenlooper raised $ 22 million, more than six times his presidential campaign before retiring from the race in 2019. North Carolina's Iowa's Theresa Greenfield and Cal Cunningham raised $ 28 million each.
And on Sunday, South Carolina Democrat Jaime Harrison announced a record $ 57 million in the third quarter for his race against GOP Senator Lindsey Graham, which last month's cheapest public poll for Graham showed that he is one point ahead of the top. Overall, the money gave Democrats a head start on TV spending in 12 of the 13 most expensive Senate races.
"The money shows how much energy is on their side and how little energy is on our side," said Mike DuHaime, a Republican adviser. "I think we are finding that Trump - the energy for Trump - is not always transferable, just as it was for Obama Democrats non-transferable."
GOP agent Corry Bliss, who coined the "Green Wave" warning that the Republicans of the House will be flooded with Democratic money in 2018, said of 2020: "No surprise the Green Wave is back."
Contempt for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has fueled some of the donations to Democratic candidates.
McConnell is one of those Republicans who ventilate frustration. On a call to lobbyists and donors last week, McConnell grumbled that the incumbent GOP companies were being beaten across the board in every contest, citing their advantage over ActBlue, according to three people who participated in the call preferred platform for democratic fundraising drives.
Republican senators, including those in less competitive races, beg their donors not to forget them. Texas Senator John Cornyn convened a call with donors last Monday to emphasize that his race was not guaranteed and that if Trump's election numbers continued to slide in what was once brick-red, they could become competitive, according to two participants.
The call came after Democrat MJ Hegar announced that she had raised $ 13.5 million in the past three months. It may be on the low end of the flashy numbers that Democratic challengers have raked in, but it's a massive sum that will take away Cornyn's cash advantage in the race. Even Al Gross, the independent independent who won the Alaskan Democratic primary, raised $ 9 million from July through September.
The money alone is not decisive - the former Senate record holder, Beto O’Rourke, finally lost his race in Texas in 2018. But with Trump lagging behind in the polls and the political landscape turning against Republicans, the money gives Democrats another vital tool to take advantage of their advantage and prevent GOP Senators from escaping an already difficult environment.
"You only hear from ActBlue"
With GOP campaigns unable to keep up with their opponents, Republican outgroups have worked to fill the gaps. But the stream of online Democratic money is moving faster than even Republican megadonors can respond.
Last month, Republicans were thrilled to hear that Sheldon and Miriam Adelson had increased their contribution to the Senate Leadership Fund, the Senate-run super-PAC, to a whopping $ 50 million for the year. Days later, ActBlue's FEC report showed that the top nine Democratic Senate candidates raised over $ 50 million online in August alone.
A GOP lobbyist who is a regular on the Zoom fundraising circle said senators "only hear from ActBlue," which has raised billions of dollars for progressive candidates and groups since its inception in 2004 and calls it a "big, big problem "designated for us."
Senate-led Republican groups are still reaching record highs to fund this election cycle. Both SLF and NRSC have broken their own previous records thanks to mega donor contributions of seven- and eight-digit checks and the NRSC's strong online program, and both groups have thrown the gust of advertising. SLF President Steven Law said his group is expected to spend twice as much as it did in 2018, although Democrats have kept pace: the NRSC and DSCC are nearly equal in raising funds for the election cycle. The Senate majority of the Democrats PAC has already exceeded what it raised for the 2018 elections.
In an interview, Law noted that the "key ingredient" that makes the Senate card so competitive in so many places was the "overwhelming financial advantage" Democratic candidates have over Republican senators.
"They had some Republican senators on this cycle who didn't expect a difficult race and didn't understand what was in store for them," Law said. "For those who didn't, yes, they were caught flat-footed and have to catch up."
The NRSC went into the air earlier than usual in June with advertisements to attack Democratic challengers. SLF held its Super-PAC money until mid-August, a decision that by law probably wasn't popular as campaigns were issued earlier in the year. But he said it allowed them to be "flexible" in the elections later on.
"We were concerned about just this kind of perfect storm of massive democratic fundraisers," Law said.
A long-term problem
Republicans have their own online donation platform and are launching WinRed 2019 to build their own online donation ecosystem. But several Republican activists said Democrats had spent years getting their supporters to give online, and it would be some time for Republicans to build their digital infrastructure and get more support from Republican candidates.
Josh Holmes, a top adviser to McConnell, said any news development activates the Democrats' donor base and "their default is to give $ 5 every time something upsets them."
But "if the average Republican is watching Hannity and something bothers her, her answer is to post on Facebook," added Holmes.
This long-term conditioning and the establishment of bases led to a record-breaking fundraising campaign for Democrats at the end of the third quarter. An attempt to knock out the Senate GOP majority, Pod Save America's "Get Mitch or Die Trying" progressive fundraiser raised $ 27 million within days of Ginsburg's death. In contrast, Republicans weren't as well positioned to take advantage of Trump's nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to replace Ginsburg.
"You get to a point where the die is cast," said a national Republican strategist who allowed anonymity to openly discuss the issue. "You can't take advantage of a big moment like the SCOTUS vacancy if you haven't spent the last 6 or 12 months building the asset to maximize its value." There is a limit to what you can achieve if you haven't done the job. "
John Hickenlooper speaks at a rally in Denver on October 8, 2020. Hickenlooper posted large quarterly donations to get Republican Senator Cory Gardner off the field.
The Republicans' struggle is not limited to small donors, however, a well-documented vulnerability for the party. Some activists are also frustrated with larger donors who, they say, have been slow to realize how unstable the Senate majority is. Republicans currently have a 53-47 lead in the chamber.
"I think the donor community sometimes doesn't appreciate that volatility spills across the country, rather than just four or five Senate seats," said a Senate races GOP official, who asked for anonymity to speak openly.
Republicans continue to have some bright spots. John James in Michigan tapped financiers big and small, raising $ 14 million last quarter to keep up with Democratic Senator Gary Peters, even as the Democratic incumbent was spending by far the bulk of his career. Arizona Senator Martha McSally has raised huge sums online, but she's running against Democrat Mark Kelly, one of his party's most prolific fundraisers.
McConnell, himself facing a surge of cash from his Democratic opponent Amy McGrath, has raised $ 15.7 million in the past three months, including $ 12 million from online donors.
"This is a big deal"
However, the other side of the campaign's financial book - spending - shows how grim the picture is for Republicans.
According to a POLITICO review of Advertising Analytics' data, Cornyn is the only Senate Republican among the 13 most expensive Senate races to beat a Democratic opponent on television from July 1 to October 10.
In the same 13 races, Democratic candidates currently have more ads reserved by election day than in two: Alaska and Texas, although those numbers are not final and candidates will continue to buy ads.
In some cases, the inequality is enormous: in North Carolina, Cunningham - whose campaign has been rocked by infidelity revelations - has spent $ 15.5 million on television since July 1 and over $ 7 million by election day booked. GOP Senator Thom Tillis has spent $ 4.4 million and reserved $ 3.5 million.
In Iowa, Greenfield has spent $ 15 million on television since July and has reserved $ 13.8 million through election day. GOP Senator Joni Ernst has spent $ 5.6 million and reserved $ 2.7 million.
"When you look at candidates with such advantages, you take their ability to win seriously because if they can have a communication advantage, that's a big deal," said JB Poersch, who heads the Senate Majority PAC, which currently has nine of them hands out GOP-held seats while also playing defense in Michigan.
External groups have helped Republicans fill the void, but the GOP is also being issued in the core states of the battlefields on that front.
GOP outgroups have been issued in Colorado, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Montana, and North Carolina for the past three months, while Democrats have been issued in Georgia, Kentucky, and South Carolina. Republican groups have booked more in Georgia and South Carolina by election day, and the two parties are nearly equal in Maine and Michigan. But Democrats have reserved more television advertising in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, and North Carolina.
That inequality extends to digital ads, which are free to display democratic campaigns, said Tim Lim, a Democratic digital consultant.
"Anyone can now use the gold-plated strategy," Lim said. "There is now an option to treat digital like cable or broadcast purchases, and that is exactly what is happening [and] all of those spending must be made in the next 29 days."
For some Republicans, the money exacerbates general problems as the party fights for a majority: Trump's falling polls, an anti-them environment, and a card with more and more incumbents under duress and only two legitimate offensive options.
"It's high alert at this point," said Liam Donovan, a lobbyist who said Republicans were "terrified" by the current environment. "I don't think anyone wrote off the Senate, but everyone knows the snapshot in time is pretty bleak and things have to stabilize pretty quickly."
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