On Friday night, Fox News host Sean Hannity had a bone to pick with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.). A day earlier, in an interview in his home state of Kentucky, McConnell had delivered a not-so-subtle critique of the candidates he’s counting on to give him control of the Senate in 2023.
“I think there’s probably a greater likelihood the House flips than the Senate,” he said when asked about November’s midterm elections. “Senate races are just different, they’re statewide, candidate quality has a lot to do with the outcome.”
Hannity, perhaps the nighttime Fox News host most obsequious to the GOP, didn’t like what he heard.
“Democrats are painting Republican Senate candidates in upcoming elections and midterms as cruel and out of touch,” he said. “Apparently, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is content to leave them out to dry and fend for themselves.”
The back-and-forth between the politician and the pundit had the makings of the beginning of a blame game, exposing a barely hidden feud between McConnell’s political operation and the more Donald Trump-friendly operatives at the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), as the GOP faces the possibility it may fall short of capturing Congress’ upper chamber.
The causes for Republicans’ frustration are numerous: Their candidates in key states, they privately acknowledge, are disappointing at best. Democrats have surged to massive fundraising advantages, while expensive and bitter Republican primaries have cost millions of dollars worth of political treasure and left lasting marks.
But neither party believes the battle for the 50-50 Senate will be anything short of a donnybrook. The political environment for Democrats remains poor, with rampant but cooling inflation and President Joe Biden’s low approval rating driving voter sentiment nationally. And the GOP’s equivalent of the Death Star — the cash-rich Senate Leadership Fund (SLF), which is controlled by McConnell allies — is only just now moving into position to hammer Democrats with ads about inflation, immigration and crime.
Over the course of the summer, Democratic candidates flush with small donations have been able to massively outspend their Republican competition on television ads, according to HuffPost’s analysis of data provided by a source tracking media buys.
Across eight states at the core of the Senate map, Democratic candidates are on track to spend more than $74 million on ads between Memorial Day and Labor Day, compared to just $12.6 million for Republican candidates. In every state, Democratic candidates have at least a 3:1 spending advantage over their GOP counterparts. In Ohio, the advantage is on pace to be more than 150:1.
That will change after Labor Day: SLF, which is controlled by allies of McConnell, is set to spend $156 million across those states, dramatically closing the gap with Democrats. In total, Republicans are set to spend $193 million, with the super PAC — which can collect and spend unlimited sums, as long as it does not directly coordinate with campaigns — picking up 80% of that tab. Democrats have booked $217 million worth of air time.
“Senate Democratic candidates have been living a lie, selling a version of themselves in consultant-crafted advertisements that don’t square with reality,” said Jack Pandol, the communications director for SLF. “This fall, groups like ours will be making voters aware of these Democrats’ lockstep support of the Biden agenda: higher inflation, higher crime, higher taxes and lower quality of life.”
In other words, Democrats’ strong summer has put their incumbents in New Hampshire, Nevada, Georgia and Arizona in a position to win, and given challengers in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania leads in public surveys. But rather than locking up control of Congress’ upper chamber, their successes have merely shifted the terrain, making GOP victories in blue states like Colorado and Washington less likely and forcing Republicans to play defense in Florida and Ohio.
“We know every one of our battleground races is going to be extremely tight. Senate Democrats have benefited from the weakness of Republican recruits and the strength of our own campaigns,” said David Bergstein, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “But we are staring down significant resources that will be deployed against us by McConnell’s super PAC, and our campaigns will need to be able to counter those attacks in order to be successful.”
‘We’ve Been Able To Create Our Own Weather’
An NBC News poll, released Sunday morning, did not look great for Democrats. Biden’s approval rating stood at 42%, with 55% disapproval. The public was split on whom they would prefer to control Congress: 47% chose Republicans, 45% chose Democrats. Roughly two-thirds of voters say the United States is in a recession, and 74% said the country is heading in the wrong direction.
On a state-by-state basis, however, Senate Democrats are excelling. The party has three endangered incumbents who know who their November opponent will be — Mark Kelly of Arizona, Raphael Warnock of Georgia and Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada — and all three have leads in FiveThirtyEight’s polling averages. (The party’s fourth vulnerable incumbent, New Hampshire Sen. Maggie Hassan, still has to wait for a Sept. 13 GOP primary.)
Democratic challengers are also excelling: Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman has led in every single public poll of his Senate race against celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz, sometimes by double-digit margins. Cheri Beasley, the former chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, has closed the gap with Republican Rep. Ted Budd. Polling in Wisconsin has been limited, but surveys show Democratic Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes with a slender lead over GOP Sen. Ron Johnson.
It’s possible to craft a narrative where these leads are part of a broader Democratic comeback, with the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, a bipartisan gun control law and the overturn of Roe v. Wade leading to a nationwide embrace of Biden and his party. But strategists working on key races say that’s simply not the case.
“We’ve been able to create our own weather, but the atmosphere we’re living in remains toxic,” said one Democratic strategist working on Senate races who requested anonymity to discuss Biden’s poor standing.
Biden remains unpopular, and isn’t exactly first on any candidate’s invite list. Asked last week, Kelly did not jump at the chance for a presidential trip to Arizona.
“I welcome anybody to come to Arizona and let me, you know, show him around the state and, you know, the issues that we’re facing,” he told reporters. “I mean, it doesn’t doesn’t matter who it is.”
There are some hopeful signs in the environment: The NBC News poll found 66% of Democrats were enthusiastic about voting in November, compared to 68% of Republicans. Back in March, Republicans had a 17-point advantage in enthusiasm. And the decision to overturn Roe remains deeply unpopular: 58% disapprove of the Supreme Court’s move, and just 38% approve.
But the key reason for Democrats’ advantage in Senate contests so far is inescapable: money.
Money, Money, Money
In the eight states that make up the core of the Senate map, Democratic candidates had raised an average of $35 million as of their most recent filing with the FEC, compared to just $11.3 million for GOP candidates. The gap has been even more pronounced among small-dollar donations, with Democrats bringing in an average of $14.1 million to just $2.4 million for Republicans.
That’s given Democrats the necessary cash to swamp summertime television with positive advertising, like an ad from Kelly’s campaign where a Republican small business owner praises the senator for helping his business stay afloat during COVID, or a Fetterman spot where he proposes banning congressional stock trading and cutting taxes for families.
At the same time, Republicans have spent much of their cash waging brutal primaries. In Arizona, for instance, one of the largest GOP spenders over the summer was actually the campaign of businessman Jim Lamon, which spent more than $6 million on ads attacking Blake Masters, including spots highlighting his praise of the Unabomber as an “underrated thinker.”
The fundraising gap has the GOP in a barely-hidden panic. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) went on Fox News on Tuesday to beg the conservative network’s viewers to donate money for his race against Democratic Rep. Val Demings in the ultra-expensive Sunshine State. In a fundraising email on Tuesday, venture capitalist J.D. Vance pushed the bounds of alarmism even further.
“At this point, if I don’t do a complete 180 on the fundraising front, not only will I have to possibly SHUT DOWN my campaign, but Republicans may never win another race this year,” Vance wrote.
Vance’s campaign is a particular source of frustration for national Republicans, who believe the venture capitalist simply hasn’t worked hard enough since winning his primary, and is trailing in private polls conducted by both parties.
Over the course of summer months, Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan is set to spend more than $9 million, while Vance’s campaign is only set to spend roughly $55,000. Senate Leadership Fund recently announced plans to spend $28 million in Ohio — a massive deployment of resources in a state Trump won by 10 percentage points.
Not long ago, Republicans were hyping up challengers to Democratic senators in Washington state and Colorado, believing Tiffany Smiley and Joe O’Dea were striking the right balance to win over persuadable voters in a Republican-leaning year. But many national Republicans now concede it’s unlikely the party will have the resources to make major plays in the pair of blue-leaning states while also shoring up GOP candidates in ultra-expensive Ohio and potentially Florida.
“J.D. Vance isn’t going to cost Republicans Ohio,” one national GOP strategist said, requesting anonymity to criticize one of his party’s nominees. “But he might cost us a chance to win Colorado.”
‘Fight For Your Team’
Colorado has already been the cause of some GOP infighting this cycle. When Democrats spent more than $5 million to boost an ultra-conservative candidate’s chances against O’Dea, the McConnell-controlled Senate Leadership Fund did nothing. The NRSC has long stayed neutral in primaries.
The group’s decision not to get involved in Colorado contrasted with its involvement in Alabama’s primary, where it spent millions to boost establishment-backed Katie Britt over archconservative Rep. Mo Brooks in Alabama’s Senate race — a race either Republican would have won in the deep-red, deep-South state — and with the decisions of its House counterpart to counter Democratic meddling in primaries.
“McConnell has always cared as much about who’s in his caucus as he does about winning the majority,” said one national Republican strategist working on Senate races who requested anonymity to talk freely about the party’s powerful leader. “It set a really bad precedent to just let Democrats meddle freely.”
But the clash over Colorado has been just one of several between McConnell and Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who chairs the NRSC and has enlisted his consultants at OnMessage, Inc. to help run the organization. After McConnell made clear he would prefer not to create a specific GOP agenda, Scott unveiled one anyway — and provisions in it to sunset Social Security and Medicare and increase taxes on the poor quickly became Democratic talking points.
The squabbling has picked up in recent days, with some allies of Scott and the NRSC privately blaming McConnell-aligned operatives for blind quotes criticizing the committee in The Washington Post and for an Axios story about Scott vacationing in Italy.
NRSC spokesman Chris Hartline said the committee won’t engage in finger-pointing.
“We have no interest in playing the blame game,” Hartline said. “There are plenty of anonymous D.C. consultants who excel at that and nothing else. We’re focused on helping our candidates win and will continue to be until we win back the majority in November.”
The NRSC is facing a clear cash crunch: The latest FEC reports indicate the committee has $23.2 million on hand, compared to more than $50 million for the DSCC. There’s two causes — the aforementioned weak GOP candidate fundraising, which has forced the committee to spend $40 million on television ads — and major investments the party made in building up its fundraising base, including spending more than $21 million on text messages.
While building up more of a small-dollar donor base has been a priority for the GOP, the committee’s critics argue it hasn’t paid off, noting the committee has less cash on hand than it did at this point in the 2020 campaign cycle.
McConnell’s concerns about “candidate quality,” however, are picking a fight with a much bigger figure than Scott. Every GOP nominee in a top-tier Senate race won their primary with Trump’s endorsement.
But despite saying, in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection, he would fight the former president politically, McConnell did nothing to stop Trump’s handpicked candidates from marching to nominations in key states — instead battling him in Alabama and Alaska, where the leader’s political operation is defending incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski from a Trump-backed challenger.
That hasn’t been enough for Hannity. “Get out there, Mitch, and fight for your team,” the host implored on Friday night, adding later: “Maybe Mitch McConnell hates Donald Trump so much that he would probably rather see Trump-endorsed candidates lose because he might think that would hurt Donald Trump? His time as a leader has come to an end.”
As much as Trump allies would like to pin the blame on McConnell, it’s his fundraising prowess that now appears ready to bail out Trump-backed candidates. In Pennsylvania, where the Trump-backed Oz trails badly, SLF has started advertising early. One ad hammers Fetterman for supporting “sanctuary cities” and early releases from prison.
“John Fetterman is just too far left,” a narrator says.
In Arizona, where SLF is set to spend at least $15 million, Masters — who called for McConnell to be ousted as party leader during the GOP primary — is now playing nice with the Kentuckian.
“Arizona’s gonna be competitive. It’s gonna be a close race, and I hope he does come in,” he told The Associated Press. “I think I’m a much better candidate than Mitch McConnell gives me credit for.”
And he made one major concession: “I think he’ll be in charge,” Masters said of McConnell.