Politics & Policy

Expanded Senate Map Forces Tough Spending Choices for GOP Groups

Senators Pat Toomey (left) and Kelly Ayotte (Photos: Gage Skidmore)
Republicans wonder whether strategic choices will cost them the upper chamber in November.

Two years ago, North Carolina’s house speaker, Thom Tillis, defeated incumbent senator Kay Hagan in the first $100 million Senate race in American political history. The race was emblematic of how much money has begun flowing into politics in the post–​Citizens United era, but it also reflected an underlying political reality: Republicans and Democrats alike viewed the state as the one on which control of the Senate hinged, so both sides poured virtually limitless resources into winning it. It was the mountain on which Democrats would ultimately die, but their Republican counterparts were prepared to do so, too.

This year, with the Senate majority once again hanging in the balance, a broad look at where outside groups are funneling their money helps to identify not only where the key Senate battlegrounds are but also what strategic calculations both sides are making in the final countdown to Election Day. To wit: Neither side is spending much money in Illinois or Wisconsin, races that strategists across the political spectrum seem to believe Democrats are likely to win. In fact, the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) has yet to spend a dime to boost its incumbent, Mark Kirk, in Illinois, and has funneled just $907,000 to help Ron Johnson in Wisconsin. 

Nonetheless, with six weeks to go, Republican-aligned outside groups are on track to outspend their Democratic counterparts in every Senate race except Pat Toomey’s in Pennsylvania and Kelly Ayotte’s in New Hampshire. Not coincidentally, those races, plus Marco Rubio’s matchup in Florida, are also drawing in far more outside spending than any others. The question some are beginning to ask is: Are Republicans making the wrong call letting two vulnerable incumbents get badly outspent, or is the GOP — faced with an expanded Senate map that now includes states such as Missouri and North Carolina— simply allocating its resources efficiently?

One top Republican strategist says the GOP is simply getting “out-hustled” in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire. “The other side wants those ones more than our side does,” he says. “We’ve chosen to spend substantially less than the Democrats.” Whereas in North Carolina in 2014 or in Wisconsin and Illinois this year, strategists on both sides appear to have drawn the same conclusions about the races – and are therefore allocating similar resources — they have made different calculations about Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, where Democrats are significantly outspending Republicans. Meanwhile, GOP-aligned groups are massively outspending Democrats in Missouri and North Carolina, states traditionally more friendly to Republicans. That said, resources could shift significantly between now and Election Day as outside groups place and cancel existing ad buys and funnel money from one race to another.

Indeed, money is flowing to Republican incumbents Roy Blunt in Missouri and Richard Burr in North Carolina, who have unexpectedly found themselves in competitive races. Outside spending to date currently favors Blunt over his opponent by a four-to-one margin, and Burr over his by a three-to-one margin, while both candidates are struggling to hold on to their lead: The latest polls show Blunt trailing by two points and Burr in a dead heat, though Democrats are spending little in either state.

In Pennsylvania, where the RealClearPolitics polling average has Toomey trailing Democratic challenger Katie McGinty by a fraction of a percentage point in a race that has already drawn $55 million in outside spending, Democratic groups have outspent Republican groups by $8.5 million. That deficit is on track to increase to $14 million by Election Day. The Harry Reid–​aligned Senate Majority PAC has already sunk $6.3 million into the race. And, according to current and future ad reservations, it’s on track to spent an astonishing $17.6 million in the state by election day — far more than its Republican counterpart or any other outside group. To put that number in perspective, Senate Majority PAC’s second-largest investment, based on past and current advertising reservations, is in Nevada, where right now it is set to spend $9.8 million by the end of the 2016 cycle.

One top Republican strategist says the GOP is simply getting ‘out-hustled’ in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire.

Democratic groups are also outspending Republicans in New Hampshire, where they have buried incumbent Kelly Ayotte in attack ads. To date, they have invested about $4 million more than Republicans have in the state, though both sides are pouring money into a race that is on track to draw in over $85 million from outside groups alone by Election Day. Granite State Solutions, a group affiliated with Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and Republican strategist Karl Rove, is in the middle of a $15.8 million ad buy to bolster Ayotte. Yet Democrats are spending even more to defeat her. “The Dems have decided that New Hampshire is their North Carolina in 2014,” says a former NRSC staffer. “There is no amount of money they are not going to spend in that state.”

Republicans offer competing explanations for the disparities in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire. Some say there’s a sense that, in the case of Pennsylvania, Donald Trump is simply too big a drag on the ticket for Toomey to prevail. “Part of the reason money’s not going to Pennsylvania is that people just assume Trump’s going to get blown out and Toomey’s dead,” says a second Republican strategist. “Compared with Indiana, where there is a sense that you can drag [GOP nominee] Todd Young across the finish line if you spend enough money, Pennsylvania feels different.” (Trump leads Clinton in Indiana by an average of nine points while he trails in Pennsylvania by an average of about six points.) If that’s the case, Democrats and their allies don’t see things they same way and believe it’s necessary to spend massively to sink Toomey, even with Trump weighing him down.

Others insist that money Republicans once planned to spend in states such as Ohio and Florida will be reallocated to Pennsylvania and New Hampshire later in the game. Incumbent Republican Rob Portman was once thought vulnerable in Ohio but is now handily ahead of Democrat Ted Strickland in a contest that is no longer considered competitive. Florida is not yet quite such a sure bet. “Nobody’s going to leave Florida until that thing is locked,” says Josh Holmes, a former chief of staff to Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, who adds that Marco Rubio’s solid performance there should allow Republicans to shift resources elsewhere. It helps that Republican-leaning outside groups backing Rubio have outspent Democratic groups in the Sunshine State by about $8 million to date. A spokesman for the Senate Leadership Fund says he expects the group — already slated to spend $6 million in Pennsylvania in the closing weeks of the campaign — to invest even more by Election Day.

#related#The former NRSC official says states such as Pennsylvania and New Hampshire will simply get the “late money.” “We are going to shore up the races we can win like Missouri, North Carolina, and Indiana, because those are winnable races,” he says. “The jump-ball races, those are going to get the money that’s late. If Missouri, North Carolina, and Indiana all pop up like six points, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania are going to get the money that’s late.”

In 2012, two Democratic Senate candidates — North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp and Montana’s Jon Tester — were elected in red states where President Obama, running at the top of the ticket, should arguably have dragged them down. Heitkamp outperformed Obama by eleven points in a race where Democrats massively outspent Republicans; Tester ran seven points ahead of Obama under similar circumstances. In 2016, the question is whether Republicans are foregoing similar opportunities in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire or just playing defense where they must.

—​ Eliana Johnson is National Review’s Washington editor.