The McConnell-aligned super PAC is the biggest TV and digital advertiser in the most competitive Senate races




CNN

After outspending Democrats all summer, supporters of Republican candidates have poured more than $365 million in television and digital ads since the start of September.

That financial gap is being filled by the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC associated with Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, according to data from AdImpact, an advertising tracking firm. With more than $196 million invested on air and online to date, the Senate Leadership Fund is the largest TV and digital advertiser this fall in the 10 states most likely to be flipped by CNN: Georgia, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Wisconsin, New. Hampshire, Arizona, North Carolina, Ohio, Florida and Colorado.

It’s hard to beat the super PAC’s impact on advertising alone in the last two months of the election. With his help, Republicans are outspending their Democratic rivals in ads in four of those 10 races. But if it weren’t for the Senate Leadership Fund, Democrats would dominate the ad markets in every race but Florida, the reddest of the 10 states. The Senate Leadership Fund has spent no money on ads this fall for Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.

The benefit of ad spending simply means greater visibility for that candidate, whether voters see them on TV or online. “We operate on the mindset that you don’t want to give ground to your opponent,” said Eric Wilson, a political technologist who led the digital team for Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign. “So if voters hear something negative about you, you want to make sure they hear something positive, too.”

The stakes for both sides are incredibly high. With the Senate currently split 50-50, both parties need as many seats as possible to gain majority control, said Nathan Gonzales, editor of Inside Elections and a CNN contributor. Inside Elections today predicts three scenarios for the Senate in November: Republicans gain one seat, Democrats gain one seat, or the chamber remains divided with Vice President Kamala Harris as the tie-breaking vote to keep Democrats in the majority.

“The race for the Senate is so close that neither party can make mistakes,” Gonzales said.

In states with open races, such as Pennsylvania and Ohio, Republican candidates emerged from competitive and expensive primaries over the summer without much infrastructure or money for the general election. “The SLF had to try to fill the gap and take over the gap,” said Gonzales.

Some Republican candidates also lack campaign experience and will especially benefit from additional financial support. The Republican candidates in Arizona, Georgia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania—Blake Masters, Herschel Walker, JD Vance, and Dr. Mehmet Oz, respectively—have never run for public office.

“In Senate races, especially where you have these novice candidates, I think they’ve struggled with how to run a campaign,” said Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University. The wide availability of outside money means organizations like the Senate Leadership Fund can step in and conduct rescue operations, Abramowitz said.

CNN reached out to the Senate Leadership Fund for comment and was directed to its About page on its website. “As an independent super PAC, the Senate Leadership Fund has a purpose,” the website says. “Building a Republican Senate majority that will defend America from the destructive far-left agenda of Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Senate Democrats.”

That goal of taking back the Senate exposes the GOP’s flaws. In an attempt to appeal to former President Donald Trump, Republican candidates in Pennsylvania, Arizona, New Hampshire and Ohio have refused to say they support McConnell as majority leader if his party takes back the Senate. Trump has endorsed candidates in four states, and SLF is the top Republican advertiser in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Ohio.

But the GOP’s super PAC spending masks a bigger problem for Republican Senate candidates, experts told CNN: Lack of campaign infrastructure.

“Democrats have consistently done a better job of investing in campaign infrastructure, whether it’s organizing volunteers, dedicated missions or digital infrastructure,” Wilson said. “Republicans are really focused on, ‘Let’s spend as much money as we can in the last round and win that way.'”

While Democrats are no strangers to super PACs—the Chuck Schumer-affiliated Senate Majority PAC is the second-biggest advertiser in the last two months of the election after SLF—Democratic candidates are spending more on their campaign ads. In nine out of 10 races, the campaigns of Democratic Senate candidates finance roughly one-third or more of their ads.

“Republicans are trying to defeat some of the best-funded candidates in the Democratic Party,” Gonzales said, such as Mark Kelly (D-AZ) and Raphael Warnock (D-GA). Kelly and his affiliates have spent $53.4 million on ads for the fall, of which his campaign has spent nearly $23 million. Ads for Masters currently total $20.9 million.

Support from individual donors and multiple outside groups provides a financial security blanket for candidates who rely on a deep-pocketed super PAC, such as SLF, and are at greater risk of falling behind. In late September, for example, SLF took out more than $9 million in ads for the Masters, the same time a Marist poll showed Kelly leading Arizona by 10 percentage points. The super PAC has now contributed less than 3% of Masters ad spending, with his campaign spending about $1.4 million on advertising.

“If you rely on outside help, you have less control over when and what an outside team will do,” Gonzales said. “There may be a perception that outside groups have an unlimited amount of resources, but each group has limited dollars and will spend it where they see fit to gain control.”

But having to rely on outside money doesn’t mean a Republican candidate can’t still win. Inside Elections ranks three of the 10 races as a tossup, and the other four with a Republican edge. In a midterm election year with a somewhat unpopular Democratic president, the national political climate is still very favorable to Republicans, Abramowitz said.