Democrats spent years sounding the alarm on “dark money” as groups pummeled their senators. Now, the left is the side delivering the early blow.
A quartet of new nonprofit groups has already spent millions of dollars hammering four of the most vulnerable Republican senators on the ballot next year, sparking a wave of concern among strategists trying to protect the GOP’s slim three-seat Senate majority in 2020.
Outside groups in Arizona, Colorado, Maine and Iowa have already spent or booked over $1 million in each state — and in some cases much more, according to Advertising Analytics — on advertising criticizing the senators, more than doubling the spending from Republican-aligned groups trying to respond. And in one state, Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) has faced the onslaught without any backup from Republican allies.
The early spending, combined with strong fundraising by Democratic Senate candidates, is a “wake-up call” for the GOP, said Scott Reed, the chief political strategist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber is partnering with state affiliates to boost Sens. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) with six-figure ad buys amid the spending deluge against them, running positive ads focused on local issues there and in North Carolina, where Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) faces a primary and a general election challenge.
“We expected it to be bad. Nobody expected it to be this bad,” Reed said of the early spending and fundraising figures. “The right of center groups have got to get moving. Elections have consequences and the Senate is the backstop against all out craziness.”
Leaders at the National Republican Senatorial Committee have also sounded the alarm. In an October memo, Sen. Todd Young, the committee’s chairman, and Kevin McLaughlin, its executive director, wrote that there had been a “flurry of outside spending” in those four races.
“[Democratic] groups are going on offense, with outside money pouring into states like Arizona, Maine, Colorado, and Iowa,” they wrote in the memo, a copy of which was obtained by POLITICO. They added that while Republicans had successful fundraising quarters, they were up against “record-breaking [Democratic] fundraising” and that outside spending was increasing against those four incumbents.
The financial onslaught mirrors conservative strategy before the GOP won control of the Senate in 2014, when groups affiliated with the Koch brothers swamped Democratic senators with early ads that hit their poll numbers and forced some of them to drain their own campaign funds early in response.
This year’s early barrage is not coming from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee or the super PAC Senate Majority PAC, the main players in Democratic Senate campaigns. Instead, the top spenders are a band of nonprofit organizations that formed just this year, which can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money and do not have to disclose information about their donors.
Each of the new nonprofits is incorporated in the state they are running ads in and run by local Democratic operatives, and none of the groups have any clear ties to national Democratic groups. But in 2017 and 2018, Senate Majority PAC funded pop-up super PACs in several states with critical Senate elections, and the groups’ ties to national Democrats and donors weren’t revealed until after the elections. A spokesperson for Senate Majority PAC declined to comment.
In Arizona, Democratic groups have already spent more than $2 million on the airwaves criticizing McSally, with the vast majority coming from Advancing Arizona, a nonprofit created early this year. The group has run ads attacking McSally on health care, which was a signature issue in the Democratic Senate campaign against her in 2018, before she was appointed to her current seat.
The Chamber of Commerce has spent nearly $1 million in response, boosting McSally with ads on trade and local water issues.
In Iowa, Democratic-aligned groups have tripled Republican groups on the airwaves, spending more than $1.8 million on early ads attacking Ernst. Most of it has come from Iowa Forward, a nonprofit that does not reveal its donors but has spent $1.4 million so far this election, according to Advertising Analytics. Their ads have focused on health care, including one where a veteran says he respects Ernst’s military service, but is “disappointed in what she’s done since she went to Washington.”
Brook Ramlet, a spokesperson for Ernst’s campaign, said in a statement that outside groups spending so heavily “to lie about Joni shows how terrified the radical left is of her.”
Colorado is potentially Democrats’ top target this year, a must-win race for them to retake the Senate majority. Three groups — Rocky Mountain Values, which is one of the newly-formed local nonprofits; the gun control group Giffords; and Need to Impeach, the anti-Trump group founded by billionaire presidential candidate Tom Steyer — have combined to spend more than $1.2 million on TV in the state this year, while no Republican group has aired any ads so far.
In Maine, Collins and her challenger, state House Speaker Sara Gideon, have spent more than $500,000 apiece on the airwaves already, more than almost any other campaign in the country on either side.
But Democratic outside groups have nearly doubled GOP outside spending so far. Maine Momentum, a local nonprofit staffed with veteran Democratic operatives — including a former staffer for Gideon —has spent nearly $1 million, and Need to Impeach and Demand Justice, a Democratic group that focuses on the judiciary, have also spent six figures this year.
The Chamber of Commerce, a super PAC backing Collins and One Nation, a nonprofit aligned with GOP leadership, have both spent or booked six figures on the race already — but altogether, they have barely spent half of the Democratic groups’ total.
“As long as she is paying more attention to those special interests than us, we are going to keep working to raise up the voices of average people here in Maine,” Willy Ritch, executive director for Maine Momentum, said in a statement. He said they “do not and cannot” work with any national Democratic organizations.
Collins has been critical of the groups running early ads against her.
“The far left has been particularly active in pouring dark money ads into Maine against me,” Collins said. “But I’ve taken my share of arrows from the far right too.”
Jesse Hunt, a spokesman for the NRSC, called it “hypocritical” for Democrats to run against dark money in politics while groups that don’t disclose their donors are running TV ads in these races.
“It’s easy to see through this phony rhetoric, and Democratic candidates will suffer for it at the ballot box,” Hunt said.
End Citizens United, a group that opposes dark money in politics, has endorsed Democratic candidates in Maine, Iowa and Arizona. Patrick Burgwinkle, a spokesman for ECU, said they would welcome GOP support in opposition to dark money.
“The Citizens United decision opened a floodgate of unlimited dark money in our elections, and Democrats are the only ones trying to do something about it,” he said.
Several Republican strategists downplayed the overall impact of the early spending, pointing out that the money was spread out over months and thus less likely to have significant impact a year out from Election Day. Though the entirety of the early spending is already in the millions, it is likely to be dwarfed by the more traditional Senate outside groups on both sides of the aisle next year. Steven Law, president of Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, said at a donor event Thursday night that the goal of SLF and its affiliated nonprofit One Nation was to raise $200 million for the cycle, and that they had already raised $50 million this year.
“This is hardly the first time outside groups have burned through their donors’ cash a full year before an election,” said Jack Pandol, spokesman for the groups. “It can be unpleasant for their targets but these groups are getting pennies on the dollar in terms of long-term impact in these races.”
Burgess Everett contributed to this report.
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