Democrats have more midterm hope — but prepare for surging GOP spending


With gas prices in Nevada nearing $5 a gallon and President Biden’s approval rating in the state at 33%, Senator Catherine Cortez Masto relied on a huge publicity blitz this summer to keep his edge — relentlessly reintroducing himself to voters and hammering his GOP opponent Adam Laxalt for his ties to Big Oil.

It’s a trick Senate Democrats have been using across the country, even before recent legislative breakthroughs in Washington that will likely give them more accomplishments to run on. State after state, Democrats have leveraged their enormous financial advantages to define their Republican adversaries in the minds of voters, despite an unpopular president and historic economic headwinds.

But strategists in both parties expect the dynamic to change now that primary campaigns are nearly over, as Republicans seek to recover from brutal in-party fights and begin to close the spending gap – setting up what all expect to be a nail-biter of a fall campaign on the fate of a 50-50 Senate and the prospect of a new governing majority for House Republicans.

Laxalt — a former state attorney general whose team has spent nearly 3-to-1 on TV and radio advertising so far — is expected to close the gap to 2-1 in the final months of the campaign. , according to Republican bookings and spending data reviewed by The Washington Post.

“No matter how many dishonest ads she runs, Senator Masto cannot buy the hearts and minds of Nevada voters struggling with the economy she destroyed,” Laxalt said in a statement Tuesday. .

The assertion comes after a surprisingly rocky Republican start. Democrats have benefited from deep, lingering scars from the Republican primaries, uneven candidate performance, poor fundraising and a recent surge of enthusiasm from donors and Democratic voters after the Supreme Court struck down the constitutional law. to abortion.

Public polling averages and internal numbers from both parties suggest Democrats are slightly ahead or effectively tied in nearly every contested Senate race. The only exception is Pennsylvania, where Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman (D) has taken a clear lead over famed doctor Mehmet Oz. Another crucial Senate race was kicked off in Tuesday’s primary in Wisconsin, with victories for incumbent Sen. Ron Johnson (R) and challenger Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes (D).

Gas prices have fallen from their peak, job numbers have exceeded expectations, covid fears are easing and Democrats are poised to break an intraparty deadlock over legislation to reduce federal spending on prescription drugs and better respond to climate change. Polling averages also saw Democrats claw back parity on which party voters want to back in congressional elections, after losing the edge last November amid rising coronavirus infections.

But the underlying dynamic of the midterm election remains, with a recession still looming, a jittery stock market and continued growth in inflation the Federal Reserve has said it will continue to deal with higher rates. ever-higher interest. The incumbent president’s party has lost House seats in every midterm election since 2002, when President George W. Bush rallied the nation in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Senate contests, however, have historically been less dependent on the national environment, often playing out as personality contests between candidates who can spend a lot on publicity in their states. In the 2018 election, when Republicans suffered a rout in the House, they won two Senate seats.

GOP fears that Democrats will be the ones to turn the tide this year are rooted in part in the competitive card, which is widely contested in states with well-funded Democratic incumbents and relatively inexperienced GOP challengers. Republican Senate candidates in Arizona, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Ohio are all holding their first races against more experienced Democratic politicians with records that have already been vetted by voters.

Each of these Republican candidates has won contested primaries with the help of former President Donald Trump, who continues to dominate the contest and has privately threatened to declare a 2024 presidential campaign this fall, possibly further disrupting campaigns. . The federal search warrant executed at his Mar-a-Lago home, as part of an investigation into mishandled federal records, has the potential to further boost Republican turnout in November.

But Trump’s preference for political newcomers has exposed them to a deluge of negative press in recent weeks — Herschel Walker in Georgia for his violent past and often meandering public performances; Oz in Pennsylvania for having lived until recently in New Jersey; JD Vance in Ohio for controversial comments including the downsides of divorce, even in violent marriages; and Blake Masters in Arizona for his extreme academic writing and recent endorsement of Social Security privatization.

The disparity in ad spending was also stark. In New Hampshire, Democrats enjoy a 2-to-1 advantage in total ad spend and bookings made so far. In Arizona, Sen. Mark Kelly’s (D) campaign ended in June after spending nearly nine times as much as the Masters campaign, which suffered $9 million in negative publicity via the GOP primary, according to the federal records and ad tracking. Kelly took in $25 million in the bank, compared to $1.5 million for Masters.

The same dynamic developed in Ohio, where Rep. Tim Ryan (D) spent $18 million on his Senate campaign through the end of June, compared to just $3 million for Vance, who was beaten in its primary by Republican rivals. In Georgia, where Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) has so far spent more than five times as much as Walker on advertising, Republicans have earmarked $49 million in spending for the rest of the Senate cycle, up from $68 million dollars for Democrats.

In Pennsylvania — where Oz was bloated with an estimated $20 million in attack ads during the primary while Fetterman skated away with barely a scratch — Republicans expect to do battle on the airwaves with something closer parity in the fall. About $41 million was earmarked by Democratic Senate interests and $33 million earmarked by Republicans.

In all of those races, television and radio bookings show Republican spending rising in proportion to Democratic spending in the final months of the campaign.

“Democratic incumbents supported Joe Biden and his disastrous agenda 100% of the time, while Democratic challengers took hardline positions,” Republican National Senate Committee spokesman Chris Hartline said of his party’s message against Biden and Democratic politics. “Voters are about to hear a lot more.”

Republicans still seem well-positioned to regain control of the House, given these races’ tendency to follow the national mood, though even there Democrats have grown more optimistic.

“What’s clear is that we’ve been counted and now we’re coming back,” Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (DN.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in an interview with The Post. “What you see is that the Republicans have their eggs in one basket: they expect things to be terrible. But the bad news for the MAGA crowd is that our country is moving forward.

The Democrats are making no secret of their plans to better define the candidates over the coming month by retracing other episodes from their past.

“I feel like any Republican candidate we’re running against has a story that’s being told in the earned media,” Senate PAC Majority Leader JB Poersch said of his party’s efforts to research and share the stories of their opponents. . “There are a lot of them out there. But some of them are not.

In a striking example, a announcement published this week by the Republican Accountability Project, a group critical of some Republican candidates, featured footage of Walker’s ex-wife depicting him holding a gun to his head and threatening to “blow my brains out.”

“The key dynamic, especially in Senate races, is this economy, which is one of the great Republican-friendly election cycles in history, and a group of candidates who are struggling to get into fighting shape. said a Senate Republican strategist who spoke on condition of anonymity to speak candidly about his party’s prospects. “At this point, I tempered the enthusiasm.”

Still, Democrats expect polls to tighten in the coming months as voters tune into the races and spending nears parity.

“We anticipate that each of our battlefield races will be extremely close,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee communications director David Bergstein. “Democrats will need more resources to fight the next wave of GOP spending and define our opponents.”

In Nevada, Cortez Masto got a boost over Laxalt, which struggled to fundraise at the same clip. Her campaign has already spent more on ads than the $7.1 million Laxalt has earmarked for the entire cycle, with bookings indicating she plans to spend at least $21 million in total.

But Laxalt will receive aid in the form of more than $16 million from the Senate Leadership Fund, a Republican support group, later this year, the documents show. Candidates’ money goes further into television advertising than outside group spending, as federal law requires stations to charge lower rates to politicians.

Despite the mismatched budgets, Republicans remain optimistic about Nevada’s recovery, with several strategists listing it as the most winnable of seats contested with Democratic incumbents.

“If you want to watch a race where Democratic spending should set off alarm bells, it’s Nevada. Cortez Masto poured money there and it’s not going anywhere,” said Steven Law, head of the Senate Leadership Fund. “It’s been a margin-of-error race when she wasn’t spending. And now it’s a margin-of-error race.

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