Big Money May Not Save GOP Senators

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Senator Marco Rubio heads to the Senate chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington. 

Senate Republicans have built a seemingly impenetrable wall of money to insulate themselves from the threat of a Democratic takeover, but they are starting to discover—not for the first time—that deep pockets aren’t everything.

It’s too early to say how badly the tape scandal that’s triggered open warfare between Donald Trump and GOP leaders will damage Republicans struggling to hold onto their Senate majority, or whether it may even put the House in play. But the massive GOP spending advantage that until now has insulated many Republicans from the radioactive Trump suddenly looks less foolproof.

“I think there are cycles when parties develop problems that money can’t fix,” notes Nathan Gonzales, editor of the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report, pointing to 2006 and 2010 as examples. In 2006, congressional Republicans outspent Democrats but still lost the House and the Senate in an election that became a referendum on the Iraq War. In 2010, Democrats outspent Republicans by almost 2 to 1, but still lost the House and several Senate seats.

In this election, Senate Republicans started out defending more than twice as many seats as Democrats, but benefited handsomely from a spending bonanza by billionaire GOP donors who shoveled big money into congressional contests instead of giving it to Trump. A full 63 percent of the $737 million spent by super PACs so far in this election has been doled out by pro-GOP groups, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political money. The billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch had been poised to spend hundreds of millions on the presidential contest but shifted their focus to helping Republicans retain Senate control.

Until now, that’s helped such incumbent GOP Senators as North Carolina’s Richard Burr, Ohio’s Rob Portman and Florida’s Marco Rubio fend off Democratic challenges despite Trump’s potential drag on swing state Republicans. Conservative outside groups have outspent liberal ones by more than 3 to 1 in Florida, and more than 2 to 1 in both North Carolina and Ohio. Portman, for one, has spent $9.1 million to his Democratic opponent's, former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland, $3.3 million, and gotten a nearly $34 million assist from a long list of conservative-allied groups that includes the Koch-linked Freedom Partners Action Fund and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Left-leaning outside groups, by contrast, have spent $16 million helping Strickland.

But Democrats are starting to sense their opening, and Priorities USA Action, the top-spending Democratic super PAC backing Hillary Clinton, may soon start running ads in such traditionally Republican states as Arizona, Georgia, and other tightening presidential and Senate battlegrounds. Arizona’s Republican Senator, John McCain, has disavowed Trump but faces a backlash from conservative voters in his state, caught in the political crosscurrents now threatening GOP lawmakers.

Democratic money may now start moving from the presidential column to congressional contests. Clinton and her allies have already outspent Trump and his backers by an unheard-of margin in a presidential race. The Clinton campaign and Democratic outside groups have spent close to $517 million, more than twice the $206 million spent by Trump and his GOP supporters. If Clinton continues to pull ahead of Trump in the polls, Priorities USA Action and other pro-Democrat groups that back her can afford to invest more in House and Senate contests. On a recent Florida campaign stop, Clinton leveled attacks on Rubio in a bid to shore up his challenger, House Democrat Patrick Murphy.

Rubio remains ahead in the polls, and his financial advantage remains substantial. Murphy’s campaign has actually slightly outspent Rubio’s, and the two have about the same amount of cash on hand. But outside conservative organizations, including the Koch-funded group Americans for Prosperity and the Senate Leadership Fund, the leading GOP Senate super PAC, have spent $23.9 million on Rubio’s behalf, compared with just $7.3 million spent by Democrat-friendly groups helping Murphy.

It may be enough to enable Rubio to hold onto his seat. But the momentum that Senate Republicans appeared to gain following Clinton’s bout with pneumonia has ground to a halt and may soon reverse in Democrats’ favor. Every now and then, an election comes along that sweeps aside every seemingly foolproof advantage, including a bulging campaign war chest, in the political hurricane. This may be one of those years. If Republicans do manage to hold onto their Senate majority, it will be thanks in large part to their billionaire donors.

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