Facing a tsunami of small-dollar Democratic fundraising, big GOP donors responded with a show of force to protect the party’s imperiled majority.
The GOP’s top super PAC raised nearly $50 million in the first two weeks of October, a huge sum that can help the party defend itself across a broad Senate map with close to a dozen senators in peril. But the total didn’t fix the party’s fundraising problems: Democrats’ online program continued its blistering pace into October, allowing 15 Democrats to outraise GOP senators in the first two weeks of October. Democratic campaigns still have a major cash advantage going into the final weeks of the election.
But Senate Republicans’ outside money ensures that they will be competitive on the airwaves in the run-up to the election. With President Donald Trump trailing in the polls, the Senate is the best hope for Republicans avoiding Democratic control of the presidency and both chambers of Congress next year.
Here are five takeaways from Thursday’s final campaign-finance filing deadline before the consequential Senate elections.
Big GOP donors ride to the rescue
Senate Leadership Fund, the super PAC run by allies of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, is flooding the zone with money in the closing weeks of the election. The group brought in $49.6 million in the first two weeks of October, bringing its total haul for the year to more than $280 million. SLF also spent more than $94 million in the two-week period, blitzing the map with TV ads, which is providing Republicans with desperately needed backup against Democratic spending.
The funding came almost entirely from big donors, or from unknown sources. One Nation, the dark money group aligned with SLF, added $27.5 million, more than half the total fundraising; $16 million of the rest came from six people or groups giving seven-figure checks. SLF had $69 million in the bank as of Oct. 14.
Senate Majority PAC, Democrats’ largest outside group, raised more than $24 million and spent $59.8 million, almost all of it on independent expenditures. SMP, which has raised $193.5 million this cycle, went into the final stretch of the election with $19.2 million in the bank.
Democrats made up ground elsewhere. Majority Forward, the nonprofit arm of SMP, spent $3.4 million to fund North Star, a pop-up super PAC spending in the Alaska Senate race, which has become a major target for Democrats. Both parties’ Senate campaign committees raised around $15 million in the time frame. But the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee took out a $20 million loan to help finance the final stretch of the campaign — a much larger addition than the $4 million loan from the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
The DSCC has $31.8 million in the bank for the final weeks of the campaign, compared with $18.3 million for the NRSC.
Dems' disparity grows in closing weeks
Democrats held an enormous advantage in candidate fundraising and spending in the third quarter of this year, and they continued to steamroll Republicans in the first two weeks of October.
In the 14 most competitive races on the map, Democratic candidates raised more than $84 million in the two-week period, more than double the $41 million combined from Republican senators and challengers. Democrats put the money to good use: Their campaigns spent $128 million in that time frame, compared with $69 million for the GOP.
The candidate-to-candidate disparity is critical because campaigns are guaranteed significantly better rates on TV ads than outside groups. The larger the disparity between campaigns, the more money it takes from outside groups to match the level of communication on TV. In several cases, the disparity remained massive. In Alaska, Democratic-backed independent Al Gross outraised GOP Sen. Dan Sullivan by a 6-to-1 margin; in Mississippi, Democrat Mike Espy outraised GOP Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith by a 45-to-1 margin; in Iowa, Democrat Theresa Greenfield more than tripled GOP Sen. Joni Ernst, raising $7.1 million compared with $1.9 million.
In one of the bigger surprises of the period, Democratic Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan more than doubled the haul from Republican John James, who has been a powerhouse fundraiser among his party’s candidates. Peters raised $7.4 million compared with $3.5 million for James, though the Republican still has a large cash advantage for the closing stretch.
Jaime Harrison tops the century mark
South Carolina Democrat Jaime Harrison raised more money in the first two weeks of October than the average senator or challenger raised in the previous three months combined. The $22 million haul for Harrison is another earth-shattering sum of money that has gone into making the South Carolina race the most competitive reelection of GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham’s career. Harrison’s total fundraising for the cycle now sits at nearly $109 million, the only campaign in the country to top nine figures.
He’s spending as quickly as he’s bringing in: Harrison spent more than $26 million in the two-week period — bringing his total spending to more than $105 million — and has just $3.5 million in the bank. But it’s a safe bet his fundraising will allow him to continue eclipsing his own record until Election Day.
Graham has done as well as any Republican senator to try to keep pace. He raised $14.8 million in the two week period, spent $16 million and ended the quarter with $13.1 million on hand.
Cunningham keeps it up — but faces cash crunch
North Carolina Cal Cunningham’s fundraising didn’t show any signs of lagging despite the majority of the fundraising period coming as his campaign was dealing with the fallout over his extramarital affair. But he had less than $1 million in the bank as of Oct. 14.
Cunningham acknowledged the affair on the evening of Oct. 2. But in the two-week period beginning Oct. 1, Cunningham raised $4.1 million, which was just shy of the pace of his fundraising in the third quarter of last year, when he was among his party’s best. GOP Sen. Thom Tillis, his opponent, raised $1.5 million in the same time frame — most of which came while Tillis was quarantined and recovering after testing positive for Covid-19.
Cunningham’s campaign continued to spend heavily to start the month, spending $7.5 million in the two-week period compared with $4.7 million from Tillis. But the Republican senator entered the final stretch of the election with a pretty distinct cash advantage: $3.5 million, compared with just $886,000 for Cunningham, the smallest remaining war chest of any major Democratic challenger. Still, Tillis’ campaign doesn’t have long to put that cash advantage to good use.
Gideon's war chest
Sara Gideon may be the only candidate in the country raising money faster than she can spend it.
The Maine Democrat brought in $5.9 million in the first two weeks of the month — an enormous edge over the $1.8 million GOP Sen. Susan Collins raised. Gideon has now raised $69.5 million for the entire cycle, putting her firmly in the top tier of her party’s fundraisers and easily more than doubling Collins’ total fundraising.
But Gideon hasn’t spent at the same pace. She has the largest war chest in the country entering the final stretch of the campaign with more than $20 million in the bank. That’s only slightly less than the $22 million she spent during the third quarter this year, and it seems unlikely her campaign will be able to run through the entirety of that amount in the closing weeks of the race.
It’s not as if the Maine Democrat’s campaign has been slow to move their funds through. She’s spent $48 million — almost exactly double Collins and more than every Democratic candidate in the country except Harrison, Kentucky's Amy McGrath and Arizona's Mark Kelly. But Gideon’s cash leftover gives her a ton of flexibility for the closing stretch of the race.