Democratic senator Kay Hagan of North Carolina was pounded last winter and spring in TV ads by conservative groups for having voted for Obamacare and echoed President Obama's false claim that people could keep their current health insurance. "They had her on the ropes," says Marc Rotterman, a Republican consultant in North Carolina.
Then Senate Majority PAC, Harry Reid's personal political action committee, intervened. Its television spots defended Hagan and attacked Thom Tillis, her Republican challenger, for supposedly dubious ethics. This was only the beginning. By last week, Reid's PAC had spent $9 million to boost Hagan's reelection. And Hagan's candidacy was saved from an early, and possibly fatal, tailspin.
Hagan has outraised Tillis, the state house speaker, $19.2 million to $4.8 million. But that's only one measure of her money advantage. Liberal and Democratic groups have devoted $26.3 million to going after Tillisa chunk of it on ads while he was still running in the Republican primaryand another $4 million touting her. Conservative and Republican groups were unable to neutralize the anti-Tillis barrage. They've spent $17.3 million against Hagan and $10.9 million to promote Tillis. In overall campaign spending, Hagan tops Tillis by $53.7 million to $33 million. This, however, doesn't count undisclosed millions in "issue ads" criticizing Hagan by Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group.
The result: Hagan, a mediocre candidate at best, led Tillis in polls for months. Only in mid-October, with spending for Tillis finally matching that for Hagan, has the race tightened. He was ahead by a percentage point or two in several recent polls. Still, Hagan felt confident enough of winning to skip a scheduled debate with Tillis last week.
The North Carolina campaign is a reflection of what's happened in many of the competitive Senate races. The political fundamentals favor Republicans. President Obama is so unpopular that Democratic candidates avoid mentioning his name, much less inviting him to appear at their campaign events or in their TV spots. Meanwhile, the economy is stagnant. Foreign policy failures continue to stack up. America's global influence fades. Two-thirds of Americans are pessimistic about the country's future. Democrats have few national issues they're comfortable talking about.
Yet they have one significant asset: money, lots and lots of money. It's this advantage, more than any other factor, that has prevented a Republican wave from developing. It has kept vulnerable candidates like Hagan from falling far behind. And rather than building up their own candidates, it has allowed Democrats to concentrate on negative TV ads assaulting Republicans and bankrolling costly Democratic get-out-the-vote efforts.
The Democratic congressional campaign committees, Senate and House, are outspending their Republican counterparts. The Center for Responsive Politics (CRP) projects they will spend $427 million by Election Day to $330.9 million by the GOP committees. The Republican National Committee, in contrast, is expected by CRP to outspend the Democratic National Committee in the midterm election cycle by $169 million to $155 million.
The Democratic edge in spending, especially in key Senate races, belies one of the party's prominent campaign themes: that Charles and David Koch are corrupting politics by their funding in support of Republicans. It turns out liberal billionaire Tom Steyer is the biggest single political donor in 2014 at $58 million, at least in terms of publicly disclosed funding. The Kochs back several "issue" groups that are not required to reveal either their spending or their donors.
"Outside spending by groupsmostly super-PACsthat disclose their donors ... is dominated by the left," CRP says. Liberal PACs will outspend conservative PACs by $270.5 million to $181.1 by Election Day, CRP projects. But if the estimate of $100 million in undisclosed spending is accurate, the liberal advantage "will be washed away" by Election Day. Maybe. But it won't change the Democratic edge in candidate fundraising where it matters the mostin the contests where control of the Senate will be decided. Republicans have gained in fundraising in October.
In Alaska, Democratic senator Mark Begich has raised $275,000 less than Republican Dan Sullivan. But he has a $3.9 million edge in outside spending. In Colorado, the situation is similar. Democratic senator Mark Udall has outraised Republican Cory Gardner $10.4 million to $9.3 million. And Udall has gotten nearly $2 million more in outside aid.
New Hampshire is another example. Democratic senator Jeanne Shaheen leads Republican Scott Brown by $9.9 million to $6.3 million in fundraising. Spending by outside groups favors Shaheen by $1.1 million. Louisiana, where Democratic senator Mary Landrieu has brought in $13.7 million to Republican Bill Cassidy's $8.6 million, is still another example. She's gotten $3.5 million more in outside help.
All this is not to accuse Democrats of doing anything wrong or illegal. They've merely emphasized the only asset they have this year. And they've been helped enormously by the nation's fundraiser in chief, President Obama.
The ability of Democrats to spend so much money before Republican fundraising picked up had strategic value for a party facing the likely loss of the Senate. "The money kept them in this up to Labor Day," says Scott Reed, the chief political adviser at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "Without it, we'd have made North Carolina and New Hampshire safe and been able to expand the playing field." Senate elections in Michigan, Minnesota, Virginia, and Oregon would have gotten more attentionand moneyfrom Republican groups, Reed says.
Last week, another liberal group rushed to the aid of Kay Hagan. The League of Conservation Voters Victory Fund announced it would invest $4.2 million to boost Hagan, both with television ads and money for increasing Democratic turnout. In the final days of the campaign, the Democratic fundraising spigot is still gushing.