“Money doesn’t matter” has emerged as a popular catchphrase in this turbulent and unpredictable presidential campaign, and the same refrain may soon take hold in the fight for control of the Senate.
Money does matter, of course, in setting policy agendas, winning special access, and especially in swaying elections down the ballot. Still, this year’s Senate races pit Republicans flush with fresh cash against Democrats whose donors aren’t giving as much to super PACs—and Democrats still look favored to win.
Democrats are hardly penniless, of course. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has outraised its GOP counterpart so far, and Democrats in some closely watched Senate races, including those in Colorado and Florida, have outraised their GOP opponents. The Senate Majority PAC, a pro-Democrat super PAC, had netted $5.8 million as of the latest public filings. And Democrats say the likelihood of a Republican ticket topped by either Donald Trump or Ted Cruz—both controversial even within the GOP—will brighten their fundraising along with their Senate prospects.
But Democrats also worry that Republican money, which is flowing freely, could snatch away their chance to retake the Senate. Republicans enjoy a 54-46 majority, and Democrats need only a net gain of only five seats to reclaim Senate control—four if a Democrat wins the White House. Boosting Democrats are the divisive and chaotic GOP presidential primary and Senate Republicans’ unpopular decision to refuse even to consider confirmation hearings for Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama’s nominee to succeed the late Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court.
Trump’s candidacy, however, is also helping fill GOP Senate coffers. Many big GOP donors unwilling to support Trump are redirecting their checks to a campaign to keep the Senate in Republican hands. Major players include the conservative donor network associated with Charles and David Koch, the Crossroads political organization masterminded by GOP strategist Karl Rove and run by allies of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which spent $35.7 million in the last presidential race.
The money will be concentrated on nine competitive contests in Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Depending on how the GOP presidential primary unfolds, now-safe Republican seats in Arizona and Missouri could come into play as well. Democrats are also eyeing House pickups. Even if Republicans manage to nominate an alternate candidate at a contested convention, GOP voters are in a rebellious and unpredictable mood.
GOP-friendly outside groups are already spending heavily. In Ohio, where Republican incumbent Rob Portman faces a challenge from Democrat Ted Strickland, the former governor, seven conservative groups have already spent $4.6 million in the race, according to an analysis of Federal Election Commission data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
A pro-Portman super PAC dubbed Fighting Ohio has also raised $2.3 million, including $250,000 apiece from hedge fund managers Paul Singer and Kenneth Griffin. Liberal groups, by contrast, have spent less than $250,000 in Ohio so far. Portman himself had raised four times more than Strickland as of the close of last year, and had more than six times as much cash on hand, according to CRP.
Nevertheless, Strickland has gained steadily on Portman, and one recent poll showed him narrowly ahead. A similar dynamic is playing out in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania. Both Republican Senate incumbents Kelly Ayotte, of New Hampshire, and Pat Toomey, of Pennsylvania, have outraised their Democratic challengers by at least four-to-one. Conservative groups have already spent $1.6 million to help Ayotte, who faces Democratic Governor Maggie Hassan, and another $1 million is on the way. Toomey, who faces Democrat Joe Sestak, has benefited from more than $500,000 in spending by a trio of conservative groups.
Yet both Ayotte and Toomey are considered among the most vulnerable GOP Senate incumbents in this election. Both represent states that voted to elect Obama in both 2008 and 2012. And Democrats are fighting back. The Senate Majority PAC has spent more than $2 million on anti-Ayotte TV ads. A trio of liberal groups has spent just under $600,000 to help Sestak in Pennsylvania.
Obama also carried Wisconsin twice, where Former Democratic Senator Russell Feingold is campaigning to win his old seat back from Republican Ron Johnson. Johnson has raised $9.7 million to Feingold’s $7.4 million, though Feingold has slightly more cash on hand: $4.8 million. But Club for Growth Action, the political arm of the conservative free market group, has spent more than $700,000 against Feingold, who’s benefited from virtually no outside spending on his behalf. Nevertheless, Feingold led Johnson narrowly in a Marquette University Law School poll this month.
The power of outside Senate money may get its biggest test yet in Florida this year, where Democrat Patrick Murphy has dramatically outraised Republican Carlos Lopez-Cantera in the open seat race to succeed Marco Rubio. (Murphy has netted $5.7 million to Lopez-Cantera’s $783,000.) But five conservative groups have spent just under $180,000 in the race, and a super PAC backing Lopez-Cantera has collected just more than $908,000, almost a third of it from billionaire car dealer Norman Braman.
Democrats pride themselves on raising and spending campaign money efficiently and effectively than the GOP, and on having beaten many a Republican who had campaign cash to burn. Democrats predict that they will be outspent again in this year’s Senate contests, but that they will have enough money to get their message out. If they win, however, it won’t prove that money doesn’t matter—only that even money can’t hold back a tidal wave.