The GOP’s lackluster fundraising spurs post-election power struggles

WASHINGTON (AP) – Republican Blake Masters, who was lagging badly in his Arizona Senate race when the votes rolled in, took to Tucker Carlson’s Fox News program and blamed one person: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

“You know what else is incompetent, Tucker? The facility. The people who control the purses,” Masters said before accusing the longtime GOP leader and his allied super PAC of underspending on TV ads. “Had he decided to spend money in Arizona, this race would be over. We would now be celebrating a Senate majority.”

Masters didn’t just lose his race to Democratic Senator Mark Kelly. He succeeded every other Republican running for statewide office in Arizona. But there’s another problem Masters doesn’t acknowledge: He’s failed to raise any significant money of his own.

He was hardly alone.

As both parties review the results of the Democrats’ stronger-than-expected midterm election showing, Republicans are locked in a round of finger pointing, including a failed attempt by Florida Sen. Rick Scott, who ran the Senate GOP’s campaign arm, to nominate McConnell for his leadership post to challenge.

But the allegations mask a much deeper dilemma for the party. Many of its nominees – a significant number of whom were first-time candidates taking far-right positions – could not raise the money needed to run competitive campaigns. This forced party leaders, particularly in the Senate, to make tough decisions, selecting resources for races they believed had the best odds of winning, often paying exorbitant prices to television networks that would have been legally obliged to sell the same advertising time for candidates for far less.

Lackluster fundraising allowed Democrats to get their message across to voters early and unchallenged, while GOP contenders lacked the resources to do the same.

“This has become an existential and systemic issue for our party and needs to be addressed if we hope to be competitive,” said Steven Law, a former McConnell chief of staff who now heads the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC, who spent at least $232 million on advertising to elect Republicans to the Senate this year.

“Our (donors) are increasingly concerned that they will be able to subsidize poor fundraising performance by candidates in critical races. And you have to give something. It’s just not sustainable,” Law said.

In key Senate and House battlegrounds, Democratic candidates outperformed their Republican counterparts by a factor of nearly 2 to 1, according to an Associated Press analysis of campaign funding data.

Consider the handful of races that have helped Democrats retain their Senate majority.

In Arizona, Masters was outperformed nearly 8-to-1 by Kelly, who spent at least $32 million on television advertising from August through Election Day, records show. Masters spent just over $3 million on advertising during the same period after the Senate Leadership Fund withdrew from the race

Meanwhile, Senator Catherine Cortez Masto raised $52.8 million in Nevada, compared to Republican Adam Laxalt’s $15.5 million. And in Pennsylvania, Democratic Senator-elect John Fetterman made $16 million more than his GOP opponent, Dr. Mehmet Oz. And that’s despite the fact that the famous TV doctor borrowed $22 million from his campaign, records show.

Similar disparities emerged in crucial House races, including in Nevada, Pennsylvania and Virginia, which helped constrain House Republicans to a surprisingly narrow majority.

When it came to buying TV airtime, the Democrats’ fundraising advantage provided significant upside potential. Advertisers are required by law to offer candidates the lowest price. The same benefit doesn’t apply to super PACs, which Republican candidates have relied on to fill their fundraising gap — often at a premium.

In Las Vegas, for example, a candidate could buy a unit of TV advertising for $598, according to advertising figures provided to AP. The same segment cost a $4,500 Super PAC. At the Raleigh-Durham media market in North Carolina, a $342 spot cost a Super PAC $1,270. And a $580 candidate segment in the Philadelphia area cost a super PAC nearly $2,000, advertising numbers show.

Republicans also played defense in states that were ultimately uncompetitive.

JD Vance, who won his Ohio Senate race by more than 6 percentage points, was outplayed by Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan nearly 4 to 1. To prop him up, the Senate Leadership Fund poured $28 million into the state. The group’s advertising eventually accounted for about 70% of all Republican media spending from August through Election Day.

A similar situation played out in North Carolina, where the McConnell-hosted super PAC accounted for 82% of Republican ad spending over the same period. GOP Rep. Ted Budd won with over 3% of the vote.

But money worries weren’t the only complicating factor.

Donald Trump has fielded a number of untested first-time candidates. They included Masters, Vance and former NFL star Herschel Walker, whose complicated backstory includes threats of violence against his ex-wife, false claims of business success and claims he twice pressured a girlfriend into an abortion, which Walker denies. Then there was Oz, who moved to Pennsylvania to run for the seat and also secured Trump’s endorsement but was pilloried by Democrats as a no-contact carpet digger.

The former president gave them his approval, but he’s been sparing about sharing some of the more than $100 million he’s amassed on a committee designed to help other candidates. He was recorded as spending around $15 million on advertising at five Senate races.

Meanwhile, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, led by Scott, often worked in opposition to McConnell’s political operation.

Early on, Scott ruled out participating in primary elections, which he viewed as improper interference. McConnell’s allies, meanwhile, tried to fend off candidates they viewed as poor candidates for the general election, such as Don Bolduc, a far-right conservative who lost his race in New Hampshire by almost 10 percentage points last week. McConnell’s forces also defended Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a GOP moderator, against a conservative challenger.

“Senate races are just different,” McConnell said in August. “The quality of the candidates has a lot to do with the result.”

In response, Scott shot McConnell without naming him and, in an opinion piece published in the Washington Examiner, suggested that any “garbage talk” by Republican candidates was an “act of cowardice” that was “treason to the conservative cause.” .”

But his committee was also struggling after making a series of bad bets, including a costly investment to boost the committee’s online fundraising.

An internal document seen by the AP and previously reported by the New York Times shows that between June and January 2021, the committee invested $23.3 million to build out its digital giving program. But the NRSC has raised just $6.1 million during that time — a deficit. Then, as inflation soared, the flow of money from online donors slowed to a trickle.

That prevented the NRSC from spending as much on television advertising as it has in previous years, although Scott made optimistic predictions of winning up to five Senate seats. However, the digital fundraiser has been a boon for advisors, who have raised at least $31 million in payments, disclosures show.

Some Republican senators are now clamoring for a review of the committee. In a at times heated GOP Senate luncheon at the Capitol last week, Maine Senator Susan Collins questioned Scott’s management of the NRSC.

Scott’s aides dismissed suggestions of financial impropriety, instead charging McConnell with undercutting the committee.

During a Senate GOP luncheon in August, Scott asked senators for donations to the NRSC, which is now at least $20 million in debt. Then McConnell turned to the room and urged senators to prioritize donations to the Senate Leadership Fund instead, according to two people familiar with the discussion. They asked for anonymity to describe it.

The interaction was part of a broader pattern by McConnell to sabotage the NRSC, said committee spokesman Chris Hartline.

“There was a very clear implication for donors that they should not donate to the NRSC,” Hartline said. “And the result is that it has impacted our ability to promote our candidates and get their message across.”

McConnell’s allies, however, believe it was Scott who used his post to boost his own image at the party’s expense and may have been working to prepare for a presidential nomination, according to senior Republican strategists. They were not authorized to discuss the McConnell allies’ conclusions and did so on condition of anonymity.

The move fell through, as did Scott’s challenge to McConnell’s leadership position last week.

Faced with the prospect of consolidating their majority with another seat during a Georgia runoff in December, Democrats were happy to offer Republicans unsolicited advice.

“My advice is to get on with what they’re doing,” said Michigan Senator Gary Peters, who ran this year’s Senate Democratic campaign.