“I’ve certainly seen tightening since Labor Day in pretty much every state I’m involved in,” said Brent Buchanan, president of Cygnal, a Republican polling firm. “The Democrats have exhausted all their opportunities. The question now becomes, can the Republicans close enough of the gap?
Actors in both parties fear the prospect that control of the Senate could again be decided by a runoff in Georgia, as in 2021. The state requires the winning candidate to clear 50 percent, with a runoff in December if neither candidate exceeds that obstacle. A Fox News poll taken this past week showed incumbent Democratic Sen. Raphael G. Warnock leading Republican challenger Herschel Walker 46 percent to 41 percent.
At a private fundraiser in Washington for Ohio Republican Senate candidate JD Vance on Sept. 20, McConnell was asked how he sized up the races that will determine control of the chamber. The Senate Minority Leader said he expected the GOP to hold on to Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, naming Nevada and Georgia as the top pick-up options, according to those in attendance.
Publicly, too, McConnell sounds more optimistic about regaining the majority. Speaking to reporters at the Capitol on Wednesday, he put the odds at 50-50 — a marked shift in tone from August, when he warned the GOP was more likely to take the House and bemoaned the quality of candidates that Republican voters had nominated in some key races. .
“We’re in a bunch of close races,” he said. “It’s going to be really, really close either way, in my opinion.”
McConnell did not mention North Carolina at the Vance event, but allies said he is comfortable with Republican Ted Budd’s chances there against Democrat Cheri Beasley. Conspicuously absent from his list was Arizona, where Republican nominee Blake Masters has trailed well-funded incumbent Democrat Mark Kelly.
The GOP’s retreat from Arizona was underscored the same week when the Senate Leadership Fund, the McConnell-aligned super PAC, said it canceled $9.6 million worth of reservations there. The PAC’s executive director, Steven Law, said other Republican groups stepped in to make up for it, pointing to $7.5 million commissioned by others.
McConnell also held a recent Masters fundraiser in Washington, where the candidate said his campaign needed to raise $2 million to be in good shape, according to an attendee. The Masters campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
The Senate Leadership Fund has pumped $68.9 million into nine races since Labor Day, according to data from AdImpact, a media tracking firm. After being used in competitive races over the summer, since Labor Day, Republicans have taken the airtime lead in all of the most contested races except for New Hampshire and Arizona, AdImpact’s data shows.
“We remain optimistic that the issue environment is in our favor, we have multiple paths to achieving the majority, and we are spending heavily and strategically to achieve that goal,” Law said.
Democrats also see Georgia and Nevada as key, while projecting confidence in John Fetterman’s lead over Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania. They have expressed relief that their incumbents in Arizona and New Hampshire are facing Republican candidates who have struggled. Late. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), the current chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said he is satisfied with the standing of the Democratic candidates in all the key battlegrounds.
“I don’t know what they’re looking at that makes them more confident,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a former DSCC chair. “Everything I see indicates that the Democrats remain on track to hold the Senate and maybe pick up two seats.”
Republicans’ advantage in advertising in most of the key states is slim, not the many times Democrats beat them before. And based on current reservations tracked by AdImpact, Democrats are on track to regain the advantage in the remaining weeks until the elections in Georgia, Nevada and Pennsylvania.
The dollar amounts also overstate Republican standing because of how broadcast ads are sold. Super PACs pay higher rates than campaign committees, and Democratic candidates have had more success with their own direct fundraising. Relying on the Senate Leadership Fund to make up the difference means Republicans pay more to reach a smaller audience.
“We pay a significantly higher rate than what candidates pay, so a super PAC like SLF trying to pick up the tab for their candidates’ poor fundraising is kind of like lighting money on fire,” said JB Poersch, head office chairman. Democratic super PAC, Senate Majority PAC.
In addition to their retreat in Arizona, Republicans suffered another setback in New Hampshire, where primary voters nominated dissident Don Bolduc over state Senate President Chuck Morse, the establishment election aided by millions in super PAC spending in recent weeks. The Senate Leadership Fund has not changed its plans to invest $23 million in New Hampshire, despite public opinion polls showing Bolduc trailing by as much as eight points.
The best GOP case for a turnaround is in Wisconsin. Democrats outspent Republicans by a $52 million to $32 million margin until the Aug. 9 primary, according to AdImpact, with a steady drumbeat of jabs aimed at incumbent GOP Sen. Ron Johnson. Since Labor Day, the pattern has reversed. Between September 6 and 28, Republicans spent $22 million compared to Democrats’ $15 million. Current reservations predict the GOP will have that advantage through Election Day, with $21 million earmarked for the GOP versus the Democrats’ $17 million. After consistently trailing in the polls through mid-September, Johnson has since pulled ahead in several recent surveys.
The Republican advertising offensive has focused on reframing the competition around crime. An ad criticizes Barnes for supporting ending cash bail. Another shows him holding up a T-shirt that reads “Abolish ICE,” a reference to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Another shows video of him saying that “reducing prison populations is now sexy.” On the defensive, Barnes responded with ads showing a retired Racine police sergeant saying, “Mandela doesn’t want to defund the police.”
“The race shifted when the race was about Mandela Barnes,” said Chris LaCivita, a consultant to Johnson, who still considers the race close. “It’s not just about what he says. It’s on video.”
Democrats in the state agree that the recent GOP advertising advantage has shifted the race and are calling for more resources to fight back.
“The intensity of the Democratic side needs to be turned up to make sure Johnson’s arm touches the table first,” said Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman Ben Wikler. “The setback now is what will decide the race.”
In Nevada, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D) and Republican challenger Adam Laxalt remain locked in a deadlock even as the Senate Leadership Fund closes the spending gap between them. Republicans say their criticism of Democrats’ handling of the economy is particularly potent in Nevada, where inflation is high and coronavirus-driven shutdowns are hitting the tourism industry hard. They also point to polls that show them narrowing the Democrats’ significant lead with Latino voters in the swing state.
In September, Republicans outspent Democrats in the Senate race, according to AdImpact — a shift from the summer. But the Democrats’ broadcast spending went even further this month because their biggest advertiser was Cortez Masto’s campaign, which is paying discounted rates. Despite the investments from the Senate Leadership Fund, Democrats are on track to outspend Republicans by about $51 million to $43 million from Sept. 1 through Election Day, according to AdImpact, and the advantage is even greater using industry metrics for the ads’ range.
Both parties will likely continue to adjust their spending as they test where they find the most success in moving the polls. But with a handful of states that both parties see as must-wins in an evenly divided chamber, they could be stuck pumping millions into ads that effectively cancel each other out.
“This is World War I trench warfare,” said a Republican consultant working on the midterms who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We keep sending more places and they keep sending more places and we can’t stop sending more places or their places will win. No big movement. Bloody, expensive trench warfare.”
Republican senators agreed that conference sentiment had risen in recent weeks as polls have shown some races have tightened. Given the latest public polls showing Republicans leading in Nevada, North Carolina and Ohio, some Republicans say Democrats peaked too early and blew through the edge they built over the summer.
“I sense more optimism in him,” Sen. Kevin Cramer (RN.D.) said of McConnell. He said the minority leader, whose stoicism often borders on grim, was concerned in August about candidates who lacked political experience and were unable to hit the ground running after winning their primaries.
“I think he’s seen a lot of corrections there,” Cramer said. “Nothing is a layup, don’t get me wrong. It’s not like we’re measuring up the carpet for Dr. Oz or something.”
Late. Thom Tillis (RN.C.) said McConnell’s “job is always to worry” but that recent developments had lightened the mood. He cited Nevada and Wisconsin and others as races where Republicans have seen more positive signs. “The economic message, the concerns with crime are resonating and that’s why we feel optimistic,” he said.
Speaking to reporters later, McConnell dodged a question about whether he remains concerned about the quality of Republican Senate candidates, saying only that it’s “great to have great candidates” in any election year, without specify if this year’s candidates are, in fact, terrific. In August, he cited “candidate quality” as a factor in the party’s challenge to take the Senate.
In a sign that Democrats vulnerable to re-election feel the need to spend every last day before Nov. 8 on the campaign trail, Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer unveiled a plan to bring senators back into session briefly in October to work on a Pentagon policy calculation. Schumer reached a deal with Republicans to eliminate a mini-session in mid-October to allow threatened incumbents to stay home and campaign. Rather than begin a debate on a Pentagon policy bill, a few senators will hold a redundant session for a few hours and allow the rest to stay home — a move that helps Democrats, who have several incumbents facing for re-election.
When McConnell took the podium for a speech Wednesday, Sen. Ben Ray Luján (DN.M.) accidentally called him the majority leader. McConnell laughed and replied, “I haven’t given up hope.”
Josh Dawsey and Paul Kane contributed to this report.