A Sitrep on the Six Most Vulnerable U.S. Senate Races

The quality of political intelligence now available is unlike anything in the past, and it makes finding out what is going on much easier than ever.

In that regard, this Politico story is essential to providing key political intelligence:

“A quartet of new nonprofit groups has already spent millions of dollars hammering four of the most vulnerable Republican senators on the ballot next year, sparking a wave of concern among strategists trying to protect the GOP’s slim three-seat Senate majority in 2020.

Outside groups in Arizona, Colorado, Maine and Iowa have already spent or booked over $1 million in each state — and in some cases much more, according to Advertising Analytics — on advertising criticizing the senators, more than doubling the spending from Republican-aligned groups trying to respond. And in one state, Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) has faced the onslaught without any backup from Republican allies.”

The targets of the ads are four of the five GOP senators who are in 2020 re-elect trouble:

  1. McSally
  2. Ernst
  3. Gardner
  4. Collins

The fifth GOP Senator who is likely the most vulnerable is Senator Tillis (R-NC). The reason that these groups not spent in NC on Tillis is because they likely figure he’s in too much trouble already.

A Morning Consult poll, as described by INDYWEEK, recently found Tillis:

“has the lowest approval ratings of any sitting member of Congress, according to a poll from Morning Consult, which could put his 2020 reelection bid in trouble.  Tillis has a mere 33 percent approval rate, according to the survey, with another 30 percent undecided and 38 percent disapproving of him.”

If the GOP loses all five of these races, and with their one likely pick-up, the Jones seat in AL, the Dems would control the U.S. Senate, 51-49.

Again, from the Politico story cited above:

“The early spending, combined with strong fundraising by Democratic Senate candidates, is a “wake-up call” for the GOP, said Scott Reed, the chief political strategist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber is partnering with state affiliates to boost Sens. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) with six-figure ad buys amid the spending deluge against them, running positive ads focused on local issues there and in North Carolina, where Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) faces a primary and a general election challenge.

“We expected it to be bad. Nobody expected it to be this bad,” Reed said of the early spending and fundraising figures. ‘The right of center groups have got to get moving. Elections have consequences and the Senate is the backstop against all-out craziness.’”

The techniques of these dark money groups are pretty clear and universal:

“This year’s early barrage is not coming from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee or the super PAC Senate Majority PAC, the main players in Democratic Senate campaigns. Instead, the top spenders are a band of nonprofit organizations that formed just this year, which can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money and do not have to disclose information about their donors.

Each of the new nonprofits is incorporated in the state they are running ads in and run by local Democratic operatives, and none of the groups have any clear ties to national Democratic groups.” 

Here are some early examples of the collective work of these groups, from Politico:

“In Arizona, Democratic groups have already spent more than $2 million on the airwaves criticizing McSally, with the vast majority coming from Advancing Arizona, a nonprofit created early this year. The group has run ads attacking McSally on health care, which was a signature issue in the Democratic Senate campaign against her in 2018, before she was appointed to her current seat.”

“….In Iowa, Democratic-aligned groups have tripled Republican groups on the airwaves, spending more than $1.8 million on early ads attacking Ernst. Most of it has come from Iowa Forward, a nonprofit that does not reveal its donors but has spent $1.4 million so far this election, according to Advertising Analytics. Their ads have focused on health care, including one where a veteran says he respects Ernst’s military service, but is “disappointed in what she’s done since she went to Washington.

“….Colorado is potentially Democrats’ top target this year, a must-win race for them to retake the Senate majority. Three groups — Rocky Mountain Values, which is one of the newly-formed local nonprofits; the gun control group Giffords; and Need to Impeach, the anti-Trump group founded by billionaire presidential candidate Tom Steyer — have combined to spend more than $1.2 million on TV in the state this year, while no Republican group has aired any ads so far.

“In Maine, Collins and her challenger, state House Speaker Sara Gideon, have spent more than $500,000 apiece on the airwaves already, more than almost any other campaign in the country on either side.

“But Democratic outside groups have nearly doubled GOP outside spending so far. Maine Momentum, a local nonprofit staffed with veteran Democratic operatives — including a former staffer for Gideon —has spent nearly $1 million, and Need to Impeach and Demand Justice, a Democratic group that focuses on the judiciary, have also spent six figures this year.”

This early spending has a far more serious and greater impact than late spending. 

First, it shows those with the cash are focused, thinking ahead and have the will to act.

These early movers are who I call serious people, doing serious things.

Those who are not serious, have the funds, but will not spend them now. They are waiting for the early movers to shape the political battlefield and then they will have to live with it or take advantage of it.

Of course, the serious people will have a great say in the agenda if the Dems take the Senate.

And while in the Politico article cited above, GOP operatives parrot their doubts of the effectiveness of early spending, the fact of the matter is that recently Senator Susan Collins has seen her approval rating drop more than ten points from the low 50s to 43%.  Many would say this is a direct result of the spending by outside groups.

This is a very significant and very ominous sign, since gaining ten points back during a campaign is much tougher to do than in off-campaign season, when the candidate is not being assaulted on the airwaves non-stop.  But also especially because Maine’s new rank voting law makes it almost impossible for an incumbent candidate who receives less than 50% of the vote on the first ballot to win. 

Early money matters more than late money and those with approval ratings at or below 50%, now, at this point in the cycle, will have a difficult time being re-elected, unless an effective counter-attack is mounted that moves the needle, that improves these candidate’s approval ratings.

The approval ratings for the five most vulnerable GOP Senators, from Morning Consult, are:

  1. McSally, 39%
  2. Ernst, 39%
  3. Gardner, 36%
  4. Collins, 43%
  5. Tillis, 33%

Doug Jones (D-AL) is the one likely GOP pick-up.  His approval rating is at 43%, but AL does not have rank voting, which makes his chances better than those of Senator Collins.

This makes the warning sounded by Scott W. Reed (quoted above) all the more urgent to be heeded. He is one of the best in the business and is not prone to overstatement or arm-waving. He is saying what he is saying now because it really matters.

And the industries that Dem control of the U.S. Senate will matter most are health care and banking.

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