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Post: Washington Watch: Political ad spending is breaking records: Here’s where the money’s going in critical Senate races

Outside spending is pouring into the 2022 Senate races, as Democratic control of the chamber hangs in flux.

Nearly $450 million in outside spending has been spent on Senate races so far this cycle, according to OpenSecrets, a watchdog group that tracks money in politics. Just over 80% of that sum, or about $360 million, went to the 10 races deemed competitive by Cook Political Report.

Overall, outside spending has ballooned for a midterm year. Super PACs cycle-to-date have spent more than double what they had by this point in 2018 — and the total is just $41 million shy of the cycle-to-date spending during the 2020 election.

The increase is in part because “both chambers of Congress are seen as being in play,” as well as the fact that there were several hotly contested primaries, such as in Ohio and Pennsylvania, which attracted large amounts of outside spending for the primary, OpenSecrets researcher Andrew Mayersohn said. Democrats currently control the 50-50 Senate only because Vice President Kamala Harris can cast tiebreaking votes.

While outside spending encompasses a range of expenditures made independently from candidates and campaigns, one key independent expenditure is advertising.

(The graphic above does not reflect expenditures the Senate Leadership Fund reported on Tuesday, which totaled more than $15 million independent expenditures across the Senate races in Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania.)

The main two super PACs and committees focused exclusively on winning party control of the Senate announced in the spring a collective $333 million in ad reservations targeting battleground states in the fall.

Independent expenditure filings this year for digital and TV advertising and its related production costs by the Democratic-aligned Senate Majority PAC, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the Republican-aligned Senate Leadership Fund and National Republican Senatorial Committee show much of their resources being directed so far to the Senate races in Arizona, Pennsylvania and Nevada. Nevada, Wisconsin, Georgia and New Hampshire are so far the only races to have seen independent expenditures from all four groups.

Federal Election Commission filings only include expenses made within 24 or 48 hours for ads that have already been publicly distributed and “expressly advocate” for a particular outcome (so future reservations would not be included).

While outside groups like One Nation, the George Soros-backed Democracy PAC and the Peter Thiel-funded Saving Arizona PAC have become big players in funding candidates in competitive contests, spending by the Senate Majority PAC, Senate Leadership Fund, DSCC and NRSC reveals the races that party leaders are either most concerned about losing or most hopeful about flipping.

Expect their spending to go up, though some of the groups’ ads may not be required to file as an independent expenditure. The ad-tracking firm AdImpact projected in August that ad spending across Senate races will hit $2.4 billion, an increase of 136% compared to the 2018 cycle.

According to AdImpact, the four Senate races deemed a toss-up by Cook Political Report — Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and Wisconsin — all have already surpassed $100 million in political ad spending, as have the competitive races in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

The Democratic-aligned Senate Majority PAC’s focus as of August has been on Pennsylvania, Arizona and Nevada, where it poured $29.5 million, $27.5 million and $23.8 million in ad reservations for the general election respectively, per updates from AdImpact’s Twitter.

Pennsylvania has also been a prime target of ad spending by the Republican-aligned Senate Leadership Fund with $34 million in ad reservations, making it the group’s second most expensive target. The Senate Leadership Fund’s biggest target, however, has been Georgia, where the PAC says it reserved $38 million in ads ahead of the general election.

“I think what it really comes down to is the stakes of controlling the government are really high,” said Christopher Warshaw, a political science professor at George Washington University. “We just saw a number of major pieces of legislation that were passed over the last two years that wouldn’t have been passed if Republicans had won the Georgia Senate runoff and/or controlled the House. And so I think for both parties, it feels like the stakes of the elections are pretty substantial, and in some ways, pretty existential.”

Georgia most expensive in ads

The Georgia race is yet again highly competitive and expensive. A RealClearPolitics average of recent polls show Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock and GOP nominee Herschel Walker tied. It is the most expensive Senate race in terms of advertising, with more than $200 million spent for the general election — over 50% more than the ad spending of the second-most expensive Senate general election, Nevada, according to AdImpact.

The two super PACs and two committees have anticipated high levels of spending since at least the spring, when the Senate Majority PAC and DSCC announced $106 million and $33 million in ad reservations, respectively, and the Senate Leadership Fund and NRSC announced reservations of $141 million and $53 million.

The DSCC has not publicly changed its plans since what was announced, and the Senate Majority PAC has upped its ad reservations by $27 million. The two Republican groups, however, have deviated a little from their initial plans.

The New York Times reported in August that the NRSC had slashed about $10 million in ad reservations. In response to the article, a spokesman for the group, Chris Hartline, tweeted that the NRSC “is not cancelling spending” and “there is money being moved” from the independent expenditure side of things (money which cannot be coordinated with campaigns) “back to to the NRSC side of the wall.” Hartline also said of the Times article the NRSC has “already spent $36 million on TV and has tens of millions more reserved.”

The Senate Leadership Fund dropped nearly $10 million in ads meant for Arizona and Alaska, according to a Politico report, though the latter move was viewed as a vote of confidence in Alaska GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski. The report also said the change came partly in response to the group stepping up its spending in Ohio by $28 million and the funds were set to be reallocated.

The Senate Leadership Fund confirmed last week to MarketWatch that $28 million in Ohio ads began airing on Sept. 6 and said it has spent $192 million for reservations between early September through early October, including $5.7 million in Alaska, where ads will begin on Tuesday, and $6.4 million in Arizona ads set to begin Oct. 4.

However, Axios reported on Tuesday the Senate Leadership Fund decided to pull out of Arizona completely, with those funds being reallocated to Georgia, New Hampshire and Nevada.

Most of the major ad reservations by the four groups come closer to Election Day, which is Nov. 8, when they generally yield more influence. A lot of candidates’ ad spending earlier this summer was aimed at boosting name recognition and raising money, “sort of spending money to get money,” said Warshaw, who co-authored a study on the effect of TV advertising on U.S. elections.

“The closer you get to Election Day, to when people vote, the more the ads are going to matter,” Warshaw said. “So certainly, I think some of these candidates who spent a whole lot of money on ads over the summer may wish they had some of that money to spend in September [and] October.”

Record-setting spending predicted

Political ad spending overall during the 2022 cycle is projected to reach a record-setting $9.7 billion — smashing the previous midterm year record of $4 billion and even surpassing the $9 billion record set during the 2020 presidential cycle, according to AdImpact.

But big spending doesn’t always translate to an election victory.

“Just this cycle alone, we’ve already had one instance where all kinds of outside spending records were broken and it didn’t result in the candidate who benefited from that winning,” Mayersohn said, referencing Oregon House candidate Carrick Flynn’s 18-point loss in the Democratic primary. A super PAC helmed by a cryptocurrency billionaire spent more than $11 million backing Flynn’s primary bid.

Mayersohn said primaries are different than general elections, but noted that both in 2014 and 2018, “liberal and conservative outside spending was pretty evenly split,” but Republicans won big in 2014 and Democrats won big in 2018.

Big ad spending also doesn’t always translate to lots of air time, in part because candidates are able to receive better ad rates than super PACs.

“Even if one party has a spending advantage, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they have an advantage in terms of the number of ads actually being aired,” Warshaw said. He added that “probably in most of the contested races, the Democratic candidates are going to have an edge in terms of the number of ads actually being aired, because the [Senate Leadership Fund] is paying such higher rates for ads.”

Mayersohn said incumbents generally raise more than their challengers, so “if you have more incumbents, you have an advantage.”

Five of the seven incumbent senators running in races deemed as potentially in-play by the Cook Political Report are Democrats – and all five lead in both fundraising and amount of cash on hand. (The Republican candidate in New Hampshire will likely see fundraising ramp up following his primary win last week.) Democrats also hold the cash on hand advantage in each of the three open seats.

The only incumbent of the seven to not lead in fundraising is Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who trails the Democratic challenger, Rep. Val Demings, by just over $10 million. However, Rubio has spent less and has more cash at his disposal than Demings does, according to FEC records.

The three Senate candidates with the most funds raised — Warnock, Arizona Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly and Demings — have aired the most television ads between Aug. 8 to Sept. 4, according to the Wesleyan Media Project. All three had over 7,000 airings during that time frame, spending no more than about $5 million in doing so.

Kelly and Warnock also have the most cash on hand of any candidate in a competitive Senate race, making them well-positioned to make major ad buys in the weeks leading up to Nov. 8.

Of the ten key Senate races, the two that have seen the least involvement in ad buys from the Senate Majority PAC, Senate Leadership Fund, DSCC and NRSC so far are Colorado and Florida — rated as lean Democrat and lean Republican, respectively. 

A RealClearPolitics polling average shows Colorado Democrat Michael Bennet with a solid 8-point lead. Of the four groups, only the NRSC has advertised for the race, releasing a $240,000 ad (seen below) underscoring that 98% of his votes have been aligned with President Joe Biden.

In Florida, Democratic groups may be staying out partly because of how powerful of a fundraising force Demings has been herself, particularly as a non-incumbent. According to the Wesleyan Media Project, Demings aired the most ads of any Senate candidate between Aug. 8 and Sept. 4. Days after that period, her campaign released her first ad (seen below) hitting Rubio over his views on abortion, arguing that “it’s outrageous to mandate what a woman can and can’t do with their body.” Her campaign says she has three other TV ads running statewide.

In response to the ad on abortion, a Rubio spokeswoman said the senator “is proud to be unequivocally pro-life” and labeled Demings “a pro-abortion extremist.”

Demings’ campaign has massively outspent Rubio’s campaign on the advertising front, something her deputy communications director Anna Breedlove attributed to the importance of raising Demings’ statewide name recognition and contrasting her views to Rubio.

“When voters know Chief Demings, we win,” Breedlove said. “That’s why we’ve spent months blanketing the airwaves to let voters know they have a choice between a cop on the beat and a career politician who doesn’t show up for work. Our campaign will continue working relentlessly to take that message to every corner of this state and defeat Marco Rubio in November.”

The Senate Majority PAC and Senate Leadership Fund have so far not gotten involved in Florida (nor did they intend to when they announced their initial reservations in the spring). The NRSC, however, has poured millions into ad spots supporting Rubio. And while not an independent expenditure, Demings was one of nine candidates whose victory fund will receive $1 million from Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.

Related: Democrats raise more money than Republicans in 9 out of 10 competitive Senate races, channeling voter ‘energy’ after Roe overturned

One thing is clear when it comes to both advertising and outside spending more broadly: Expect more to come.

OpenSecrets’ Mayersohn noted that both the Senate Majority PAC and Senate Leadership Fund are a little off pace from their spending during past midterm cycles, but he thinks “these groups are not going to be short for cash.” 

Not only do the Democratic and GOP candidates in the 10 races have, combined, more than $100 million in cash on hand, the outside groups supporting them have plenty of money, too.

According to FEC records, the Senate Majority PAC has almost $73 million cash on hand and the Senate Leadership Fund has almost $105 million on hand. The DSCC has $54 million and the NRSC has $23 million.

“I think they’ve probably left most of their ammunition for the last couple of months on purpose,” Mayersohn said.

Now read: Democrats keeping House and Senate in midterm elections would hurt markets, analyst says

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