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Washington Watch: Here’s how outside spending is boosting candidates in tough Senate races with midterm elections just two weeks away

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Democratic Senate candidates across eight of the nine pivotal races deemed either a “toss-up” or “lean” Republican or Democrat by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report hold massive fundraising leads over their Republican opponents, with the average lead across the nine races being $29.9 million cycle to date, according to an analysis of third quarter filings to the Federal Election Commission.

Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson is the only Republican running in a Cook-rated competitive race to hold a fundraising lead. The two-term senator has raised a total $29.4 million this election cycle, according to his third quarter filing to the FEC, which covers contributions through Sept. 30. His opponent, Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, has raised $26.5 million cycle to date.

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

Despite the five weeks of contributions not yet reported to the FEC, both Johnson’s and Barnes’ fundraising sums have broken the previous record set by a Wisconsin Senate candidate, Democrat Russ Feingold, who raised a total $24.5 million in 2016.

It’s not just Wisconsin that has seen record fundraising by a Republican Senate candidate. Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania has already broken the previous full-cycle fundraising record. However, unlike Johnson, Oz’s Democratic opponent has out-fundraised him.

FEC third quarter filing show the Democrat with the biggest fundraising lead is Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly, who has raised $67.4 million more than venture capitalist Blake Masters. Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock holds the second largest lead, having raised $57.8 million more than Republican Herschel Walker.

And while Johnson and Oz have set new records for Republican fundraising, among the nine competitive Senate races, Democrats have already set new fundraising records across both parties in six races: Colorado, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

The disproportionate fundraising by Democratic Senate candidates is attributable, at least in part, to the fact that there are more incumbent Democrats running in competitive races. In five of the nine races, Democratic senators are working to hold onto their seats. Comparatively, there is only one Republican incumbent in the nine races — Johnson — while the remaining seats are open due to retirements of three Republican senators.

Incumbents generally enjoy an “enormous financial advantage” that contributes to overall high reelection rates, according to campaign finance watchdog site OpenSecrets. Incumbent senators out-fundraised challengers by $370 million this cycle and by $165.4 million in 2016. Every Senate incumbent running for reelection in November holds a fundraising lead, with the only exception being Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican.

Prominent Republican donors such as venture capitalist Peter Thiel and Citadel LLC CEO Kenneth Griffin, as well as major Republican-aligned political action committees like the Senate Leadership Fund, have thrown in millions in independent expenditures supporting Republican candidates. While the nine Democratic candidates hold the nearly $30 million average fundraising lead, Republican candidates in those races lead in outside spending by an average of $8 million as of Sunday.

Outside spending comprises political expenditures made by groups or individuals independent of any campaign or candidate, such as ad buys. Since individuals’ direct contributions to a campaign are restricted to $2,900 per candidate per election, most big political investments comes in the form of outside spending.

Related: Meet the 10 biggest megadonors for the 2022 midterm elections

And see: Politicians keep coordinating with super PACs and other supposedly independent groups, study finds

According to a MarketWatch analysis of FEC data through Oct. 23, massive outside spending on behalf of Republicans running in competitive Senate races has made up for only one candidate’s lack of a fundraising lead: Rep. Ted Budd, who is running against Democrat Cheri Beasley for the open seat in North Carolina.

Budd raised $18.2 million less than Beasley as of the end of September, but he has benefitted from $55.9 million in outside spending either supporting him or opposing Beasley. Beasley, on the other hand, has benefited from $17.1 million in outside spending — giving Budd an overall financial lead of $20.5 million.

The graph below is based on information provided in individual candidates’ most recent filing to the FEC, which encompasses contributions made on or before Sept. 30.

The biggest players supporting Budd through outside spending are the Senate Leadership Fund with $29.3 million, the conservative Club for Growth Action with $11.7 million, the Koch brothers-founded Americans for Prosperity Action at $7 million and the National Republican Senatorial Committee with $6.3 million. 

In contrast, Beasley’s biggest outside spending supporters are the Senate Majority PAC at $9.1 million and the pro-abortion rights group Women Vote! at $3.6 million. No other group making independent expenditures supporting Beasley has surpassed the $1 million mark.

The Senate Leadership Fund is the most prolific outside spender so far this cycle, with more than $180 million spent on independent expenditures supporting Republican Senate candidates, according to OpenSecrets. Its Democratic equivalent, the Senate Majority PAC, has so far spent $110 million.

While the Senate Leadership Fund’s spending in North Carolina is notable due to the advantage it gives Budd over Beasley, the race that has seen the most spending by the group is actually Pennsylvania, where the PAC has invested $37.2 million in independent expenditures opposing Democratic nominee John Fetterman.

But that sum is nominal given the fact that Pennsylvania has seen the most outside spending of any Senate race. Between Fetterman and Republican candidate Oz, the race has attracted more than $150 million in outside spending — though some of that is attributable to outside spending made during both parties’ competitive primaries. Fetterman has benefited from $83.7 million in outside spending — about $15 million more than Oz has.

Among the Democratic and Republican nominees, Georgia is the second highest outside spending target, with $111 million in outside spending almost evenly supporting or opposing Warnock and Walker. Wisconsin comes in third with $99 million in outside spending, about 60% of which has favored Johnson.

Republicans in those nine key Senate races have benefited from a collective $400 million in outside spending, about $72 million more than their Democratic opponents. However, Democratic spending in recent weeks has ramped up. Since last Wednesday outside spending favoring Democrats in those nine races increased by $39 million, outpacing the $32 million increase favoring Republicans.

That shift is most evident in Arizona and Nevada, where the two Republican candidates held a lead in outside spending last week but have since lost it. Arizona Democrat Mark Kelly now leads Masters in outside spending by $2.2 million, a near reversal from last week when Masters was up by $2.1 million. And outside spending favoring Republican Adam Laxalt trails Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto by just over $650,000 – down from his $3.4 million lead last week.

“Democrats have sort of evened out the spending in the past few weeks,” Brendan Glavin, a senior data analyst at OpenSecrets, said at a panel last week.

With two weeks until the Nov. 8 midterm elections, outside spending is continuing to ramp up — but the spending is becoming more targeted as both Democrats and Republicans take aim at the races they view as most likely to flip.

For instance, the Senate Leadership Fund said on Friday that it will be slashing $5.6 million from its initial commitment in New Hampshire in an effort to shift “resources to where they can be most effective to achieve our ultimate goal: winning the majority,” the PAC’s president Steven Law told The Hill. A RealClearPolitics average of recent polls shows Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan leading Republican Don Bolduc by 5.4 points. 

Similarly, venture capitalist Thiel, who poured $15 million into backing Ohio Republican J.D. Vance ahead of his May primary, signaled in early October that he is focusing his efforts on the Arizona Senate race instead. Recently filed campaign finance records show that Thiel’s largest contribution over the summer was $1.5 million to Saving Arizona PAC; he has made no further contributions supporting Vance since April.

Aside from Budd in North Carolina, whether outside spending will help other Republican candidates who lack fundraising leads in key Senate races compensate for their respective lack of fundraising leads remains to be seen.

But recent FEC filings may offer Republicans a glimmer of hope. As of the end of September, the Senate Leadership Fund had $85.2 million cash on hand, while the Senate Majority PAC reported $52.3 million. However, that $33 million lead is largely made up for by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee having about $23 million more cash on hand than the NRSC.

See: Republicans have 2-in-3 chance of winning Senate in midterm elections, betting markets say

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