Some GOP Candidates Are Struggling. Can Mitch McConnell Save Them? : The NPR Politics Podcast More than $1.6 billion has been spent or booked on TV ads in a dozen Senate races, with $3 out of every $4 being spent in six states — Georgia, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Wisconsin, Nevada and Ohio, according to an NPR analysis of data provided by the ad-tracking firm AdImpact.

Outside groups, including those closely tied to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, have poured in nearly $1 billion to buoy GOP Senate candidates. Eighty-six percent of the money going toward pro-GOP TV ads is coming from these outside groups, compared to 55% for Democrats.

This episode: voting correspondent Ashley Lopez, political correspondent Susan Davis, and senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro.

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Some GOP Candidates Are Struggling. Can Mitch McConnell Save Them?

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MARTA: Hey, NPR POLITICS PODCAST. This is Marta (ph) in Portland, Ore. I'm standing outside of the DMV, where I registered my car and was given a license plate that ends in NPR.


MARTA: This podcast was recorded at...


12:04 Central time on Monday, October 24, 2022.

MARTA: Things may have changed by the time you hear it, and I'm looking forward to seeing other NPR cars driving around town. OK. Here's the show.



LOPEZ: That's pretty deep fan status. I wonder if that's on purpose, though, or if it's just the luck of the draw?

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: I think it's just the luck of the NPR draw.

LOPEZ: Yeah.

MONTANARO: Seems like it.

LOPEZ: It would be cool if it was on purpose, but I'm not going to hold her to it.

Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Ashley Lopez. I cover politics.

DAVIS: I'm Susan Davis. I also cover politics.

MONTANARO: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

LOPEZ: And today, we're talking about the whopping $1.6 billion that has been spent or booked on TV ads in a dozen Senate races across the country. The overwhelming majority of that money is being spent in just six states - that's Georgia, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Wisconsin, Nevada and Ohio. All of this is according to an NPR analysis and data provided by the ad-tracking firm AdImpact. Domenico, this is your analysis. So I guess, like, the first thing I want to ask you is, like, where is this money coming from? Like, who's funding these groups?

MONTANARO: Well, you know, I mean, first of all, the outside group money that's coming in is just flooding, you know, these top six races in particular. And a lot of that money - the biggest spender has been the Senate Leadership Fund, which is the group that has ties to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell - spent almost a quarter billion dollars to really boost, frankly, some candidates who were backed by Trump, who'd been struggling in places like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Georgia, in particular, spending 110 million there. In North Carolina, also, you know, really, we haven't heard a lot about that race. But Ted Budd, who's the Republican running in that race, he's only spent $7 million on campaign ads. Groups have had to come in - Senate Leadership Fund, the Club for Growth and others - have had to come in and spend whopping amounts of money to be able to, you know, to keep him on the airwaves.

LOPEZ: I feel like we're always hearing about, like, record spending on elections, but I wonder how this actually does compare to previous years. I mean, is this significantly more than even, like, past midterm elections?

MONTANARO: Overall, OpenSecrets, which is this group that tracks campaign finance money across the country in federal elections, projects that there's going to be about $9.3 billion spent in this entire election with all of the congressional and Senate races, not just on ad spending, but keeping the lights on in campaign headquarters, paying staff and things like that. And it is, like, you know, a significant increase, some 30% or so up from the last cycle in 2018 of midterm where there was, you know, 5.8, almost $6 billion spent overall. And that just continues an increase that we've seen happen since the Citizens United, you know, case at the Supreme Court that really opened the floodgates when it comes to outside spending in races.

DAVIS: Is the spending equally benefiting both parties, or does one or the other have an advantage this time around?

MONTANARO: Well, when it comes to this dark money that's being spent, you know, from groups that really have very little donor transparency, a lot of that money - Republicans are really the ones who are benefiting from that largely. We've seen them spend almost a billion dollars to boost Republican candidates, and almost 90% of all of the money going toward ads for Republican candidates on the airwaves in these, you know, top dozen states have come from outside groups. So we're really seeing a lot of Republican candidates lag in the amount of money that they've raised. And that has meant that these outside groups like Senate Leadership Fund have had to come in and help them.

Democrats - 55% of the money that has gone toward their ads have come from outside groups, which overall means that outside groups are spending the majority of all the money that we're seeing in these half a dozen to a dozen, you know, states with these competitive Senate races. So, you know, our condolences to you if you live (laughter) in one of those places.

DAVIS: You know, when it comes to money in politics, it always makes you think of the cliche that it's the stuff that's legal that'll really cause the outrage. And there's no better example of that to me than money in politics right now. I mean, the fact that literally billions of dollars can be poured into elections and the public can have absolutely no idea what the source of that money is is entirely legal. Both parties benefit from it and is just now an everyday fact of American politics in American elections.

MONTANARO: And considering just how, you know, hyperpartisan the environment is and how polarized people are, this amount of money - you're seeing more money spent to move fewer voters, very small percentages of people who they're trying to move in these very, very close races.

DAVIS: And it's almost entirely negative ad spending, right? Like...

MONTANARO: Oh, yeah.

DAVIS: ...Most of this money isn't, like, vote for so-and-so; they're wonderful. It's like, that other guy's terrible. And I think in some ways it explains hyperpolarization and negativity in politics. Like, all of the advertising around politics - or for the most part - tends to be pervasively negative messaging.

MONTANARO: It is kind of the point of the outside spending because, you know, you always see these candidates say, I'm so-and-so, and I approve these messages. But that person, that candidate approves messages, puts their names on it - they don't want to have to put a negative message in their own mouths, you know, saying that they approve of that. So a lot of that negative weight is being carried by these outside groups.

LOPEZ: I mean, would you say it's mostly negative messages that are dominating the airwaves? Like, what kind of messages are we hearing from these ads that are kind of pumping through these, like, few states?

MONTANARO: Yeah. It's almost entirely negative, you know, that we're seeing. It's, you know, hitting a lot of candidates, particularly, let's say, in Ohio, a state where J.D. Vance, the, you know, Senate candidate, Republican, who had been backed by former President Trump - he'd really been lagging in the polls. And, you know, they've really had to boost him and used a message of crime to really try to close the gap against Congressman Tim Ryan, the Democrat, who had been leading for quite some time in that race. But both parties really thought it's not going to likely hold up because there's so many Republicans in a place like Ohio and in North Carolina as well. In fact, two of the largest spending gaps that we've seen between Republicans and Democrats overall are in those two places - $80 million more Republicans have spent in Ohio than Democrats, than pro-Democratic groups, North Carolina, $70 million more than pro-Democratic groups. And that's because they really have a lot more voters who they can move, who might have considered staying on the sidelines, who they can now turn out to the polls.

LOPEZ: All right. Well, let's take a quick break - more in a second. And we're back.

And, Domenico, you mentioned that Mitch McConnell has been spending a lot of money from his own PAC on these candidates. I'm wondering what you make of what that could mean for, like, the politics of the Senate moving forward if some of these candidates actually do win?

MONTANARO: Well, I kind of laugh every time I see, you know, a cable channel, send somebody down the hallway to stick a microphone in Mitch McConnell's face to ask him, you know, about the latest controversy, that Herschel Walker, for example, has come under fire for the Republican candidate in Georgia or elsewhere or there's reporting on it because McConnell has been spending so much money on these candidates - I mean, $110 million between Walker, Vance in Ohio and Dr. Oz, the celebrity TV doctor, in Pennsylvania. He's got all that money, his donors have all that money invested in these folks. There's no way he's going to suddenly, you know, jump off the boat because, you know, there's something that was untoward morally. That is not McConnell's goal. McConnell's goal is to win, to take over the Senate and to promote a conservative agenda.

And these candidates, if they win, they are going to owe him almost their entire existence. You know, former President Trump gets all this attention because he really boosted these candidates in primaries, but he's not really spending a ton of money to help them. Ironically, it's McConnell who they're going to owe, you know, a lot of their campaign advertising for and are really going to be in lockstep with him because of how much money he's been able to spend on them.

DAVIS: One of the tricky things to me about money in politics - when we have these conversations - is, like, obviously you need a certain amount of money to stay competitive in a race, but money isn't everything. I mean, we see time and time again that candidates spend the most, have the most on airwaves, and they can still lose races. Most recently...


DAVIS: ...I think, in the last election, you know, Jaime Harrison was a Democrat in South Carolina and outraised Lindsey Graham by setting records for a Senate race. And he didn't even come close. So I think it's also important to be cautious about saying what money in politics can do for you. Like, you need some of it - absolutely - to be competitive. But having the most doesn't also necessarily mean you're going to win a race.

MONTANARO: Well, you said three magic words there - Democrat, South Carolina.


MONTANARO: So, you know, I mean, that's where we have to start from. And that's where these candidates and these committees start from. As they say, you have to look at the voter registrations in these states, the historical trends in these places. And that's why you do see Senate Leadership Fund pouring in so much money to hold on to places like North Carolina and Ohio because they know they can move voters there because those voters already are prone to vote for them. It's much harder to do that in a place that leans red if you're a Democrat. And, you know, and it's very difficult to do. You have to spend a ton of money to move the needle at all in a, you know, 50-50 purple state. And that's why it's really hard with the amount of money that they're spending, Republicans in Pennsylvania, but they know that they've got to try to hold on to that seat.

LOPEZ: I think Sue's point is a good one, though. Politicians and super PACs are spending this insane amount of money on U.S. elections. And yet, you know, Americans have become more polarized, so there really isn't that many people who really are persuadable, at least in relation to the amount of money we're spending. So it is kind of like, we're spending more money, but, like, on what? Is it effective?

MONTANARO: There's probably a good equation to create to, you know, quantify that by showing, you know, the decreasing percentage of persuadable voters. I think the Pew Research Center had put it at about 7% or so who are truly persuadable nationwide. And then the increased amount of money that's being spent on them - you're certainly spending more for a lot less, and that's a difficult thing that we're continuing to see. But we know that the stakes are so high, which is why these groups continue to spend the kind of money that they are. We're talking about a 50-50 Senate here. Just look at the Supreme Court...

LOPEZ: Yeah.

MONTANARO: ...You know, three Supreme Court justices appointed by former President Trump. You don't get those justices through with a Democratic majority Senate. And that's what really is so much at stake here. We're talking about generations of social and cultural policy.

LOPEZ: Yeah. All right. Well, I think that's a good place to leave things, and we'll leave it there for today. I'm Ashley Lopez. I cover politics.

DAVIS: I'm Susan Davis. I also cover politics.

MONTANARO: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

LOPEZ: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.


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