Where Are the Senate Battleground States? Look at the Ads

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ImageA super PAC supporting Democratic Senate candidates is running ads in Maine, Colorado and Iowa.
Credit…Senate Majority PAC

In the days when the Democratic presidential field was filled with a couple dozen candidates, a common line in their stump speeches would draw guaranteed applause: “Let’s make Mitch McConnell a back bencher.”

Though the process of narrowing that field to two candidates has sucked up most of the political oxygen over the past year, the fury within the Democratic base toward Mr. McConnell, the Senate majority leader, remains deep and motivating, and the desire to take back the chamber from Republicans is immense.

Republicans hold 53 Senate seats, meaning Democrats need to flip at least three of them, or four if President Trump is re-elected, to strip Mr. McConnell of his majority leader title. But Senator Doug Jones of Alabama, a Democrat, is facing a difficult race for re-election in his heavily Republican state, so Democrats may very well need to pick up five other seats.

Over the past week, the two main super PACs supporting Democratic and Republican candidates for the Senate have made a combined $140 million in advertising reservations for the fall, and where they’re spending tells us where party insiders believe the battle for the Senate will be fought: in North Carolina, Iowa, Arizona, Colorado and Maine.

At the moment, the most expensive of those races is in North Carolina, where Senator Thom Tillis, a Republican freshman, is facing a challenge from Cal Cunningham, an Army veteran and Democratic former state senator. Senate Majority PAC, the group supporting Democrats, announced this week that it would make a $25.6 million reservation in the state. Senate Leadership Fund, the Republican-aligned super PAC, had booked nearly $22 million the week before.

Before the two groups began spending, North Carolina had already seen an influx of money, largely from other Democratic groups. Of the $20 million spent already in the North Carolina Senate race, $16 million came from Democratic groups, according to Advertising Analytics, an ad tracking firm.

Democrats have not even selected a challenger in Iowa yet — the state’s Senate primary is set for June 2, though Theresa Greenfield, a businesswoman, was endorsed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Even so, both parties view Senator Joni Ernst, another Republican freshman, as potentially vulnerable. Senate Majority PAC announced a $13 million buy for the fall, while the Senate Leadership Fund reserved roughly $12 million in airtime to support Ms. Ernst.

Senate Majority PAC has already spent $1 million to back Ms. Greenfield, with an ad currently on air touting her as the candidate who would protect Social Security and health care.

In Arizona, Mark Kelly, a former astronaut and the husband of former Representative Gabrielle Giffords, has opened a lead in early polling over Senator Martha McSally, a Republican appointed to her seat in 2018. But both groups are making ad reservations worthy of a tight race, with Senate Majority PAC spending nearly $16 million in the state, significantly more than the Republican outside effort, which has about $9 million in reservations.

Colorado is the only state where the Senate Leadership Fund is outspending its Democratic counterpart, but the difference is just $300,000 at the moment, with each group kicking in more than $5 million as Senator Cory Gardner, another Republican freshman, battles for re-election. Two leading candidates for the Democratic nomination, former Gov. John Hickenlooper and Andrew Romanoff, a former speaker of the State House of Representatives, are battling ahead of a June 30 primary.

Senate Majority PAC is running multiple negative ads against Mr. Gardner, including one showing President Trump proclaiming at a rally that Mr. Gardner “has been with us 100 percent.”

And in Maine, where Senator Susan Collins is facing what is likely her toughest re-election battle as she campaigns for her fifth term, the Democratic group is spending just under $10 million to boost her likely opponent, Sara Gideon. One ad currently on air attacks Ms. Collins over prescription drug prices, particularly on the rising price of insulin.

While Senate Majority PAC currently has ads running on behalf of Democrats in three states, Senate Leadership Fund is dark at the moment. Its only advertising over the past month was an effort to protect Senator Kelly Loeffler, Republican of Georgia, against a primary challenger, Representative Doug Collins.

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In case you missed it, my colleagues Jim Rutenberg and Matthew Rosenberg took a deep look at the scramble among Democrats to catch up to the Republicans’ advantages on the internet. So I talked to Jim today and asked him a few questions about his reporting.

So, Jim, to get us started: Just how bad is it for the Democrats?

All you have to do is look at the numbers on Twitter: President Trump has more than 75 million followers; Joe Biden has fewer than five million. The Democrats just have nothing compared to what the Republicans have online. That’s going to be a bigger deal as the campaign moves increasingly online because of social distancing measures.

What’s interesting to me is that the Democratic Party seems much closer to Silicon Valley, and many big-name Democratic donors are from the tech world. How did they let this slip?

The best we could tell in our reporting was that the tech world, which was generally very close with the Obama administration, got complacent. In Hillary Clinton’s campaign, things were falling apart behind the scenes — the vote-tracking system she inherited from Obama was regularly crashing — but it never led to a sense of alarm because of the misguided belief that she wasn’t in a real fight.

They sprung into action in 2017, led by the LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman — who ruffled a lot of feathers among the old guard, which generally doesn’t embrace concepts like “disruption” — and much more quietly by Laurene Powell Jobs, who inherited the Apple fortune of her late husband, Steve Jobs.

Got it. So, how does the likely Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, stack up on the tech front?

After a considerable bit of clashing, the Silicon Valley types and the older guard have managed to get it together enough to help Biden even the gap. The most important of those efforts, backed in part by Ms. Powell Jobs, is a Big Data project called the Democratic Data Exchange, which would allow all of the campaigns and the big outside groups like Planned Parenthood and the League of Conservation Voters to share all their data about voters, exponentially boosting their intelligence capabilities. Biden’s own campaign is starting to put together a more aggressive digital operation with people who are well respected on the Democratic side.

So, can the Democrats catch Trump in time?

No one we spoke with, and we spoke with a lot of people, thinks the Democrats will be able to match what Trump has online in time for November. The bigger question is: Will they be able to do what they need to do to win? Their assessment is cautiously optimistic that they will. Biden’s team knows that having a strong tech infrastructure, and an effective online message machine, can make the difference between winning and losing in a close contest. His aides told us they need to be able to communicate with their own supporters and those whom they see as future supporters (swing voters), and they think they can — while acknowledging it’s a work in progress.

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