From July through September, as the U.S. Senate race in South Carolina went from contested to competitive, Democrat Jamie Harrison dropped more money on ads than any Senate candidate of either party has ever spent, on everything, in a single quarter.
Harrison’s campaign reported an astonishing $44 million in television, radio, and digital advertising spending in the third quarter of 2020, when it also posted a fundraising record, bringing in more than $57 million in contributions backing Harrison’s challenge to Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham. The Democrat’s campaign also passed along more than $4 million to the state Democratic Party. They’ve invested in sending out millions of text messages and phone calls to South Carolina voters, and have a field staff of over 100 organizers.
In response to Harrison’s record-breaking totals, pundits have wondered how he could possibly spend all that money in South Carolina. To the Democrat’s campaign, there’s not much to wonder about: competing in a conservative state against an established incumbent, to them, has required every cent.
"We invested in the largest media, digital and field program, particularly around African-American mobilization, in South Carolina history,” a source on the Harrison campaign told The Daily Beast.
The eye-popping sum that Harrison’s campaign spent on advertising alone shows how Democratic Senate candidates’ financial windfalls are enabling a late-cycle push for the upper chamber that is unprecedented in its scale. In fact, Harrison was one of four Democratic Senate candidates whose third-quarter spending surpassed the previous record for total outlays in a single financial reporting period; Arizona’s Mark Kelly, Kentucky’s Amy McGrath, and North Carolina's Cal Cunningham all broke that record, set by Democrat Beto O’Rourke during the 2018 Senate race in Texas.
The political gold rush for Democratic Senate hopefuls this cycle has primed their party for an opportunity to retake the chamber after six years in the minority, and provide either a check on a reelected President Donald Trump or a supercharged legislative push on behalf of a newly elected President Joe Biden. No one would dispute that the huge amounts of cash flooding into Democratic coffers is a boon for their prospects in the Senate.
At the same time, that flood of money presents challenges of its own. Even if campaigns like Harrison’s are confident they can spend every last dollar before Nov. 3, the sheer scale of the figures have stunned even seasoned campaign professionals, and some are truly wondering if some Democratic candidates will be able to spend it all.
“It’s monopoly money, it doesn’t seem real,” said a Democratic aide of the huge sums brought in by the party’s Senate contenders in the third quarter of the year.
But that aide insisted that candidates will find “creative ways” to spend it, particularly those candidates raising lots of money in sparsely populated states where the main expense—TV ad time—is dirt cheap.
“What the fuck can you do with $28 million in Montana?” asked the aide, referencing Gov. Steve Bullock’s huge fundraising total for his race against Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT). “He’ll find a way. These guys are not gonna end the election with a lot of money in the bank. Not when you have the ability to win.”
But Bullock stands out among the field for the efficiency with which he’s put the millions he’s raising to work. He raised nearly $27 million in the third quarter, a huge sum in Montana, where ads are relatively cheap and a small population requires a less strenuous ground-game. Bullock ended the quarter with less than $2 million in the bank, indicating his campaign is not having trouble getting money out the door.
According to Olivia Bercow, Bullock’s communications director, they will be spending in the home stretch on a little bit of everything—”your run of the mill campaign programming—paid media, mail, staff etc.,” she said in an email. “In Montana, we also need things you wouldn't normally think about like snow plows, shovels, hand warmers, etc. It's already snowing in some parts of the state!”
As his campaign’s receipts show, Harrison’s record fundraising haul has quickly been put to work. It’s safe to say the campaign is not losing sleep over having any surplus funds left over come Nov. 3—an anxiety-producing worst-case scenario for any campaign operative.
The most significant chunk of Harrison’s haul went towards his television spending spree, but the campaign also said it’s built up a field team of over 100 organizers and a robust direct voter contact operation, with roughly 2.2 million calls made and 4.2 million texts sent to date.
Despite his huge income numbers, Harrison ended the quarter with just half the cash on hand posted by his opponent, Graham, who has posted stronger fundraising numbers than any GOP incumbent up for election this year. So, Harrison’s huge totals have put him into position to compete with Graham, but he’ll need that income to keep flowing in order to knock off an established incumbent in a state favorable to Republicans.
It’s not lost on Democrats, too, that the cavalry has come for Graham, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is diverting significant resources to defending him. GOP-aligned super PACs are outspending Harrison’s allies on the TV airwaves by a margin of three to one.
In other states like Arizona and North Carolina, where Senate candidates are competing in more expensive media markets, and where presidential campaigns have eaten up huge portions of airtime, the final leg of a campaign can quickly eat up millions in cash. There’s also the haunting prospect that legal wrangling surrounding mail-in voting or voter-suppression efforts might require additional resources post-election.
In North Carolina, though, Cunningham has cash to burn. His campaign brought in $28 million in the third quarter, more than four times what incumbent Republican Sen. Thom Tillis raised. And like Harrison, Cunningham has put that money to work. “We have a massive advantage on TV,” a source close to the campaign told The Daily Beast. “By investing the funds we raise as they come in, we are able to maintain that advantage.”
But in other states like Maine and Kentucky, Democratic Senate candidates are sitting on massive piles of cash, and it’s not entirely clear that such huge war chests can be efficiently put to work with less than three weeks before voters go to the polls.
“The most efficient thing to do is probably for the folks with ridiculous eight-figure surpluses they’ll never be able to spend to make big transfers to the DSCC which can call the necessary audibles down the stretch,” said Liam Donovan, a veteran Republican political operative. But Donovan guessed that “would never happen” in most cases.
Beyond TV ads, Donovan said, a huge war chest “certainly allows you to saturate every digital platform you’d care to reach. Otherwise I’m kind of at a loss—that’s a hell of a lot of yard signs!”
In Maine, where Democrat Sarah Gideon is facing off against incumbent Republican Sen. Susan Collins, the race is already at saturation point, a longtime political operative in the state told The Daily Beast. “Here’s the reality: in the Maine media market, there’s not much difference in the impact of having the cash on hand that Collins has, and the cash on hand that Gideon has,” said the operative. “It’s like, how deep is the ocean?”
The one area where Gideon’s advantage—she had $22.7 million heading into October versus Collins’ $6.5 million—could make a difference is after the election, said the operative. The Democrat will have “endless money” to support the complicated, resource-intensive process known as ballot chasing, where campaigns track down their supporters after election day to ensure that they sent in their absentee ballots.
Regardless, said the operative, if Gideon wins, “she’s gonna have a big fundraising head start on whoever her opponent is gonna be in six years. And if she loses, she’s gonna be a real power player in Maine politics.”