Hundreds of millions of dollars plowed into Democratic Senate campaigns this year went up in flames on Tuesday as some of the party’s most lavishly funded challengers came up short.
In South Carolina, Democrat Jaime Harrison fell to Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham despite breaking just about every Senate fundraising record with his $109 million cash haul. Kentucky state Senator Amy McGrath posted nearly as impressive fundraising numbers, bringing in about $90 million, but fell well short in her bid to unseat Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. And in Iowa, Theresa Greenfield failed to unseat Sen. Joni Ernst in spite of a $47 million war chest. In Texas, Democratic challenger M.J. Hegar, who raised nearly $25 million, was easily defeated by incumbent Sen. John Cornyn.
Democrats stunned political observers with unheard-of fundraising numbers this year, boosted by huge grassroots financial support in an election year that the party hoped would culminate in a blue wave. But as results trickled in on Tuesday evening, with Democratic nominee Joe Biden falling short of expectations, a number of down-ballot Democrats also succumbed to a Republican showing far stronger than most late-cycle polling had suggested.
For Harrison and McGrath in particular, the losses represented an historic squandering of a massive chunk of Democratic resources. Harrison alone had raised more money in a single election cycle than any senator of either party—with the sole exception of McConnell—had ever raised in his or her entire career. Those funds boosted what Democrats hoped would be a seismic shift in the U.S. Senate map, a victory in a state historically dominated by Republicans, and the vanquishment of a senator (Graham) who has emerged as one of President Donald Trump’s closest congressional allies—and who recently shepherded Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett through her successful confirmation process.
But the election was called for Graham at roughly 10 p.m. on Tuesday night. Half an hour later, as returns showed Graham leading by about 12 points, Harrison called Graham to concede.
Despite raising nearly as impressive sums, McGrath fared even worse. As of about 11 p.m. on Tuesday, she trailed McConnell by more than 20 points, with 95 percent of the state’s precincts reporting. Her $90 million campaign haul was supplemented by huge outside spending by Democratic groups determined to take out the face of the Senate GOP. According to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, super PACs and other independent groups dropped $23 million while attacking McConnell and supporting McGrath.
Democrats in the race even took to more unorthodox tactics to try to unseat McConnell. One prominent pro-McGrath super PAC spent $1.5 million late in the race to boost Kentucky’s Libertarian Senate candidate.
Some of the party’s most vulnerable incumbents, who also enjoyed substantial backing from Democratic donors, also came up short. In Alabama, Democratic Sen. Doug Jones raised about $26 million, far outpacing Republican challenger Tommy Tuberville, but failed to hold onto his seat in the deep red state.
Few expected Jones to prevail in his re-election contest, his first since his upset 2017 victory against former Alabama Supreme Court judge Roy Moore. But the substantial sums donated to his campaign and spent on his behalf dwarfed the roughly $8 million that Tuberville raised for his race. Jones was nonetheless defeated handily; with about 63 percent of the vote in on Tuesday night, Tuberville led by more than 25 points.