As the old saw goes, it takes money to make money. And there’s an obvious corollary: It also takes money to spend money.
Those truths have recently hit home for Republican candidates in vital Senate races this year, some of whom have struggled to amass the kind of scratch needed to carry a self-sustaining modern campaign through the finish line.
The fundraising woes have yielded spending woes. And that’s created headaches for the GOP, as national groups have had to adapt their previous strategies on the fly to cover unexpected gaps between underperforming conservatives and their Democratic rivals.
Nowhere is that spending gap more clear than in the digital arena.
A review of Facebook and Google ad data over the last three months show that Republicans have been getting shellacked in races the party can’t afford to lose.
Last week, Kyle Tharp and Nick Seymour at the FWIW newsletter reported that Democratic Senate candidates across the board have spent five times as much money on Facebook and Google as their GOP opponents this year.
Here’s a closer cut of the five most contested races—Georgia, Arizona, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.
Facebook ad data for the top Senate races shows Democrats comprising the top five spenders over the last 90 days. The candidate in sixth, Georgia’s Herschel Walker, trails rival Sen. Raphael Warnock $288,000 to $1.53 million over that period, according to the data. (The former football star lags even further behind in Google buys, $95,000 to $790,000.)
In Arizona—where the GOP seeks to flip a seat—right-wing tech investor Blake Masters has dropped just $12,000 on Google ads in the last month, while spending no money on Facebook. Meanwhile, his rival, Sen. Mark Kelly, has unloaded $491,000 and $361,000 on those platforms, respectively. And in Nevada, another Republican target for a flip, GOP candidate Adam Laxalt is about ten to one behind incumbent Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto in Facebook spending in the last month—$27,600 to $284,000.
The landscape isn’t different in states where Republicans are trying to hold GOP seats.
Republican hopeful Dr. Mehmet Oz has been outspent four to one on Facebook in the last month by his meme-lord opponent Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman in Pennsylvania. That ratio increases to more than seven to one on Google, where the Fetterman campaign has invested $322,000 over the last 30 days.
The unexpectedly tight race in Ohio has Republican J.D. Vance—who went through a particularly rough fundraising patch through June—spending far less on digital outreach than Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan. Since May, the month Vance locked up the primary, he’s spent $17,300 to Ryan’s $876,000 in combined Facebook platform ad buys. And over the last month alone, he’s behind Ryan $1,600 to $366,000. But Vance has recently kicked up his Google spending, $104,000 to Ryan’s $192,000 over the last 30 days.
Digital outreach is fertile ground for small-dollar fundraising, where Democrats have always led the way. That’s why GOP party organs like the National Republican Senatorial Committee started investing big bucks early in this election cycle for digital fundraising—except the strategy didn’t pay off.
However, as FWIW pointed out, many of the Facebook ads Democrats are currently running are persuasive and informative, so their digital investment strategy may be shifting.
David Bergstein, communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, told The Daily Beast that the digital focus is on “meeting voters where they are” and “utilizing innovative tactics” to reach an online audience.
“Right now we’re seeing Senate Republicans struggling across all areas of their campaigns, but we also know that each of our battleground races will be extremely competitive. We continue to take nothing for granted, and that includes continuing to ensure we’re outdoing Republicans in the digital space,” Bergstein said.
A Democratic operative involved in the strategy told The Daily Beast that these new tactics are becoming available directly to campaigns—not just national or outside groups—because marquee Democrats like Kelly and Warnock are raising money like “mini-presidential” campaigns.
“In previous cycles, you’d see campaigns throwing up TV ads. But now these campaigns have the resources to produce their own digital ads, and to make them more tailored,” the operative said, pointing to placements on connected TV and XBox platforms.
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But the GOP by and large didn't have such fundraising juggernauts this year. In fact, they’ve fielded first-time federal candidates in all five of the most competitive races—four have never run for any office—and they don’t have legacy cash or established fundraising networks.
Some had to burn money to overcome brutal primaries, without being able to fill it on the back end. Those campaigns now face a cash crisis.
As a result, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and powerful outside groups like the Mitch McConnell-aligned One Nation and Senate Leadership Fund have had to pick up the slack with major unexpected cash infusions—even as McConnell expresses doubt about his party’s chances to retake the upper chamber, citing “candidate quality.”
The Washington Post reported last week that the NRSC, the official political arm of the Senate GOP, is taking flak for the spending gap. The group recently canceled and reapportioned media buys in critical states and has had to rethink other investments.
But Republicans have pushed back, pointing out that the bigger picture is more complex. And it is: The NRSC has adhered to the spending strategy it carved out ahead of the 2022 cycle; the perceived crisis reflects recent adjustments.
NRSC spokesperson Chris Hartline explained that the NRSC’s strategy this cycle was always to invest big up front, which it did in both digital and traditional mediums—citing specifically more than $40 million on TV to support Republicans and define the Democrats early.
“We started spending early, like we said we would do this entire cycle, to make sure the Democrats didn’t have the airwaves to themselves well into the summer, as they have in previous cycles when we lost the Senate majority,” Hartline said. “We’ll continue to do whatever is needed to win back the Senate majority in November.”
Some GOP insiders say this scramble is a direct result of what one Republican strategist described to The Daily Beast as the “fundraising challenges” of key candidates. That burden, the strategist said, is being met by outside groups, including single-candidate super PACs—a development we explored in Pay Dirt earlier this month.
But one of those “challenged” candidates, Vance, has finally begun to increase his own digital spending. Vance’s Google payments started to tick up at the beginning of August, when he went on-air with his first campaign ad for the general election. The ad was paid for by the NRSC.