Articles

Why A GOP Senate Majority Is Still In Doubt

September 17, 2014

The president's job approval numbers are lousy, no Democrat in a competitive Senate race polls regularly above 50%, GOP enthusiasm is high, and independents are trending Republican. The midterm environment is terrible for Democrats—yet each passing day provides evidence as to why a GOP Senate majority is still in doubt.

On Monday President Obama appeared at a $100,000-a-person fundraiser in D.C. to support his party's efforts to keep the Senate. It was his 84th fundraiser this election cycle. He's certain to have more before Nov. 4.

On Tuesday the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee announced it raised $7.7 million in August, $1.6 million more than the National Republican Senatorial Committee raised. The DSCC had $25 million cash on hand on August 31, the NRSC $20 million.

And on Wednesday American Crossroads' media buyers produced their latest analysis on how much airtime each side has run or reserved in 14 Senate contests. As of this writing, between Sept. 1 and election day, Democratic Senate candidates, party committees and outside groups have run or placed $109 million in television advertising, while Republican candidates, party committees and groups have $85 million in television time. (Disclosure: I help American Crossroads/Crossroads GPS raise funds on a volunteer basis.)

The large spending gap probably overstates the Democratic advantage. Democrats have tended to buy their TV time earlier while at least eight Republican candidates—including Kentucky's Mitch McConnell and West Virginia's Shelley Moore Capito —have not yet reserved all their October time, keeping their plans hidden for now. Nor have outside Republican groups like Crossroads laid down all their buys. So though Democratic candidates and groups could place more TV, too, the Democratic TV spending advantage of $24 million is likely to shrink.

Still, Republican candidates and groups must step up if they are to substantially reduce that gap.

Consider states where both sides appear to have reserved most of their October television buys. In Alaska, Democrats have spent $6.4 million, Republicans $3.6 million. In Arkansas, Democrats have spent $6.2 million for TV ads, Republicans $4.6 million. In Colorado, it's $8.5 million for Democratic ads, $7 million for Republicans. In Iowa it's $8.5 million for Democrats, $5.6 million for GOP spots. In Louisiana, it's $5.7 million for Democrats, $5.6 million for Republicans. North Carolinians will see more than twice as many Democratic ads as Republican spots—$17.6 million to $7.8 million.

Republicans do not need to outspend Democrats to prevail. After all, the Democrats' summer ad blitz, in which they spent $58 million to the GOP's $54.4 million, dented some Republican candidates but failed to convince people to vote for Democrats, especially beleaguered incumbents. They're stuck where they were at the summer's start, and whatever damage Republican campaigns suffered can be repaired, given adequate money. But Republicans must reach a certain sufficiency of advertising in the next six weeks.

There is also evidence there are limits to the efficacy of the Democrats' "war on women" narrative. Recent American Crossroads focus groups among swing women voters found they resent being treated as single-issue abortion voters, considering it condescending. They want candidates from both parties to talk about broader concerns like jobs, the economy, health care, energy, government spending and national security, and they are more than open to the GOP message.

However, women do view attacks on Republicans over social issues as a way to determine whether a candidate is outside the mainstream. If GOP candidates address these concerns in a reasonable fashion, they undermine the Democrats' anti-women meme and can pivot successfully to larger issues. That's why Planned Parenthood has reacted with such fury to Republican Senate candidates in Alaska, Colorado and North Carolina saying they support making contraceptives available over-the-counter.

With 47 days before the election, Republican candidates must do two things. The first is to make the case for electing someone new who will be a check and balance in the Senate on Mr. Obama and his agenda, rather than returning a Democratic loyalist who toes his line. The second is to offer a positive, optimistic conservative agenda to make independents who disapprove of Mr. Obama comfortable voting Republican. Both must be done while defending themselves.

Finally, reducing the Democratic cash advantage will tip the needle in the GOP's direction. That will only happen if Republicans open their wallets to candidates whom they may have never met, and, if they live in a battleground state, they clear their calendars to volunteer to identify and get out the vote. If they don't, they should prepare for two more years of Majority Leader Harry Reid.

A version of this article appeared September 18, 2014, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline Why A GOP Senate Majority Is Still In Doubt and online at WSJ.com.

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