In mid-April, senior advisers to a dozen Republican senators gathered on the second floor of the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s offices, where NRSC executive director Kevin McLaughlin detailed the stark online fundraising disparities that led to eight GOP incumbents getting outraised by Democrats in the first three months of 2020.
McLaughlin concluded his presentation with a dire warning: If campaigns didn’t improve their digital fundraising dramatically, they’d have no way to counter a “green tsunami” of Democratic spending in the fall, according to three people familiar with the meeting.
Six months later, the green tsunami is here. And it’s threatening to wipe out the Republican Senate majority.
The online fundraising edge that Democrats have enjoyed for years has mushroomed into an overpowering force, with small-dollar donors smashing “donate” buttons over the last three months to process their disgust for President Donald Trump, fury with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and grief for the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Propelled by the wave of money, Democrats have suddenly expanded the Senate battlefield to a dozen competitive races, burying long-contested states like Iowa and Maine in TV ads while also overwhelming Republican opponents in states like Alaska, Kansas and South Carolina that are suddenly tightening.
Josh Holmes, a top McConnell adviser, said every news development activates Democrats’ donor base and “their default is to give $5 every time something angers them.”
But “when your average Republican is watching Hannity and something upsets them, their response is to write something on Facebook,” Holmes added.
“You get to a certain point where the die is cast,” said one national Republican strategist, granted anonymity to discuss the issue candidly. “You can’t capitalize on a huge moment like SCOTUS vacancy if you haven’t spent the last 6 months or 12 months building the asset to maximize the value of it. There’s a limit to what you can accomplish if you haven’t done the work.”
Here’s how grim things look for House Republicans three weeks out from the election: They’re struggling to win back seats even in conservative bastions like Oklahoma and South Carolina, where Democrats staged shocking upsets in 2018.
About a half-dozen seats fall in that category — the lowest of low-hanging fruit for Republicans. But most private and public surveys from both parties show either dead heats or the Democratic incumbent with a modest lead, a startling position for a crop of candidates running in Trump country. The seats were won in 2018 by Reps. Kendra Horn (D-Okla.), Joe Cunningham (D-S.C.), Max Rose (D-N.Y.), Xochitl Torres Small (D-N.M.), Anthony Brindisi (D-N.Y.), Ben McAdams (D-Utah) and Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.).
Republicans' outlays against a handful of the most beatable Democrats have hampered their ability to craft a serious path back to the majority. Democrats have seized on their cash advantage to contest districts in deep-red territory, forcing the GOP to retrench and protect incumbents and open seats.
As of mid-October, national Republicans are playing more defense than offense, airing TV ads in 28 GOP-held districts compared to 25 Democratic-held ones, according to a POLITICO analysis of data from Advertising Analytics, a TV tracking firm.
“We’re able to flip the tables and focus on expanding the map. And I do think that that’s a shift,” said Abby Curran Horrell, the executive director of House Majority PAC, Democrats' main House super PAC. "They are tied down in districts that I think they expected that they would be able to win easily. But it is not that type of year."