Republicans have outspent Democrats by more than $1.6 million over the past two weeks of Wisconsin’s crucial Senate race, according to media buying data obtained by HuffPost, alarming Wisconsin Democrats who fear the cash could swamp Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes in his battle with GOP Sen. Ron Johnson.
“We can’t take Wisconsin for granted the way Wisconsin was taken for granted in 2016 when Hillary Clinton lost the state,” said Joe Zepecki, a Democratic strategist and a veteran of Wisconsin politics, referring to Clinton’s now-infamous decision to never visit the state during her campaign against former President Donald Trump. “Where is the calvary? The path to victory in Wisconsin is there.”
Johnson, who is consistently unpopular in public surveys, is considered the most vulnerable Republican Senate incumbent in the country. Polling in the race, however, remains close.
The GOP’s spending edge comes as Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC controlled by allies of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, is two weeks into a post-Labor Day surge of spending that will ultimately top $156 million nationally. The group has spent $2.2 million in the past two weeks, helping give Johnson an edge in all of the state’s media markets except Madison.
That amount has been slightly surpassed by Senate Majority PAC, its Democratic rival, which has spent roughly $2.4 million.
Republicans have also had a more than 3,000-point advantage in gross ratings points, or GRP, which measures how many people are reached by advertising.
That’s not always the case when the GOP outspends Democrats, since Democrats typically have an advantage in candidate spending, giving them more bang for their buck. (TV stations are required to sell advertising time to candidates at the lowest possible rate, a rule that does not apply to outside groups.)
A major issue: Barnes’ small-dollar fundraising dramatically trails other Democrats, in part because he did not officially become the party’s nominee until Aug. 2 and had relatively little national profile. As of his latest Federal Election Commission report, he’s raised just over $3 million in contributions of less than $200.
Other Democrats, some with far less of a chance of victory, have raised mountains more. Rep. Val Demings, who is running against Sen. Marco Rubio in Florida, has banked $26.4 million in small donations. Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, running in a state Trump won by 10 percentage points, has raised $8 million in small donations.
Even Marcus Flowers ― an army veteran running with absolutely zero chance to defeat Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene ― has raised $8 million worth of small checks.
Zepecki notes Democrats or Democrat-backed candidates have won 10 of the 11 statewide elections since Trump’s 2016 victory in Wisconsin, a record Ohio and Florida Democrats can only dream of.
“I’m afraid donors are going to get distracted by candidates like Jamie Harrison and Amy McGrath like they have in the past,” Zepecki said. “When was the last time we won in Ohio?”
The other element is the GOP’s array of mega donor-funded groups. Beyond Senate Leadership Fund’s spending, a group dubbed Wisconsin Truth PAC ― which is funded mostly by the families of Wisconsin billionaire conservatives Richard Uihlein and Diane Hendricks ― has spent roughly $1.65 million.
Barnes, along with the DSCC, spent roughly $2.2 million over the past two weeks. Johnson and the NRSC combined for about $2.5 million.
Barnes is not alone among Democrats in asking for financial help. In a memo to donors sent last week and first obtained by Politico, the campaign manager for Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman warned Republicans had obtained a spending edge in the Keystone State.
While Democrats would like to see small-donor giving to Barnes increase, the onus in the short-term is on larger donors who can rush six- and seven-figure checks to super PACs. Democrats noted absentee ballots start going out to about 10% of all registered voters in Wisconsin starting Thursday.
“The ones who can make the impact fastest are those outside groups,” Zepecki said. “We can’t husband our resources until the last two weeks of the election.”
At the same time, outside GOP groups are stepping up spending even in races where Democrats are heavily favored. In Arizona, where polling shows Sen. Mark Kelly with a healthy lead over venture capitalist Blake Masters, Senate Leadership Fund has been able to cut $10 million worth of advertising there because other GOP groups ― including the Club for Growth and the Uihlein-backed Restoration PAC ― poured in cash.
“We’re glad to see Republican outside forces showing up in a big way in Arizona, with millions in new spending pledged to take down Mark Kelly in the final stretch. This allows us to pursue offensive opportunities, maximize our investment in existing commitments, and concentrate our efforts to win the Senate majority,” Senate Leadership Fund President Steven Law said.