As Senate races ramp up, so does outside spending by top super PACs

outside spending
Outside spending by top Senate super PACs, including the Mitch McConnell-tied Senate Leadership Fund and the Chuck Schumer-tied Senate Majority PAC is beginning to ramp up. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Two super PAC spending titans, the Democratic Senate Majority PAC and GOP Senate Leadership Fund, ended August with $85 million and $126 million cash on hand, respectively, according to Sunday’s Federal Election Commission filings.

Those numbers are key because as both parties enter the home stretch of election season, a Democratic retaking of the Senate in November is seen by many as a solid possibility. FiveThirtyEight deemed Democrats “slight favorites” to take back the Senate, and Democrats are defending just 12 Senate seats compared to Republicans’ 23. 

The Democratic-aligned Senate Majority PAC is determined to make that possibility a reality. The super PAC is a top outside spending juggernaut: it’s spent the second-highest amount of any outside group on independent expenditures so far during this election cycle. The GOP-aligned Senate Leadership Fund is the third-highest outside spender this cycle; the two Senate super PACs rank second and third only to Priorities USA Action, a pro-Biden hybrid PAC. 

Senate Majority PAC ended August with roughly $3.5 million less than it started out with, receiving slightly more than $17 million in contributions over the course of the month. Meanwhile, Senate Leadership Fund received more than $34 million in August and ended the month with roughly $8.5 million more than it began with. 

The Senate Leadership Fund is run by allies of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), including Robert Duncan, the chairman of the U.S. Postal Service board of governors. (Duncan has donated over $20,000 to various Republican causes this cycle, including President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign and the Republican Party of Kentucky.) The super PAC’s coffers are thriving in part thanks to billionaire donors like Sheldon Adelson, CEO of Las Vegas Sands Corporation, and his wife Miriam. Both Adelsons contributed $12.5 million each to Senate Leadership Fund in August; the two have contributed $50 million total to the group this cycle. 

Other August top contributors to the GOP super PAC include casino mogul Stephen Wynn, who gave $4 million, and businessman William Oberndorf, who gave $1 million. Top contributors to the GOP group this cycle so far include Blackstone CEO Stephen Schwarzman and financial executive Charles Schwab, who gave $20 million and $3.5 million, respectively. 

On the Democratic side, Blackstone executive Jonathan Gray contributed $1 million to Senate Majority PAC in August. Other August top donors include DreamWorks co-founder and current Quibi CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, as well as best-selling legal thriller writer John Grisham, who each contributed $250,000. 

While Senate Leadership Fund received less than $3,000 in small donations in August, Senate Majority PAC received $2.8 million in donations under $200 during that same time period. 

Senate Majority PAC has spent over $68 million on independent expenditures this election cycle, with nearly $16 million going to the Senate race in Iowa. Nearly $7 million of that went to back Democratic candidate Theresa Greenfield and over $8.9 million was spent to oppose incumbent Republican Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa). 

Senate Majority PAC has also spent nearly $10 million against Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), over $9 million opposing Michigan GOP Senate candidate John James, and more than $8 million against Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). It also contributed nearly $2.5 million to Priorities USA Action.

Meanwhile, Senate Leadership Fund spent over $58 million on independent expenditures this election cycle. Nearly three-quarters of that haul has been spent against four Democratic Senate candidates running to unseat Republican incumbents in races that Cook Political Report has rated as Toss Ups: almost $13 million against Jon Ossoff in Georgia, $11.5 million against Cal Cunningham in North Carolina, over $9 million against Steve Bullock in Montana, and nearly $9 million against Theresa Greenfield in Iowa. 

Senate Leadership Fund also contributed $3.5 million in August to DefendArizona, a single-candidate super PAC supporting appointed Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.). McSally is widely seen as a vulnerable incumbent. Hers is the only seat currently held by a Republican that the Cook Political Report has labeled as leaning Democratic

The death of former Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Friday has only intensified outside spending on Senate races. The Democratic fundraising platform ActBlue saw its busiest weekend ever, with more than $160 million in contributions flowing in. Because ActBlue distributes the money it receives to campaigns and PACs, it will not be known for a while which groups or candidates benefited from the surge in donations. 

Get Mitch or Die Trying, a web page hosted on ActBlue and run by the hosts of the popular liberal podcast “Pod Save America, reported that it received almost $20 million in donations. That money will help 13 Democrats looking to unseat Republican Senators in key races, as well as Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), who faces an uphill re-election challenge. Notably, the fund is not helping Amy McGrath, the Democrat seeking to unseat McConnell. 

Other Democrats who’ll get help from the fund include Sara Gideon, a Democrat challenging Collins; and John Hickenlooper, a Democrat vying to unseat Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.). 

Collins recently announced that she believes whoever wins the presidential election should nominate the Supreme Court justice to fill the vacancy created by Ginsburg’s death. The move is viewed by some as an attempt by Collins to placate potential voters, as her vote to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in 2018 angered some constituents. A recent poll has Gideon 5 percentage points ahead of Collins, 46-41; the poll’s margin of error was 4.4 percent. 

A recent poll showed Hickenlooper 10 percentage points above Gardner, 52-42; the margin of error was 3.5 percent. 

Republican strategists expect there will be an uptick in donations after President Donald Trump announces his Supreme Court nominee later this week, according to the New York Times.   

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