Can Money Help Democrats Save the Senate Majority?

2014election

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Political parties have certain images they like to cultivate around elections — both for themselves and for each other. Democrats are especially guilty of painting an image of Republicans as the receivers of major money donations that leave them indebted and beholden to major business interests — the Koch brothers especially. They portray them as wealthy, dependent on money in order to obtain support, and out of touch with middle class America.

However, these brush strokes seem to be rather hypocritical this election season, at least with regards to the financial side of elections. Democrats may be the team leaning most heavily on a financial crutch this senatorial midterm if FiveThirtyEight and OpenSecrets.org are anything to judge by.

Which Party Is Ahead in Funds?

Looking at overall numbers, Senate Democrats don’t actually have higher total fundraising results. Democrats have raised, in total between 2013 and 2014, $199,591,115, according to Open Secrets, while Republicans have raised about $9 million more for a total of $208,771,127. But financial dependence and might this election is really more about how the money is focused. In key state races, Democrats are relying heavily on having a funding edge, so while overall comparisons may not show Democrats depending on funding to give them an extra push, if you look at states like Louisiana, Arkansas, and Alaska, money is clearly more of an element in the election equation.

Where Does the Money Come From?

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has managed quite a bit of a lead on the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC); about $25 million more as of July. “Republicans have better candidates and are running better campaigns, but the Democrats’ fundraising machine, led by our most-partisan president, Barack Obama, remains the last vestige of their grasp on the Senate majority,” said NRSC Executive Director Rob Collins, according to Roll Call, acknowledging the funding success of Democrats.

The Republican Committee is also making targeted claims that Mary Landrieu (D-La.) has been using taxpayer money for campaign efforts to pay for flights, flipping the tables on Democrat’s usual monetary attacks — though as attacks go, this one was rather weak; “Landrieu’s spokesman said that ‘out of an abundance of caution’ her campaign will reimburse the government for the nearly $6,000 charter flight bill,” reads the NRSC update.

Open Secrets reports that Republican Senators have spent more overall — about $158 million to Democrat’s $128 million — but that Democrats have more cash on hand by about 13 million. Republicans have pulled in more from PACs, as Democrats would likely be quick to jump on — but only by just under $2 million, and Democrats have a $12 million lead on Republican Senatorial candidates from individual funding.

Outside spending is also very high for a number of Democratic candidates. In Alaska, spending has become something of a battle ground for candidates, volleying funding criticism back and forth over the course of the midterm cycle. But outside spending is highest from Senator Mark Begich (D) by a considerable amount, $8,367,748 to Dan Sullivan’s $4,068,357.

In Arkansas, the same pattern holds true, with Incumbent Senator Mark Pryor (D) showing $8,957,615 to Tom Cotton’s (R) $6,025,663. Colorado, Louisiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Montana, North Carolina, Virginia, and Alaska have seen over $100,000 in outside spending in the last week, according to Open Secrets. Only in Michigan, Kentucky, and Montana have Republicans spent more in the last week, and Senator Kay Hagan (D) of North Carolina, a major battle state for the Senate, spent $16,667, 195 to Thom Tillis’ (R) $4,764,110.

But Will Funding Save the Election for Democrats?

Collins is right about one thing: the funding advantage could well fail to save Senate Democrats from majority loss this year. No matter how much funding and ad campaigning is done, the fact of the matter is that midterms are notoriously poor for Democrats, voter turnout tends to be low, and Obama’s approval ratings are weighing on incumbent candidates, as is the daily news from Capitol Hill. Some suggest that impeachment rhetoric might drive Democrats to the poles, but so far that seems unlikely to do the trick in terms of party mobilization. It seems unlikely that even a major cash advantage would be the deciding wedge.

Giving us an historical perspective, FiveThirtyEight examined spending in Senate races since 2002 and found that “just 18 percent (three of seventeen) successful Senate challangers have outspent the incumbents they defeated,” and since 1994, “slightly less than a third of challengers (nine out of twenty-eight) outspent losing incumbents.”

The Washington Post’s “Election Lab” has Republicans with an 82 percent chance of taking the Senate majority, and most polling organizations seem to think the race is either very close, or Republicans are in the lead. Still, November is a ways off yet and it isn’t over till it’s over.

More From Politics Cheat Sheet:

Follow Anthea Mitchell on Twitter @AntheaWSCS