Politico reported on Monday that the conservative Senate Leadership Fund, a deep-pocketed super PAC run by allies of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, had reserved a total of $67.1 million in TV ad time from just after Labor Day through Election Day, in concert with its affiliates. The reservations are aimed at defending the six Republican Senate seats listed below:
Arizona (Martha McSally): $9.2 million
Colorado (Cory Gardner): $5.5 million
Iowa (Joni Ernst): $12.6 million
Kentucky (Mitch McConnell): $10.8 million
Maine (Susan Collins): $7.2 million
North Carolina (Thom Tillis): $21.8 million
SLF is the first major outside group on either side to reserve fall air time for either the House or Senate, but it won’t be the last. That’s because, by booking well ahead of time, these organizations can lock in cheaper ad rates before high demand for TV time brings prices up.
These reservations also give us an early window into what SLF expects the major battlegrounds to be in the contest to control the Senate. It’s especially notable, though not surprising, that North Carolina makes up almost a third of this initial ad reservation: The state voted for both Mitt Romney and Donald Trump by just small margins, and if Democrat Cal Cunningham unseats GOP incumbent Thom Tillis, that means there's a good chance Team Blue will have won enough seats elsewhere—likely in Arizona, Colorado, and Maine—to flip the Senate.
A bit more surprising, though, is the site of SLF’s second-largest purchase, Iowa, where Trump romped to victory in 2016. However, the state did move back towards Democrats last cycle, and businesswoman Theresa Greenfield is waging a well-funded campaign against GOP Sen. Joni Ernst.
It’s also interesting that almost $11 million is going to defend McConnell in deep red Kentucky. The GOP's majority leader does face an aggressive challenge from retired Marine pilot Amy McGrath, who is one of the strongest Democratic fundraisers in the country, but McConnell himself also has plenty of money at his disposal—almost $12 million as of Dec. 31 (McGrath had $9 million).
At the same time, there are a few competitive Senate races that aren’t on this list, though it’s very possible that SLF or another GOP group will home in on them later. Neither of the two contests in Georgia is included, for instance, even though SLF recently spent $1 million on ads attacking Rep. Doug Collins, who is challenging fellow Republican and McConnell ally Sen. Kelly Loeffler in the November all-party primary. SLF said on Friday that it had “no plans” to go back on the air for Loeffler, though its leaders insisted that the decision was due to the coronavirus rather than Loeffler's emerging insider trading scandal.
Conversely, SLF hasn't yet targeted the two most vulnerable Democratic incumbents, Alabama’s Doug Jones and Michigan’s Gary Peters. However, these are only SLF’s preliminary bookings, and we can be sure the PAC will put down much more money as Election Day draws closer.
Major outside groups like SLF can also always reduce or completely cancel reservations if a race looks like it’s already won or is too far gone to be salvaged. That might cheese off station managers, but usually the only downside to cancelling airtime is that if you do so mistakenly, you'll pay a big premium for any last-minute ad buys to get back on TV.
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