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McConnell’s Too-Little, Too-Late Strategy Hurt First-Time GOP Candidates

'Had he chosen to spend money in Arizona, this race would be over. We’d be celebrating a Senate majority right now...'

(Headline USA) Trailing badly in his Arizona Senate race as votes poured in, Republican Blake Masters went on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News program and assigned blame to one person: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

“You know what else is incompetent, Tucker? The Establishment. The people who control the purse strings,” Masters said before accusing the long-serving GOP leader and the super PAC aligned with him of not spending enough on TV advertising.

“Had he chosen to spend money in Arizona, this race would be over,” he continued. “We’d be celebrating a Senate majority right now.”

As both parties sift through the results of the midterm elections, in which the widely anticipated red wave largely fizzled out, Republicans are zeroing in on powerful RINOs like McConnell whose efforts actively undermine the overall party effort.

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Last week, Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., who led the Senate GOP’s campaign arm, failed in his attempt to challenge McConnell for his leadership post while likewise blaming the 80-year-old GOP leader for a too-little, too-late strategy in disbursing funds after encouraging fellow senators to give to him instead of Scott.

But McConnell’s came pushed back by blaming the candidates themselves, claiming the core issue with the slate of political outsiders was candidate quality.

“This has become an existential and systemic problem for our party and it’s something that needs to get addressed if we hope to be competitive,” said Steven Law, a former McConnell chief of staff who now leads Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC that spent at least $232 million on advertising to elect Republicans to the Senate this year.

“Our [donors] have grown increasingly alarmed that they are being put in the position of subsidizing weak fundraising performances by candidates in critical races. And something has got to give. It’s just not sustainable,” Law said.

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With several high-profile candidates mounting their first-ever campaigns, many failed to raise the money needed to mount competitive races against deep-pocketed left-wingers backed by corporate special interests, as well as dark-money oligarchs like George Soros and FTX founder Sam Bankman–Fried.

That forced GOP leaders, particularly in the Senate, to make hard choices and triage resources to races where they thought they had the best chance at winning, often paying exorbitant rates to TV stations that, by law, would have been required to sell the same advertising time to candidates for far less.

The lackluster fundraising allowed Democrats to get their message out to voters early and unchallenged, while GOP contenders lacked the resources to do the same. Meanwhile, Democrats’ efforts to replace Election Day with Election Month ensured that their voting base had already cast ballots before the flaws in their own candidates became widely known.

In key Senate and House battlegrounds, Democratic candidates outraised their Republican counterparts by a factor of nearly 2-to-1, according to an Associated Press analysis of campaign finance data.

In Arizona, Masters was outraised nearly 8-to-1 by incumbent Sen. Mark Kelly, who poured at least $32 million into TV advertising from August until Election Day, records show. Masters spent a little over $3 million on advertising during the same period after Senate Leadership Fund pulled out of the race

Meanwhile, in Nevada, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto raised $52.8 million compared to Republican Adam Laxalt’s $15.5 million. And in Pennsylvania, Democratic Sen.-elect John Fetterman took in $16 million more than his GOP opponent, Dr. Mehmet Oz. That’s despite the celebrity TV doctor lending $22 million to his campaign, records show.

Similar disparities emerged in crucial House races, including in Nevada, Pennsylvania and Virginia, helping to limit House Republicans to a surprisingly narrow majority.

When it came to purchasing TV ad time, Democrats’ fundraising advantage yielded considerable upside. Ad sellers are required, by law, to offer candidates the cheapest rate. That same advantage doesn’t apply to super PACs, which Republican candidates relied on to close their fundraising gap—often at a premium.

In Las Vegas, for example, a candidate could buy a unit of TV advertising for $598, according to advertising figures provided to the AP. That same segment cost a super PAC $4,500. In North Carolina’s Raleigh-Durham media market, a $342 spot cost a super PAC $1,270. And a $580 candidate segment in the Philadelphia area cost a super PAC nearly $2,000, the advertising figures show.

Republicans also found themselves playing defense in states that weren’t ultimately competitive.

J.D. Vance, who won his Ohio Senate race by more than 6 percentage points, was outraised nearly 4-to-1 by Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan. To shore him up, Senate Leadership Fund poured $28 million into the state. The group’s advertising ultimately accounted for about 70% of all Republican media spending from August until Election Day.

A similar situation played out in North Carolina, where the McConnell-aligned super PAC was responsible for 82% of the Republican advertising spending during the same period. GOP Rep. Ted Budd won by over 3% of the vote.

McConnell’s spending wasn’t the only area where GOP fundraising fell short.

Former president, while preparing for his own 2024 presidential campaign, gave his endorsement to many of the pro-MAGA conservatives, but he was parsimonious when it came to sharing some of the more than $100 million he’s amassed in a committee designed to help other candidates. He ended up spending about $15 million on ads across five Senate races, records show.

Meanwhile, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, led by Scott, often worked at cross-purposes with McConnell’s political operation.

Early on, Scott ruled out getting involved in primaries, which he saw as inappropriate meddling. McConnell’s allies, meanwhile, moved to fend off candidates they saw as poor general-election contenders, like Don Bolduc, a conservative who lost his New Hampshire race last week by nearly 10 percentage points. McConnell forces also defended Sen. Lisa Murkowski against Trump-backed challenger Kelly Tshibaka.

“Senate races are just different,” McConnell said in August. “Candidate quality has a lot to do with the outcome.”

In response, Scott took a shot at McConnell without mentioning him by name, suggesting in an opinion article published in the Washington Examiner that any “trash-talking” of Republican candidates was an “act of cowardice” that was “treasonous to the conservative cause.”

But his committee also struggled after making a series of bad bets, including a costly investment to boost the committee’s online fundraising.

An internal document obtained by the AP, which was previously reported by the New York Times, shows the committee invested $23.3 million to build out its digital fundraising program between June and January of 2021. But the NRSC raised just $6.1 million during that time—a deficit. Then, as inflation soared, the stream of cash from online donors slowed to a trickle.

That prevented the NRSC from spending as much on TV ads as in years past, even as Scott made bullish predictions of picking up as many as five Senate seats. The digital fundraising effort was a boon, however, for consultants, who collected at least $31 million in payments, disclosures show.

Some Republican senators are now clamoring for an audit of the committee. In an at-times heated Senate GOP lunch at the Capitol last week, Maine Sen. Susan Collins questioned Scott’s management of the NRSC.

Scott’s aides dismissed suggestions of financial impropriety and instead have accused McConnell of undercutting the committee.

During a Senate GOP lunch in August, Scott asked senators for donations to the NRSC, which is now at least $20 million in debt. Then McConnell addressed the room and told the senators to instead prioritize giving to Senate Leadership Fund, according to two people familiar with the discussion; they requested anonymity to describe it.

The interaction was part of a broader pattern by McConnell to sabotage the NRSC, said committee spokesman Chris Hartline.

“There was a very clear implication to donors that they should not give to the NRSC,” Hartline said. “And the result is it hurt our ability to boost our candidates and get their message out.”

McConnell allies, however, believe it was Scott who was using his post to burnish his own image at the expense of the party, potentially working to set himself up for a presidential bid, according to senior Republicans strategists. They were not authorized to discuss the McConnell allies’ conclusions and did so on condition of anonymity.

The gambit failed, as did Scott’s challenge of McConnell’s leadership position last week.

Faced with the prospect of solidifying their majority with another seat during a December runoff election in Georgia, Democrats were happy to offer unsolicited guidance to Republicans.

“My advice is to keep on doing what they are doing,” said Michigan Sen. Gary Peters, who led Senate Democrats’ campaign arm this year.

Adapted from reporting by the Associated Press

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