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News / Politics

Analysis: Senate fundraising dwarfs past Senate and presidential races

By Nathan L. Gonzales, CQ-Roll Call
Published: April 15, 2024, 6:00am

WASHINGTON — First quarter fundraising totals once again demonstrate that Senate candidates are raising dramatically more in races compared to just 20 years ago, with candidates in top-tier Senate races now closer to spending what presidential candidates used to spend in the early 2000s.

The growth has been incremental, but the result is that we’re effectively desensitized to the amount of money being spent to capture control of the Senate.

Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown announced he raised $12 million in the first three months of this year for his reelection race in Ohio. That’s close to the $12.9 million Republican Richard Burr spent on his entire 2004 campaign to win a competitive open seat in North Carolina. That same cycle, Republican John Thune spent less than $15 million total to knock off Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle that cycle in South Dakota.

Daschle and Thune combined to spend $36 million in the premier race of 2004. In comparison, this cycle, Democratic Sen. Jon Tester and likely GOP nominee Tim Sheehy spent half of that in 2023, before the calendar officially flipped to the election year.

In 2022, GOP nominees Blake Masters of Arizona and J.D. Vance of Ohio were objectively mediocre fundraisers, but they raised and spent more than $15 million, which would have put them among the top fundraisers in 2004, second only to Daschle. Democrat Barack Obama spent just shy of $15 million in his successful Senate campaign in Illinois.

Of the 11 races rated as competitive by The Rothenberg Political Report in 2004, the two major party nominees combined to spend more than $20 million in just three of them: South Dakota (Daschle vs. Thune), North Carolina (Burr vs. Erskine Bowles) and Florida (Mel Martinez vs. Betty Castor, mother of Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla.). Present day, a credible Senate nominee in a top-tier race should be clearing the $20 million fundraising hurdle individually for the cycle.

Some Senate candidates now are raising money at what used to be presidential levels.

In 2022, Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly of Arizona raised and spent $92.7 million in his reelection race. That’s more than any presidential nominee spent in the first 230 years of this country. That’s also more than all 11 of the GOP nominees in the 2004 competitive Senate races combined ($89 million).

There’s context to the presidential number: From 1976 to 2008, major party nominees received public funds by agreeing to limit spending to that amount in the general election and not accepting private contributions.

In 1976, President Gerald Ford and former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter each received $21.8 million for the general election. In 2008, Sen. John McCain received $84.1 million for the general election, but Obama declined to take the public money because he realized he could raise more than the allotted amount and didn’t want to be bound by the limitations. Since then, the major party nominees have never looked back.

But just four years earlier, President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry each received $74.6 million for the general election. Democratic Sen. John Fetterman spent more than $75 million winning his race in Pennsylvania in 2022.

It’s obviously not just winning candidates who are raising big money.

Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio spent $57.7 million in his unsuccessful Senate bid in 2024. That’s about $5 million more than the six Democratic nominees that weren’t named Tom Daschle in the 2004 toss-up races. It’s also more than the $55 million in public funds allotted to both President George H.W. Bush and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton in the 1992 presidential race.

Of course there is outside spending from the party committees and leadership-aligned super PACs in key congressional races. But candidate fundraising is critical in the ad war because candidates are offered the lowest unit rate for their TV ads, while outside groups are often charged two or three times the amount of money for the same number of ads.

That’s why Republicans have committed themselves to cultivating better-funded candidates either through fundraising or from their own bank account. Overall, GOP candidates are still playing catch-up to Democratic incumbents, but that gap could close over the next six months.

Republicans need a net gain of two seats for a Senate majority, but they can control the Senate by gaining one seat and winning the White House, because the new vice president could break tie votes. Since Republicans are likely to win West Virginia, a White House victory by former president Donald Trump could be enough for control. But if President Joe Biden wins reelection, then Republicans would need to win a second Democratic seat for a majority.