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GOP Senate hopefuls look to emerge from a summer slump, but fall recriminations are already flying

Across eight key states, Republican-aligned groups plan to bombard the airwaves with a nine-figure ad blitz that begins Tuesday.

ASHLAND, Ohio — It was a summer of crises for Republican Senate hopefuls.

Celebrity TV doctor Mehmet Oz stumbled in his attempts to appeal to everyday voters in Pennsylvania and squandered a head start toward the general election while Lt. Gov. John Fetterman recovered from a stroke.

J.D. Vance struggled to raise money and disappeared from the airwaves in Ohio while Democratic rival Tim Ryan hammered a GOP-friendly message, raising alarm in a state former President Donald Trump won twice by healthy margins. 

In Wisconsin, two-term incumbent Ron Johnson was knocked on his heels, falling behind his opponent by 7 points, according to one poll. In Georgia, Herschel Walker came under scrutiny for not disclosing several children he had fathered. And after winning his primary in Arizona, Blake Masters raced to cleanse his campaign website of his more extreme positions.

Now, with less than 10 weeks until Election Day, the GOP is launching a vigorous push for a turnaround in its quest to take control of the Senate in November. Across eight key states, Republican-aligned groups plan to bombard the airwaves with a nine-figure ad blitz that begins Tuesday. In interviews with more than 20 Republicans working with or closely monitoring the midterm campaigns, there was a wide acknowledgement that the candidates in these hotly contested races needed a reset, with Democrats heading into a critical stretch of the cycle buoyed by strong fundraising and indicators that abortion rights may be galvanizing voters. 

The GOP strategy is similar in most of the races: Tie the Democratic candidates to an unpopular president, Joe Biden; highlight inflation and other worrisome economic trends; and go on offense about their opponents’ policy views. The strategy also includes leaning in on immigration and border security, school curriculum and culture issues, with a healthy dose of attacks specific to each candidate

While the National Republican Senatorial Committee has enlisted former President Donald Trump to help reverse lagging fundraising, much — if not most — of the money will come from the Senate Leadership Fund to start. The group, aligned with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, had already been on-air in Pennsylvania, and this week will begin to deploy the rest of a $169.2 million advertising plan across key states. 

“Democrats had an edge over the summer,” fueled by the steady drip of negative headlines out of the Jan. 6 hearings and the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn federal abortion protections, said Brandon Scholz, a GOP strategist based in Wisconsin. 

Republicans, Scholz continued, “were behind the eight ball. There weren’t any death blows but it means that they have their work cut out for them over the next 60 days. Now is their time to strip the bark off the other side and take it to November.” 

The party committee helped keep GOP candidates competitive to this point, said NRSC spokesman Chris Hartline.

“The NRSC started spending early, with more than $45 million spent on TV over the spring and summer [a strategy we’ve outlined all cycle] to help our candidates get on the air and make sure the Democrats didn’t have the airwaves to themselves until the fall,” he said in a text message. “As a result, we’re in a great position to win in all of our target states.”

But the road remains rough for Republicans, with the GOP’s top leaders already sizing one another up for blame if the midterm elections don’t go their way. 

McConnell has lowered expectations that the GOP will reclaim control of the Senate, citing “candidate quality.” Sen. Rick Scott, who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee and is believed to have presidential ambitions, clapped back at McConnell last week in an op-ed and in interviews, bemoaning “trash-talking” that he described as “treasonous to the conservative cause.” Trump, who still wields enormous influence in the party, is closer to Scott and has called for McConnell to be ousted from GOP leadership. 

“The conflict between Mitch and Rick Scott is hurting every single candidate in the country,” said one Republican strategist working on Senate races who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “At a certain point, enough is enough. If Republicans have a bad November, everyone deserves to be blamed in that scenario. McConnell deserves to be blamed. Scott deserves to be blamed. Trump deserves to be blamed.”

Recriminations are already flying. 

“I am an NRSC donor and I want offense not defense,” said Republican fundraiser Dan Eberhart, referring to the National Republican Senatorial Committee's cancellation of ad buys and shifting of resources over the summer while the Senate Leadership Fund reinforced its commitments. “Rick Scott is taking his foot off the pedal at exactly the wrong time.”

“To me, the first-time candidates this cycle lack a fundraising base, and this has put the GOP Senate candidates two steps behind,” Eberhart added. “They are waiting on a bailout from the NRSC or SLF.”

The National Republican Senatorial Committee has had its share of fundraising difficulties, falling behind its Democratic counterpart for four straight months. Trump recently recorded a video for the group that will be used in fundraising texts and emails, according to a committee spokesperson.

At the moment, McConnell’s Senate Leadership Fund seems the likelier bet for a bailout. Multiple sources who spoke with NBC News said they viewed that group, and not the National Republican Senatorial Committee, as the cavalry capable of financing the bulk of the fall push. The senatorial committee had just $23 million on hand at the end of July, according to its latest filing with the Federal Election commission, giving it far less capital than the Senate Leadership Fund.

The Senate Leadership Fund ad blitz that begins Tuesday includes $37.1 million in Georgia, $27.6 in North Carolina, $28 million in Ohio and $15 million in Nevada and Wisconsin. That’s atop an existing $34.1 million commitment  in Pennsylvania. Overall, the group has reserved $169.2 million in ad spending for fall campaigns.

“Democrats enjoyed humongous spending advantages over the summer, but that’s about to narrow,” Senate Leadership Fund spokesperson Jack Pandol told NBC News, vowing that “the road ahead is not going to get easier for them.”

Pandol said the money will be spent on “defining Democratic candidates around their extreme positions and their enabling” of Biden’s agenda.

The group, however, recently chopped $8 million from its Arizona ad budget, canceling its ad reservations for September and delaying its launch there until next month. The move reflects growing pessimism about Masters’ candidacy. 

In Georgia, conversely, there are already some signs of hope for a race that at one point appeared out of reach for Republicans. Walker, whose public campaign schedule was sparse during the primary and summer, will launch a statewide bus tour this week with stops expected daily. Two polls last week showed the race between him and Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock tightening

In Pennsylvania, Republicans are taking sharper aim at Fetterman. Oz and his campaign aides have criticized the Democrat for not committing to debates — the first had been proposed for Tuesday — as he recovers from the lingering effects of his stroke, including speech and auditory processing struggles. 

And in Wisconsin, Republicans plan to go all in on painting Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, Johnson’s Democratic rival, as a “radical” who will take the state so far left he could join the “squad,” a group of progressive House Democrats that includes Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, according to a Republican operative in Wisconsin with knowledge of the campaign’s strategy. Last month, the Johnson campaign, together with the National Republican Senatorial Committee, released its first negative ad, which made that connection. Ocasio-Cortez endorsed Barnes during the primary.

“Just within the last week you’ve seen a concentrated effort by Ron to go after Mandela a bit more,” said the operative, who requested anonymity to speak more candidly about the campaign. “He’s amping up the attacks on Mandela Barnes. The gloves are definitely off.” 

The National Republican Senatorial Committee released a 30-second spot hitting Barnes on cash bail and rising crime in Wisconsin on Friday.

Barnes campaign spokesperson Maddy McDaniel said the existing and expected elevation of attacks amounted to "lying" by "Johnson and his allies in D.C.," and was designed to "distract from Johnson's record."

Then there’s Ohio, where the Senate Leadership Fund’s hefty investment in a state that was once seen as a safe Republican hold has raised eyebrows. Vance also plans to go back on the air this week, a campaign adviser said. Allies of Vance — a venture capitalist and author who, like Walker, Oz and Masters, is a first-time candidate — have argued that Ryan spent too much for too little over the summer. A poll late last month from the Trafalgar Group found Vance with a narrow lead that the expected onslaught of ads could fortify.

“They’re going to need a lot more than $30 million, I will tell you that,” Ryan countered in an interview after meeting with farmers last week in Ashland. “We’re matching them point to point on TV, and they still have a really bad candidate.”

Some Republicans say Democrats are underestimating the issues that Republicans believe will motivate voters in the fall: inflation, gas prices, crime, parental involvement in schools, as well as Biden’s decision to grant forgiveness for a limited amount of student loan debt, which some Democrats in battleground states rejected.

“We still have record inflation, high grocery prices, gas prices are still very high,” said Mark Graul, a Republican strategist, who said that Biden’s approval rating still lags. “The issues and the environment are definitely pointing to Republican success in November.” 

Still, Democrats appear to have an advantage on the airwaves: As of Friday, they’ve committed to $100 million more in ad spending than Republicans on all races from Labor Day until the election. Democrats have booked nearly $650 million in TV and digital ads, and Republicans have more than $535 million reserved, according to AdImpact, an advertising tracking firm.

Democrats expect the races to tighten, due to a mix of GOP spending and political gravity — but they remain optimistic they can hold the Senate.

“There’s no amount of spending that can erase the fundamental weakness of the Republicans’ roster of Senate candidates,” said David Bergstein, a spokesperson for Democrats’ Senate campaign arm. “We know that each of our battleground races is going to be very, very close. And we’re continuing to take nothing for granted.”

Trump in particular remains of high concern to many Republicans working on Senate races this fall. The former president’s support for 2020 election deniers in key races, the Jan. 6 hearings and the FBI search that turned up highly classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago resort will position him squarely in the political narrative this fall. 

Leading party strategists prefer to make the midterm elections a referendum on Biden and worry that Trump’s re-emergence may be playing into the hands of Democrats’ attempts to frame it as a choice between them and extreme “MAGA” Republicans. After the FBI search, Biden’s approval rating rose to its highest level in a year, according to a Gallup poll, driven mostly by a 9-point jump in one month among independents. Biden himself reinforced that binary Thursday night in a prime-time address to the nation.

“Any time Trump is back in the news, it’s unhelpful,” said a GOP strategist who was granted anonymity to speak freely without fear of the former president’s retribution. “Republicans have to keep the focus on Biden. When Trump resurrects himself in the news, it motivates — at least at some level — the Democratic base.”