The figure has attained almost mythic status, but now it seems intuitively clear the number will come true: $100 million in spending on this year’s marquee Senate matchup in Kentucky, shattering the record for the most expensive congressional race in American history.
The explanations for such exorbitance have been well understood for a year. As the minority leader, Mitch McConnell would have no trouble raising whatever it took to dispatch his serious primary opponent and then wage an intense general election battle —mainly by running against President Barack Obama and virtually everything he stands for. Because she’s got by far the best takeover prospects of any Democratic Senate hopeful, Alison Lundergan Grimes will have no trouble raising whatever it takes to challenge the most influential, nationally polarizing Republican at the Capitol — in part by distancing herself from the president and his unpopular policies in the state.
And because control of the Senate for the next two years could very well hang in the balance, both national parties and legions of super PACs will spend whatever they can to tilt the outcome.
Kentucky, in other words, has always been first among equals on the roster of 2014 Senate battlegrounds. And, even as the roster of competitive contests has swelled past a dozen this spring, McConnell vs. Grimes showed no signs of yielding its status as the main event after Tuesday’s primary formalized their Nov. 4 matchup. (Averaging the four statewide polls in the past month, the most recent of which was last weekend, McConnell and Grimes are locked in a dead heat.)
Ahead of the primary, McConnell had raised $19.3 million, spending far more than half on television advertising and an elaborate get-out-the-vote precinct organization to secure his 60 percent of the Republican vote . Businessman Matt Bevin, who spent at least $4 million in hopes of engineering a tea party upset, drew just 35 percent.
While that was a trouncing by traditional measure, McConnell’s share of the vote was actually the smallest in a primary for any Kentucky senator seeking re-nomination since 1938. And Grimes, who faced only nominal opposition, was able to hold on to most of her war chest ($5 million in cash on hand on May 1) even while drawing about 95,000 more primary votes than McConnell. The morning after, neither wasted much time before signaling their themes for the next 24 weeks. Both camps unveiled their first television spots of the general election — six-figure buys over the next fortnight, each designed to reintroduce Grimes to the electorate in diametrically opposite ways.
“We need a senator who puts partisanship aside and works with both Democrats and Republicans to do what’s right,” Grimes says while looking into the camera in her one-minute spot. “No matter who the president is, I won’t answer to them. I’ll only answer to you.”
“Liberals coast to coast are rolling out the red carpet for Alison Grimes,” countered the 30-second spot from Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, a political action committee created to make independent expenditures on McConnell's behalf. “Michelle Obama let the truth slip out at a New York City fundraiser, calling Grimes’ election ‘critical’ to President Obama’s liberal agenda that’s hurting Kentucky.”
In addition, the minority leader on Wednesday called for three debates with Grimes between July 4 and Labor Day. At first, the move seemed to confound the conventional wisdom that challengers and underdogs are more eager for debates because they might create a visual and intellectual sense of equivalence between the rivals. But the ground rules McConnell proposed were clearly designed by a 30-year Senate veteran confident of outperforming the 35-year-old secretary of state.
“Without an audience, without props, and without notes, it will allow for an unvarnished exchange of views for Kentuckians to evaluate” and reveal “an honest choice between two very different visions for the future,” McConnell wrote to Grimes.
Such a timetable would also guarantee the final two months of the campaign would be dominated by the air wars, financed by the bulk of the coming cash tidal wave. If there’s a limiting factor, it’s the finite amount of advertising time available on the TV and radio stations of Cincinnati, Louisville, Lexington, Paducah, Bowling Green and the five out-of-state markets with small Kentucky audiences.
The marquee Senate race of two years ago — when Democrat Elizabeth Warren ousted GOP Sen. Scott P. Brown in Massachusetts — holds the current record for total spending: $82 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The runner-up is the 2000 race in New York, when $70 million was spent leading up to Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton securing her path from first lady to Congress.
By contrast, spending in McConnell’s last race in 2008 topped out at about $30 million. The back-of-the envelope estimates that push the grand total to $100 million this time: The incumbent spends about $35 million and the challenger closer to $30 million (with each raising more than three-quarters of the money outside the state.) The national parties allocate $10 million each, leaving independent groups to commit “only” another $15 million to make the magic number. And, in the GOP primary alone, Kentuckians for Strong Leadership spent $2 million and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce put in $1 million.
If he loses, or if the Republicans fail to claim Senate control, consider this dubious distinction.
McConnell would become the first senator from either party since Republican Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania in the mid 1970s to spend eight years as floor leader — without ever tasting life in the majority.
That would be one very expensive disappointment.