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Senators Raise Big Bucks Early to Combat Super PACs

Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Pryor of Arkansas raised more than $1.9 million in the first quarter.

In the age of super PACs, the Senate’s many vulnerable Democrats are under immense pressure to post large fundraising numbers early in the cycle.

Senate Democratic campaign officials stress that their incumbents must get out of the gate in strong shape to start buying airtime ahead of cash-flush third-party advertisers.

So far, the party’s most vulnerable senators are meeting the challenge. One by one last week, Senate Democrats rolled out beefed-up first-quarter fundraising reports ahead of Monday’s filing deadline.

Nearly every targeted senator announced a three-month haul of well more than $1 million: Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas raised more than $1.9 million. Sen. Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana raised $1.2 million. Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina raised $1.6 million. Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska raised $948,000.

“Early fundraising is always important for an incumbent to show strength and dissuade potential opponents, but it’s especially imperative in this era of massive [independent expenditure] spending,” Democratic media consultant Mark Putnam said.

The motivation behind the increased pressure to raise money early is threefold: Candidates can secure the lowest unit rate for TV ads; with their own money, candidates control their own message; and outside groups generally begin ad campaigns months before the traditional fall messaging onslaught.

In the 60-day window before the elections, television stations offer candidates far cheaper airtime rates than super PACs, which began flooding the airwaves in the 2010 cycle. But before that window, incumbents need to have the resources to defend against outside groups, which have historically launched attack ads well before the challengers they were supporting did.

With competitive challenges forthcoming, some of the most vulnerable Democrats are likely to begin putting the money to use this year. One source close to a Democratic senator up in 2014 said it was highly likely the incumbent’s campaign would get on the air in 2013.

Apart from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky and an open seat in Georgia, Republicans are largely the challengers in the top Senate races this cycle. Still, several GOP incumbents not vulnerable in the general election may see a competitive primary challenge and spending against them from issue-advocacy groups.

As helpful as outside spending can be, challengers aided by outside groups will likely still want as much control of the message and ad quality as possible — not to mention the ability to respond to Democrat-aligned outside groups.

“As much as we all want our friends to help, you always worry about the ‘execution’ of outside groups’ advertising,” GOP media strategist Erik Potholm said.

Highlighting the importance of candidate money, nowhere was the disparity between money spent and advertising spots purchased more evident than in the 2012 presidential election.

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