Republicans are aiming to deal Democrats a decisive blow in the closing days of the campaign for control of the U.S. Senate by pouring millions of dollars into three states -- Colorado, Iowa and North Carolina -- that favor Democrats.
“These states are the Democratic firewall,” says Jennifer Duffy, a Senate analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington. “They’ve got to win most if not all of those.”
Democrats are responding to the advertising blitz with spending of their own, aiming to win over voters that are more closely aligned with their party than in most of the other competitive states.
American Crossroads, which backs Republicans, boosted this month’s advertising in Iowa and Colorado, both of which President Barack Obama carried in 2008 and 2012. Since Oct. 14, Crossroads, co-founded by Republican strategist Karl Rove, has spent $1.2 million on ads in Iowa and $3.5 million in Colorado.
The Democratic Party’s senatorial campaign committee said it will spend the most on the three states in the home stretch before the Nov. 4 election. Both parties have reserved extensive air time for ads in North Carolina.
That continues a pattern in which independent groups have spent at least $10 million more in Iowa, Colorado and North Carolina during this election than anywhere else. At least 10 states are seen as battlegrounds in the fight to win the Senate majority.
In making their closing arguments to voters through a barrage of ads, the two parties are stepping up attacks on issues that have paid the most dividends in past elections.
For Republicans, that includes Obamacare, the president’s unpopular health-care law, as well as national security and terrorism, a survey of recent advertising shows. For Democrats, it’s women’s issues and preserving Medicare.
Republicans need a net gain of six seats to win control of the Senate. They have a virtual lock on two currently held by Democrats -- West Virginia and Montana -- and are in a strong position in South Dakota. They are favored in other Republican-leaning states.
Polls show Republican challenger Tom Cotton with a lead over Democratic Senator Mark Pryor in Arkansas, and the Alaska and Louisiana races -- both involving Democratic incumbents -- are neck and neck, as is New Hampshire.
Republicans, for their part, are facing surprisingly strong challenges from Democrats in Kentucky and Kansas.
The momentum has mostly moved in the Republicans’ direction, according to new NBC News/Marist polls. The polls show the party holding slight leads in Colorado and Iowa, and with North Carolina even.
If Republicans win even two of the three races in Colorado, Iowa or North Carolina, that would probably clinch Senate control for them, officials in both parties say.
“They are becoming the linchpin,” said Ty Matsdorf, a spokesman for Senate Majority PAC, which is run by strategists with ties to Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid. Paul Lindsay, a Crossroads spokesman, agreed: “If we win those three, there’s no doubt there will be a Republican Senate.”
Democrats are also putting ad dollars into these states while marshaling their ground army, counting on a late surge of door-knocking to turn out their base in a non-presidential election year.
The Democrats’ ads have heavily focused on women’s issues and medical care, a strategy whose weakness has been underscored in Colorado, where the party has attacked Republican contender Cory Gardner’s record of opposition to abortion rights.
Gardner, aided by outside groups, has punched back. The final Crossroads ad running in the state features a mother who accuses incumbent Democratic Senator Mark Udall of “running a single-issue campaign that insults us all.”
Gardner leads by 2.8 percentage points, according to a RealClearPolitics average of recent polls.
“The Democrats really relied on that argument, and if it’s not working for them, that’s a problem,” Duffy said.
The Iowa race is rated a tossup by the Cook Report, as is North Carolina, where Senator Kay Hagan, a Democrat, has a narrow lead over Republican Thom Tillis, and Colorado.
Democrats are making the same gamble on women’s issues in Iowa. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is paying for an ad that says Republican Joni Ernst pushed a so-called personhood amendment that would effectively ban certain forms of birth control and outlaw abortions, even in cases of rape or incest.
“That’s just too extreme,” says the ad, among the most-aired this month, according to Kantar Media’s CMAG.
Republican-aligned Freedom Partners is countering with a spot featuring a mother who “sees a better future” with Ernst setting an example for her children.
Republicans are going on the offense against Ernst’s Democratic opponent, Bruce Braley, for his support of Obamacare and what they call amnesty for undocumented immigrants, the themes of ads they’ve run most often this month, according to CMAG.
The top spot sponsored by Crossroads in Iowa asks “why did Braley vote for a bill that cuts over $700 billion from Medicare” and support “immigration amnesty,” giving undocumented immigrants access to food stamps and Medicare.
Obamacare reduces the future spending growth for Medicare, the health-insurance plan for the elderly, drawing savings from cuts in payments to private insurers who provide some coverage. It’s not intended to cut benefits for seniors.
The emphasis in North Carolina is similar.
The most-aired ad this month, by Crossroads, hits Hagan on Obamacare and says that in voting for the health law she supported the $700 billion in Medicare cuts.
Democrats are continuing their focus on what they say are Tillis’s $500 million in cuts to the state education budget, a claim deemed untrue by Factcheck.org. They also say that, as a Republican, he would support cuts to Medicare.
The top spot this month combines both themes, featuring a college student and his grandmother.
“Ever since my grandma told me how much my student loans could cost if Thom Tillis wins, I’ve been on a strict budget,” the student says, also warning of Medicare cuts. “I guess we’ll have to start ordering from the dollar menu,” the grandmother says in the ad.
Independent analysts such as Cook and the Rothenberg Political Report in Washington favor Republicans to win Senate control.
Their advantage owes to nonpresidential-year electorates favoring the party because they tend to be older and whiter, and the Democrats being dragged down by an unpopular president, says Nathan Gonzales, an analyst at the Rothenberg report in Washington.
Republicans also departed from an approach they’ve relied on since they captured control of the House in 2010 and focused on blasting Democrats on Obamacare. They’ve broadened their attacks to include national security and other issues, and tailored them more directly to individual candidates.
The top ad since mid-July in Iowa hammers Braley for skipping Veterans Affairs Committee hearings. In Georgia, Republicans have run a terrorism-themed spot against Democrat Michelle Nunn that focuses on her tenure at a nonprofit foundation.
“Republicans in the past have fallen into the trap of airing kind of boilerplate ads that don’t have a specific connection to the candidate,” Gonzales said.
“This cycle,” he said, “they have done a better job of telling voters in each state how their Democratic candidate is connected to Obama or any issue.”