The big ad buys could signal that the races in Washington and Colorado are uncomfortably close for Democrats.
Less than a year ago, a GOP Senate victory in deep blue Washington state would have been unthinkable. But now, Democrats are spending millions on advertising in several once-reliable Democratic strongholds, including Washington, as Republicans build national momentum and push for new Senate pickups.
There’s a similar panic in Colorado, where Tuesday’s GOP Senate primary has also drawn millions of dollars in Democratic-funded ads to boost a far-right candidate, a massive last-ditch campaign to keep a moderate Republican off the ballot this fall.
Washington’s Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, meanwhile, has spent more than $1 million on television ads in recent weeks, including two attacking her Republican opponent, Tiffany Smiley, in a state President Joe Biden won by nearly 20 points.
Both sets of ad buys suggest that Republicans are pressing to expand the number of Senate races in which they might pick up a seat in the narrowly divided chamber — and Democrats are worried they may be becoming even more vulnerable.
Murray’s scramble to boost her standing months before the November election — and to attack Smiley on her stance against abortion rights — comes as new polling shows the blue-state race has tightened even before Smiley begins her own advertising on air.
In a poll conducted last week and obtained by POLITICO, Murray is leading Smiley by 5 percentage points, just over the survey’s 4.1 percent margin of error. The internal Smiley poll, conducted by The Tarrance Group, had Murray with 48 percent of the vote, compared to Smiley at 43 percent.
“She was the very first Senate incumbent in the country to run a negative campaign against her challenger,” Ed Goeas, president of The Tarrance Group, said of Murray. “That shows how deep of a problem she’s in.”
Murray’s campaign and national Democrats argue Smiley’s support for the Supreme Court’s recent decision to overturn Roe v. Wade — no longer guaranteeing women’s access to abortion in many states — will hamper her ability to gain ground in the state.
In a new ad attacking Smiley, one of two spots Murray’s campaign released on Friday, the senator links Smiley to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and his openness to a nationwide abortion ban.
“You think women’s reproductive health care is safe here in Washington?” a doctor identified as a gynecologist asks in Murray’s new ad. “Not with Mitch McConnell’s handpicked candidate in the U.S. Senate, Tiffany Smiley.”
Other recent polling in the race, conducted by Public Policy Polling in early June for the Northwest Progressive Institute, shows Murray with an 11-point lead over Smiley. And while Smiley’s new survey shows President Joe Biden underwater in the state, with 53 percent of voters disapproving of the president, Murray does a bit better: 48 percent approve of the five-term senator, and 40 percent do not.
“I think no one is taking the state for granted,” said Alex Glass, a Democratic consultant based in Washington state. “Democrats are going to have to work every single day, but that is something Sen. Murray has long been known for, and she will be out and across the state and making the case to voters.”
In her nearly 30 years in the Senate, Murray has faced tough elections before. She weathered the tea party wave of 2010, beating her Republican challenger Dino Rossi by less than 5 points. Washington state hasn’t elected a Republican to the Senate since 1994.
This time around, her campaign has geared up for a fight in another midterm year where Republicans are poised to make gains. Despite inflation and disappointment with Biden looming large in voters’ minds, Murray is banking on abortion to energize her base, reminding voters that Smiley identifies as “pro-life.”
“Senator Patty Murray will be fighting tooth and nail to ensure women in Washington state and across the country can make their own reproductive health care decisions without extreme anti-abortion politicians like Tiffany Smiley and Mitch McConnell interfering,” Helen Hare, Murray’s campaign manager, said in a statement.
Smiley’s polling, though, shows the lagging economy remains Washington voters’ No. 1 concern. Goeas’ firm asked voters which one issue was the most important to them: 44 percent said inflation and cost of living, while just 10 percent ranked abortion their top issue.
“I know Patty Murray is going to try to make it about abortion,” Smiley spokeswoman Elisa Carlson said in an interview. “I think the reality is when you look at polling, it is not the top concern.”
Smiley recently hired a new general consultant for the campaign, Blaise Hazelwood of Grassroots Targeting.
One explanation for Murray’s decision to sink seven figures into a June advertising blitz, some strategists say, is to ramp up support ahead of the state’s Aug. 4 primary, effectively a first round of the general election. In Washington’s primary election, Murray and Smiley will appear on the same nonpartisan ballot, where the top two vote getters advance to the final contest in November.
National Republicans’ game plan in Colorado, however, will likely become much clearer after results come in from Tuesday’s primary election. If the far-right Senate candidate wins, the state is likely a lost cause to flip to Republicans this year and won’t warrant spending money. But if a Republican who is palatable to the state’s large swath of unaffiliated voters is on the ballot, GOP leaders believe they could ride a red wave to defeat Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet, who recently admitted that he could find himself in a “tough race” this fall.
The majority of Colorado voters have an unfavorable view of Biden, 56 percent, while just 42 percent approve of the job he’s doing as president, according to polling this month by Global Strategy Group for ProgressNow, a liberal advocacy group in Colorado.
In just the last few weeks, a Democratic super PAC has poured $3.9 million into television ads in the Republican primary race to help Ron Hanks, a state legislator who has declared that Donald Trump won the 2020 election and that all abortion should be outlawed.
Joe O’Dea, a businessman and first-time candidate, is trying to run as a moderate Republican, tempering his answers on abortion to say women should have access to the procedure early on in pregnancy.
The liberal group’s staggering TV ad buy in the GOP primary is on top of other misleading mailers being sent to voters — falsely claiming Hanks was endorsed by the Colorado Republican Party — that are now the subject of lawsuits by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the state GOP and O’Dea’s campaign. The NRSC has not publicly taken a position on the primary. O’Dea’s campaign estimates Democratic spending to meddle in the primary could total as much as $10 million, given the barrage of high-quality mailers that have been sent out across the state.
Recent internal polling has shown the primary race to be close, according to multiple operatives in Colorado. The public polling from ProgressNow shows Bennet with a 13-point lead over both Hanks and O’Dea, who are not as well known around the state. A GOP candidate would likely need significant resources from national groups to remain competitive, given Bennet’s millions in cash on hand.
“It’s going to be a tough year for Democrats all around,” said Nico Delgado, an adviser with the Colorado Democratic Party. “But at least in Colorado, Michael Bennet is in good standing, and both Republican candidates are flawed.”
This article was originally published on June 28, 2022 in Politico.