COLUMBUS – Candidates, their affiliates and outside political groups spent almost as much on the 2022 U.S. Senate race in Ohio than in the previous three elections combined, according to campaign finance data.
The massive spending on last year’s race was fueled by record-busting personal fundraising by the Democratic nominee, a big tech cash infusion in the GOP primary for the eventual Republican candidate and millions of dollars spent by outside groups. About $197.6 million was spent on the U.S. Senate race last year, including almost $103.7 million from outside groups, according to a cleveland.com/Plain Dealer review of federal campaign finance data.
That compares to $211 million spent on the previous three races combined, according to data compiled by the nonpartisan OpenSecrets.org – $37.7 million for the 2018 race, in which Sen. Sherrod Brown won reelection over Republican Jim Renacci; $91 million on the 2016 Senate race, in which Republican Sen. Rob Portman defeated Democratic former governor Ted Strickland; and $82.3 million in 2012, when Brown defeated Republican Josh Mandel.
Last year’s race pitted Tim Ryan, a Democratic congressman from the Youngstown area, against J.D. Vance, a Republican investor/author from Cincinnati, to replace retiring GOP Sen. Rob Portman. Vance won the November election by 6 percentage points, a comfortable win but relatively competitive compared to the rest of Ohio’s statewide elections, which Republican candidates otherwise won by double digits.
In addition to the general election, which drew heavy spending, the Republican primary election also was hotly competitive, since it presented a rare opportunity to run for an open seat in a Republican-leaning state. Vance ultimately won, defeating four well-funded opponents. The Democratic primary, in which Ryan easily defeated two opponents, was much less competitive and saw much less spending.
The ballooning cash spent on the 2022 Senate race could be a harbinger of things to come. Control of the U.S. Senate, in which Democrats hold a slim majority, will be up or grabs again in 2024. The Senate map that year is expected to favor Republicans, with three incumbent Democrats – Ohio’s Brown, plus Sen. John Tester of Montana and Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia – running for reelection in states that ex-President Donald Trump won in 2020.
Trump won Ohio by 8 percentage points in 2020, compared to his 17-point win in Montana and his 39-point victory in West Virginia, which means Ohio’s U.S. Senate race likely will be a top priority for both national Democrats and Republicans.
Breaking down spending in this year’s race
A majority of the spending from official candidate committees in last year’s Senate race was due to Ryan’s prolific fundraising.
Ryan and an affiliated committee spent $60.7 million, nearly two-thirds of the $93.9 million raised by all campaigns and their affiliates, and compared to the nearly $18.5 million spent by Vance and an affiliate.
The $53.4 million raised directly by Ryan’s campaign was a record, almost double the previous record of $28.7 million set by Brown in 2018.
As we’ve previously reported, a unique dynamic of the race was the large amounts of personal money Republican candidates’ spent on their campaigns. In all, Republicans candidates loaned themselves $30.5 million. Most of that, $18.1 million, is the money Mike Gibbons, a Cleveland businessman, lost while unsuccessfully running in the Republican primary election. Vance loaned his campaign $1.4 million, while Ryan did not loan his campaign any money.
But Republican groups made up the lion’s share of the $103.7 million that outside groups spent in Ohio. The largest outside spender was the Senate Leadership Fund, which is closely aligned with Republican U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Along with a nonprofit affiliate, the McConnell-backed groups spent $36.2 million helping Vance win the race. Another pro-Vance group, the Protect Ohio Values Super PAC, spent $19.5 million helping Vance. A single donor, California billionaire Peter Thiel, who is Vance’s former boss, was the group’s largest funder, giving it $15 million.
In comparison, outside Democratic groups spent around $14.1 million on the race. The two largest ones were the Save America Fund, a semi-official pro-Ryan PAC that spent $8 million helping Ryan and attacking Vance, and $2.8 million spent by the Future Forward PAC, a national progressive PAC that spent $2.8 million on anti-Vance attack ads.
Campaign spending was a hot topic for both candidates last year. Vance frequently complained about Ryan’s large national donor base, which he said was evidence of his popularity with elite coastal Democrats. Republicans, meanwhile, privately groused about Vance’s poor fundraising.
Vance also said, as a first-time candidate, he was surprised how much political advertising matters, since it’s often the primary source of information voters get about candidates.
“I’ve run into a political opponent who’s very hot in the Acela Corridor,” Vance said, referring to the rail line that runs from Washington, D.C., to Boston, during an October speech at a conservative policy conference in Steubenville. “And $30 million has poured into the race. I’m not kidding.”
Ryan, meanwhile, frequently said Vance had “two donors”: McConnell and Thiel. As the November election neared, and as national Democrats passed on a major investment in the race, prioritizing races they deemed to be more winnable, Ryan also cast his campaign as lacking in resources, despite his huge individual fundraising advantage.
During a post-election appearance at a conference for centrist Democrats in Washington, D.C., Ryan complained that national Democrats left him on the field. Another $10 million, he said, would have helped fund a better ground game that could have countered the lower turnout in urban areas that hurt Ryan and other Ohio Democrats.
That left his campaign to cover costs, like negative advertising, that typically would be picked up by outside groups.
“Our problem was we couldn’t get the turnout we needed. We basically were carrying our positive message, our contrast message and our ground game,” Ryan said.