GOP spending hits $64 million before elementary school

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Republicans running for the US Senate in Ohio chanted “Jeopardy!” Programming for months of record-breaking spend on ads touting their campaigns and talking points.

The cost of that? Somewhere in the amount of $64 million.

As of April 28, candidates and advocacy groups had spent or reserved approximately $63.9 million on television, cable and radio advertising in the GOP primary, according to Columbus advertising-tracking firm Medium Buying. That figure broke previous campaign spending records in Ohio and underscored the high stakes and competitive nature of the race for an open US Senate seat, even in its final days.

And the numbers, provided to USA TODAY Network Ohio, could rise as candidates and their supporters make a last-ditch attempt to engage voters.

“Historically in Ohio for an elementary school, it’s completely unprecedented,” said Nick Everhart, a Republican political adviser in Ohio and president of Content Creative Media.

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Seven Republicans will go head-to-head on Tuesday to replace retiring Senator Rob Portman: former State Treasurer Josh Mandel, Hillbilly Elegy author JD Vance, investment banker Mike Gibbons, former Ohio Republican Party leader, Jane Timken, State Senator Matt Dolan, and businessmen Mark Pukita and Neil Patel.

The winner will face one of three candidates running for the Democratic nomination: US Rep. Tim Ryan, attorney Morgan Harper and tech executive Traci Johnson.

Self-payers lead the money race

The high spending in the Ohio GOP Senate primary was driven in part by wealthy candidates who were able to help fund their campaigns. Gibbons spent nearly $13 million on advertising alone and awarded his campaign over $17 million, Federal Election Commission filings show. Just last month he raked in another $1.25 million.

US Senate Republican nominee Mike Gibbons smiles at the conclusion of the US Senate Republicans' primary debate in Ohio at Central State University.  Mandatory attribution: Joshua A. Bickel/Ohio Debate Commission

Dolan, whose family owns the Cleveland Guardians, has personally borrowed or spent nearly $11 million on his Senate bid. This money helped fund around $8.5 million in advertising.

“Self-payers don’t always win,” said Kyle Kondik, editor-in-chief of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia. “In fact, there are many instances over the years where self-payers spend a lot of money and don’t win.”

Republican US Senate nominee Josh Mandel answers a question during the US Senate Republican primary debate in Ohio at Central State University.  Mandatory attribution: Joshua A. Bickel/Ohio Debate Commission

Mandel’s campaign devoted more than $5.3 million to advertising, while Timken’s total was nearly $4.2 million. As of April 28, Vance’s campaign had spent or reserved approximately $1.6 million, according to Medium Buying.

But Vance received a significant boost from a super PAC funded by PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel. This group, called Protect Ohio Values, has spent $9.3 million on advertising and recently received an additional $3.5 million from Thiel.

The Pro-Vance PAC has turned the dial up in recent days to highlight former President Donald Trump’s endorsement of Vance. The nod also prompted the Washington, D.C.-based Club for Growth — which supports Mandel — to speed up advertising highlighting Vance’s past criticism of Trump.

JD Vance shakes hands with former President Donald Trump during a rally at the Delaware County Fairgrounds April 23.

Total spend from the Club for Growth last week was $7.7 million.

Democrats Ryan and Harper, meanwhile, only spent $1.9 million and $110,000 respectively on advertising.

Democratic US Senate nominees Morgan Harper, left, and Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH), right, shake hands at the end of the US Senate Democratic primary debate in Ohio at Central State University.  Mandatory attribution: Joshua A. Bickel/Ohio Debate Commission

Looking ahead to November

Observers say the GOP race is the perfect recipe for big bucks: a competitive, open primary in a Republican state. Tuesday’s winner will enter the general election cycle with an advantage in a state Trump won by 8 percentage points in 2016 and 2020.

Ryan, the front-runner in the Democratic race, has overtaken opponents on both sides of the aisle in fundraising over the past year and will be in a strong financial position if he wins his primary. Still, Everhart warned that making the race competitive in a state like Ohio will be difficult for any Democrat.

“The struggle for power is happening now, not in the fall,” he said.

Haley BeMiller is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which oversees the Columbus Dispatch, Cincinnati Enquirer, Akron Beacon Journal and 18 other affiliated news organizations across Ohio.

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