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Originally published Monday, July 16, 2012 at 2:38 PM

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Senate Democrats build fall campaign cushion

Democratic candidates in many pivotal Senate races are raising more money than their GOP counterparts, but they'll need the cushion to counter spending by independent conservative groups determined to win a Republican majority.

Associated Press

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WASHINGTON —

Democratic candidates in many pivotal Senate races are raising more money than their GOP counterparts, but they'll need the cushion to counter spending by independent conservative groups determined to win a Republican majority.

Democrats outraised Republicans in seven of 10 key races in the April-June period, according to quarterly reports that had to be filed by midnight Sunday with the Federal Election Commission. In Hawaii, New Mexico and North Dakota, GOP candidates had a fundraising edge.

One roadmap of the most competitive races is where American Crossroads and its affiliate, Crossroads GPS, are spending their money. The groups, guided by former Bush political adviser Karl Rove, recently announced they had reserved $23.5 million of TV air time for Senate campaign ads this fall in six states: Missouri, Nevada, Florida, Virginia and Ohio in addition to North Dakota. Altogether, Crossroads plans on spending $70 million supporting Republican Senate candidates in the fall.

Four other states also in play are Massachusetts, Montana and New Mexico and Hawaii.

In Florida's race, Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson reported raising $1.8 million and has about $11 million in the bank. His likely challenger, Republican Rep. Connie Mack, raised about $839,000 and has $1.35 million in cash on hand. That gap represents one of the largest of any of the Senate races, but it isn't deterring American Crossroads from getting involved, said spokesman Nate Hodson.

Hodson said the group expected Nelson to have a big financial edge because of the power of incumbency and the lack of competition in his last race. Despite that edge, Crossroads has reserved more than $6 million worth of airtime in Florida markets.

"We look where we can have an impact and favorably affect the Senate race," Hodson said. "Every poll in that race that I have seen to date has (Nelson) well below 50 percent."

Of the 33 Senate seats to be decided in November, Democrats are defending 23 seats, including two held by independents. Republicans are defending 10 seats.

Another incumbent, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., also had a strong quarter, raising $2.6 million. Three Republicans are competing in the state's GOP primary: Rep. Todd Akin, businessman John Brunner and former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman.

Brunner nearly matched McCaskill's total by himself, but only raised about $193,000 from others. He poured more than $2.5 million into the campaign the past three months and has now spent nearly $4.8 million of his own money in the primary. The other GOP candidates raised a fraction of what Brunner put into the race. Akin raised $284,000; Steelman $240,000.

In Nevada, Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley's campaign raised more than $1.5 million, compared to $1.2 raised by appointed Republican Sen. Dean Heller. Berkley edged Heller in fundraising in the previous quarter, too. Each had more than $4 million in cash-on-hand, with Heller maintaining a slight edge in that category.

The narrow difference in Nevada represents the norm in the majority of the competitive Senate races.

In the battle of former governors in Virginia, Democrat Tim Kaine raised slightly more than $3 million from April through June; Republican George Allen slightly more than $2 million.

In Montana, Democratic Sen. Jon Tester reported raising nearly $2 million while Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg raised $1.1 million. Tester has about $3.6 million in the bank while Rehberg has about $2.7 million to spend.

Matt Canter, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said a cash-on-hand advantage is critical for Democrats competing in toss-up states, such as Montana. He noted that advocacy groups on the Republican side have outspent advocacy groups on the Democratic side by about 4 to 1 so far. Individual campaigns still have an advantage in that candidates themselves pay significantly less for TV ads than the political groups pay.

"Our campaigns won't be outworked," Canter said.

In some ways, the 4-to-1 spending edge by conservative groups is misleading. Much of their spending has been focused on defeating Republicans they consider too moderate in primaries.

For example, the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks for America PACs invested heavily in Indiana to defeat six-term Sen. Richard Lugar. FreedomWorks also spent about $1 million in Utah in a failed bid to defeat Sen. Orrin Hatch. In the fall, those groups will be in all likelihood united behind GOP candidates. The Club for Growth, for example, is a big backer of Rep. Jeff Flake in Arizona and FreedomWorks is a strong supporter of Josh Mandel in a race against incumbent Sen. Sherrod Brown in Ohio. Brown raised about $3 million and Mandel about $2.6 million.

Republicans scored a second-quarter fundraising edge in North Dakota, New Mexico and Hawaii.

In North Dakota, Republican Rep. Rick Berg raised about $1.2 million over the past three months; Democrat Heidi Heitkamp took in slightly less than $1 million.

In New Mexico, Republican Heather Wilson raised $1.6 million in the quarter while Democratic Rep. Martin Heinrich raised $1.4 million.

And in Hawaii, former Republican Gov. Linda Lingle raised $1.3 million versus $941,000 by Rep. Mazie Hirono, the favorite to win the state's Democratic nomination.

In Massachusetts, the two Senate candidates have agreed to discourage spending by outside groups, essentially calling for a ban that has kept independent attack ads off the airwaves. Democratic candidate Elizabeth Warren raised more than $8.6 million, while Republican Sen. Scott Brown raised about $5 million.

In some states, Democratic-leaning outside groups have more than countered the spending by Republican-leaning groups. Patriot Majority USA, for example, has outspent American Crossroads in Nevada so far. In New Mexico, various environmental groups such as the Defenders of Wildlife, the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club have combined to outspend American Crossroads.

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Associated Press writer David Lieb contributed to this report from Jefferson City, Mo.

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