Welcome to FWIW Virginia, where we analyze digital spending trends on both sides of the aisle in advance of the 2019 Virginia legislative elections. Each week, we look at whose digital spending is up, whose is down, and whose is non-existent across the Commonwealth.
For what it’s worth, some of it might surprise you.
With less than two weeks until the primary, campaigns in Virginia are finally starting to put some money behind digital advertising. But is it too little too late? This week we take a look at the most important primary contests on the House side and how their digital programs are shaping up ahead of June 11 election.
2019 by the numbers
We’re tracking digital investment by party committees, statehouse leadership, and candidates in some of the most competitive state house and senate races in Virginia in advance of the 2019 state legislative elections. Here is how investment by Republicans and Democrats compare since the 2018 midterm elections.
Here is a list of top Virginia political spenders on Facebook the week of May 22-28.
Days until the primary election: 12
Days until the general election: 159
Deep Dive: Breaking Down the House
Though there are a number of competitive primaries for the House of Delegates, there are only a few with major implications for control of the General Assembly. So, we are going to take a look at the digital programs for the four most crucial races.
House District 28: Bob Thomas vs. Paul Milde Due to his vote in favor of Medicaid expansion, Delegate Bob Thomas is facing a primary challenge from former Stafford County Supervisor and far-right conservative Paul Milde. The two candidates have been spending heavily on Facebook advertising since last summer, turning this primary into the most expensive and damaging on the House side.
Bob Thomas has used digital advertising to shore up his base among conservative voters but has refrained from directly attacking his opponent. The primary has pushed Thomas to campaign further to the right, and he recently spoke in favor of the extreme abortion ban in Georgia and said Republicans would pass a similar one in Virginia if they take back the Governor’s Mansion and hold the General Assembly.
Meanwhile, Milde has aggressively attacked Thomas for his vote to expand Medicaid and continues to portray him as an unreliable conservative in the House. Regardless of who comes out on top, it’ll be interesting to see how this primary weakens the Republican nominee going into November.
House District 50: Lee Carter vs. Mark Wolfe Delegate Lee Carter stands out in the General Assembly as an unabashed Democratic Socialist who flipped a Republican-held seat in the 2017 wave election, but he’s drawn a primary challenge from Manassas City Councilmember Mark Wolfe for his staunch opposition to corporate interests.
Lee Carter’s digital ads are primarily issue-driven and reflective of his broader policy agenda. Carter also has a massive Twitter following that he leverages to raise money and drive strategic narratives for his campaign.
Mark Wolfe is a former Republican who switched parties during the 2016 election. He was the top vote getter that year in the seven-way race for Manassas City Council but has been consistently outraised and lacks Carter’s digital savvy and online following.
House District 68: Garrison Coward vs. Lori Losi Garrison Coward and Lori Losi are competing for the Republican nomination to take on Delegate Dawn Adams in the general election. Adams only narrowly won her seat in the 2017 wave election and has not run a single dollar of paid digital advertising this cycle.
Garrison Coward has run one of the more sustained digital programs so far this cycle, and it may have helped him build a Facebook following over 10 times the size of his opponent. He’s currently putting all of his digital spending behind just one ad that resembles a piece of campaign literature in advance of the June primary.
Lori Losi was running Facebook ads touting her conservative positions to attract page likes – a few of which were about her anti-choice beliefs. Coincidentally, these ads stopped running on May 15, the day Alabama passed its extreme ban on abortion. 🤔
House District 91: Michael Wade vs. Martha Mugler HD-91 was one of the districts most affected by the court-ordered map of the House of Delegates – swinging 19.8 percentage points towards Democrats according to the Virginia Public Access Project. The incumbent, Republican Delegate Gordon Helsel, is not running for reelection, which makes the district an even stronger pick up opportunity for Democrats if the new map stays in place.
Michael Wade won the Democratic nomination in 2017 but lost to Gordon Helsel by 13 points in the general election. And now he’s running for the nomination again.
Martha Mugler is an at-large member of the Hampton School Board. According to her website, Senator Tim Kaine was scheduled to appear at her most recent fundraiser, and one of her active Facebook ads features testimonials from Congressman Bobby Scott and a myriad of other local elected officials supporting her candidacy.
Bonus: Democrats flipped the script on abortion
We noted several weeks ago that Democrats have historically run and won on the issue of choice in Virginia, but controversy in the General Assembly at the start of the year put Republicans on the offensive. That changed recently as extreme abortions bans passed in state legislatures across the country, and Delegate Bob Thomas came out in favor of such bans. Now, Republicans have gone nearly silent on the issue in their advertising – except for the few candidates that are running to the right in contested primaries. Meanwhile, the Virginia House Democrats, Senate Democrats, and state party are all up with attack ads on the subject, and nearly every Democrat is touting their pro-choice credentials in the primary.